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Risk Insights: Protecting Your Business From Wildfires

Wildfires are a powerful and deadly force of nature that can wreak havoc on the lives, land and structures that stand in their path. Protecting your business and property from wildfires is more crucial than ever, as wildfire season becomes longer and generates larger fires—resulting in more acres and properties burned each year.

According to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre, more than 45 million acres (18.5 million hectares) burned in Canada in 2023, a record year for wildfire activity. Moreover, experts predict that wildfire suppression costs in Canada could reach more than $1.4 billion per year by the end of the century. This staggering figure only accounts for a fraction of the total costs of wildfires when considering the lives lost, buildings destroyed, and acres burned. Proactive risk management tactics can help keep the costs of wildfires down, as well as keep your business and your community safer in the face of such disasters.

This article provides an overview of the dangers wildfires pose, as well as steps that businesses like yours can take to mitigate those risks.

The Danger of Wildfires

Human behaviour is a large cause of wildfires in Canada. Such fires typically result from unattended campfires, the burning of debris, equipment uses and malfunctions, poorly discarded cigarettes and intentional acts of arson. Once a wildfire ignites, it can cause rapid destruction.

Wildfire exposures include:

Direct flames—Actual flames that come in contact with buildings or combustible items can ignite these structures or materials on fire.

Airborne embers—Embers can result from the burning wildfire itself, as well as from any flammable items previously ignited, such as nearby plants. These embers—including windblown burning embers, in particular—are the
top cause of building ignitions.

• Radiant heat—If radiant heat is high enough and lasts long enough, it can set combustible products on fire, such as wood siding. It can also make materials easier to ignite if direct flames come into contact.

Wildfires can cause direct property damage to businesses—resulting in service disruptions, transportation stoppages and utility interruptions. Lengthy and costly recovery concerns from a wildfire could force businesses to pass on the costs to their customers by raising prices. Otherwise, impacted businesses may have to close their doors altogether.

Mitigating Wildfire Exposures

The first step that your business should take in creating a wildfire risk management strategy is to assess the vulnerabilities of your commercial property. Since wildfires depend on heat and embers coming into contact with different fuel sources to spread, one of the most effective ways to prevent a wildfire from spreading is to lessen fuel loads. Roofing, exterior walls, windows, vents, gutters, decks and other attachments are all at risk
of igniting, so choosing fire-resistant or non-combustible materials—like brick and concrete—can reduce that risk. Strategic placement and selection of trees, shrubbery and other landscaping elements can also decrease the
risk of wildfire damage.

Here are ways in which your business can slow the spread of wildfires, effectively minimizing the risks of damage:

• Create a buffer zone. Establishing three distinct buffer zones around the building can keep fire and embers from spreading. These zones should
include the following:

o Zone 1 (10 metres from the building)— To protect the area closest to the building, clear away all dry and dead vegetation and remove any branches hanging over the building’s roof. When designing the landscape, be selective about which vegetation is planted and consider using non-combustible materials, such as gravel or rock “mulch.” Combustible materials, including firewood, should not be stored in Zone 1.

o Zone 2 (10-20 metres from the building)—If a fire can be slowed in Zone 2, there’s a greater chance it won’t spread to the building. Fires in this zone typically spread between trees, so remove any dead vegetation and hanging branches. Group trees and shrubs at least 10 metres apart and prune them consistently. Move storage sheds, trailers, benches and other combustible items to Zone 3.

o Zone 3 (20 metres or more from the building)—Zone 3 is the building’s first line of defence. Removing dead plants and trees, as well as trimming and spacing out trees and shrubs, can create firebreaks that make it difficult for the wildfire to jump between trees and other vegetation. If the building is located on a slope, Zone 3 should encompass an additional 45-60 metres, since fast-moving fires with longer flames can develop in these areas.

• Install Class A rated roofing. Class A rated roofing offers the highest resistance to fire. This covering includes concrete or clay roof tiles, fiberglass asphalt composition shingles and metal roofs.

• Clear the clutter. Gutters and roofs should be cleared of debris, such as pine needles and leaves, to minimize the risk of ignition. This maintenance should occur at the change of the seasons and after any storms.

• Be cautious when storing combustible items. Wooden pallets, propane tanks, flammable liquids and other combustibles should be stored where they won’t become easy fuel.

• Maintain or replace vent screens. Airborne embers can get into a building through vents in the roof, walls and beneath the structure. Protect vents with a 1/8-inch (0.3cm) metal screen to block embers and equip chimney outlets with spark arrestors with 1/2-inch (0.5cm) mesh screening. Inspect and remove accumulated debris from all vent screens.

Conclusion

As the risk of wildfires continues to grow, businesses like yours need to have plans to prepare for, withstand and recover from such events.

Contact us today for additional risk-mitigation guidance and resources