Who knew the common juniper bush could get red hot?
Some landscaping habits — like planting juniper close to a house — can increase the likelihood of a home going up in flames.
"Juniper is one of the most highly flammable plantings you can have. They are very flammable, even more so than cedar," said Taavo Martin, fire prevention officer with Squamish Fire Rescue.
Martin and Aaron Foote, Squamish deputy fire chief, took The Chief along for a FireSmart assessment of Coun. Doug Race's yard in the Garibaldi Highlands.
The lessons learned can help Squamish residents be better prepared for the already-underway wildfire season.
FireSmart offers a list of plants that are better for resisting fire, meaning less combustible, than juniper.
Generally speaking, the best plants for Squamish landscaping have moist, supple leaves, little dead wood, water-like sap with little or no odour.
When all the FireSmart points were tallied, Race's home scored an 83. Even though Race's home scored well in some areas, a score above 35 means the wildfire hazard level for the home is extreme.
Reducing the risk of a home quickly going up in flames is the main aim of FireSmart.
Race's score was not unique. Many homes in his neighbourhood, and others in Squamish, have similar hazards, the firefighters said.
The increasing threat of wildfire is a new normal, experts warn.
Residents can help make their home more resistant to wildfire with some inexpensive FireSmart changes.
The first 10 metres
The first 10 metres around a house is a "first priority" for protecting a home.
Something to consider about a home is the roof. The most fire-resistant materials are metal and asphalt shingles.
Race's 1986 home has asphalt shingles.
For homeowners with other types of roofing, FireSmart recommends a switch to these options the next time the roof needs to be replaced.
No matter what the material, the roof ought to be free of combustible debris and any overhanging tree branches, and the like.
Race's roof was clean.
Exterior walls of homes are most fire resistant if they are made of stucco, metal, brick or concrete. Wood siding provides very little protection.
Race's house is sided with cedar, which is combustible.
Windows that are single-paned provide almost no protection. Better choices are double or thermal pane and tempered (strengthened) glass.
With single-pane, the fire can take the glass out quicker.
Race's windows are double-paned.
Decks and stairs should be enclosed so that embers don't blow underneath, where dry leaves can collect.
Race's deck is enclosed, though the stairs into the backyard are open, which isn't optimal.
A thin mesh could be used to block debris from gathering under open stairs, Foote said.
Shrubs, trees, and woodpiles should be cleared from this zone and any lawn should be kept mowed and watered.
Race's yard is free of debris and his lawn was wet.
Lawns can be a good firebreak.
"You'll see in those photos of houses in neighbourhoods where fire has gone through and the houses that are Fire Smarted... the fire goes right by it," said Foote.
Water conservation is a concern in Squamish and so a lawn need not be large to be effective. Consider a smaller, well-maintained grass and possibly a walkway or fire-resistant plants, FireSmart guidelines advise.
10 to 30 metres out
The area from 10 to 30 metres from the home is the second priority area. The idea for this zone is to reduce fuels such as trees and debris that can be a ladder for fire to spread upward. Race's home backs on to a forested area on Squamish-Lillooet Regional District land.
"It is pretty much all coniferous trees, they are very tightly spaced, there's a lot of ladder fuels that go all the way to the ground that could let a ground fire get up into the trees," said Martin, who was adding up all the points in the FireSmart assessment.
Deciduous trees are less combustible so aspen, poplar, and birch are better choices.
30 to 100 metres out
The third priority area for homeowners to consider is from 30 metres to 100 metres from any structures.
"The idea here is not to remove all combustible fuels from the forest, but to thin the area so the fires will be of low intensity and more easily extinguished," reads the FireSmart Manual.
Trees should be spaced three to four metres between crowns.
A chipper day — where residents in alternating neighbourhods can have their brush and trees mulched — is slated for April 28 for some residents in the Kintyre and Thunderbird Ridge area of the Garibaldi Highlands.
This is an opportunity for residents to clear their yard of any debris or downed trees. Other Squamish neighbourhoods will follow.
"People have this image — from Hollywood or whatever — that there is this giant wall of flame that descends on your house like a tidal wave and that is what ignites the homes," said Foote. "But in actuality, it is the embers from fires... that land in juniper or in piles of leaves that ignite them. Most homes ignite from embers being blown into them."
When wildfires move through communities, like Fort McMurray in 2016, the houses that withstood the wrath, weren't just lucky, Foote added.
Asked about the extreme hazard rating for his home, Race said he was surprised at some of what he learned.
"I didn't know about the juniper," said Race. "I suspected that just outside the fence was a problem.... The forest I didn't appreciate... that is a risk for sure."
A step-by-step homeowners guide is available on the District of Squamish website, at squamish.ca. squamish.ca/our-services/protective-services/fire-rescue/firesmart/.