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House Fire and Wildfire Safety and Clean-Up

The majority of fires in Canada strike residential properties. What’s more, about 55% of wildfires in this country (more than 8,000 a year) are caused by humans, and they most often occur in well-populated areas. The average area burned annually by wildfires is approximately 2.5 million hectares – an area larger than 3 million CFL football fields.

These are daunting statistics. But if you take some simple fire safety precautions in and around your house, you can help keep you and your family safe.

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Your best defense against any kind of fire – whether started in the house, yard or beyond – is to understand the risks, and take steps inside and out.

Even basic yard work, such as clearing out dry, dead vegetation, can help deter a fire from your area. In the home, be sure to focus on early detection with up-to-date smoke alarms and a plan for evacuation.

FAQ About Preparing For Fires

What can I do to my home to help resist all fires?
    • Use fire-resistant materials when building any new structure. Non-combustible gutters, downspouts and attic screening are all good choices when adding on to an existing structure.
    • Common fire-resistant building materials include brick, stone and stucco. Or, try fibre-cement siding. It looks like traditional wood siding, but it’s made from Portland cement, sand and wood fibre so it’s highly fire resistant.
    • Don’t attach combustible fences or walkways directly to your house.
    • Use tempered or double-paned glass in windows, doors and skylights to reduce the potential of breakage due to heat.
    • Install screening on chimneys to prevent sparks from igniting roofs and nearby vegetation.
    • Contact your utility company to come and trim trees and their branches if they are not clear of power lines, and if it’s an option in your area, consider installing electrical lines underground.
    • Never overload electrical outlets or use extension cords in the place of additional outlets.
    • Keep matches, lighters and lit candles away from children.
    • Never leave any cooking unattended on a hot stove, especially hot oil. It is dangerous to throw water on the oil if it has caught fire because the liquid could splash onto the person or easily spread to other surfaces. The safest way to extinguish a small grease fire is a Class B extinguisher. For a large grease fire, call 911.
    • Attend to appliances regularly to ensure they are safe for use with no frayed cords, clogged filters, etc. Be sure to check dryer vents and clean lint traps regularly – many house fires are caused by clogged dryer vents.
How can I prepare to keep my family safe in case of fire?
    • Most home fire risks occur in the early hours of the morning, which is why you need to have a plan of action so you can react quickly.
    • Prepare a Family Emergency Plan and Kit.
    • Have fire extinguishers on hand on every floor of the house and in the kitchen. Make yourself familiar with their operation now so you can move quickly if you need to use them.
    • Use the correct fire extinguisher in each room. They are labeled A, B, C, or D for the type of fire they put out.
      • A Fire Extinguishers are for fires started with paper, wood and fabric.
      • B Fire Extinguishers are for flammable and combustible liquids such as fuel, oil, gasoline, paint and solvents – or for fires from grease ignited in a frying pan.
      • C Fire Extinguishers are for electrical equipment, including wiring and fuse boxes
      • D Fire Extinguishers are for metals.
      • There are also all-purpose extinguishers, such as ABC that put out most types of fires (ie. wood, paper, cloth, flammable liquids and electrical fires), or a BC suited to kitchen use.
    • Be sure your smoke alarms comply with the building code. All smoke detectors should be certified by the Underwriters Laboratories of Canada (ULC). Look for the logo as your confirmation of certification.
    • Underwriters Laboratories of Canada ULC logo Fires
    • Replace smoke alarms every five to 10 years, depending on the model. Install one for every floor of the house and in bedrooms. Experts also recommend installing one ionization alarm and one photoelectric alarm on each level, including the basement.
    • Use smoke alarms with ionization technology (used to detect fires that spread quickly) in any rooms such as garages that contain highly combustible materials such as flammable liquids, newspapers and paint cleaning solutions.
    • Use Photoelectric smoke alarms (best for detecting smouldering fires) in living rooms, bedrooms and kitchens or any room that contains large pieces of furniture which burn slowly
    • Test smoke alarms monthly. Vacuum dust from beneath the cover every six months. Replace batteries as per manufacturer’s instructions. To help keep it simple, The Home Depot carries Kidde worry-free alarms with batteries that are guaranteed to last for 10 years.
    • Keep emergency numbers posted by every phone in your home and stored in your cell phone.
    • Have more than one evacuation route from your residence to a safe place.
    • Teach your whole family to evacuate carefully by holding regular fire drills, including some at night. Instruct them to feel interior doors for heat before opening them. Also, bend down and check the air coming in from the crack at the bottom. Proceed if the door and air are cool and you don’t see or smell smoke. Kneel and open the door slowly, turning your face away from the opening. Do not proceed if the door is hot or if you see smoke – you’ll need to find an alternate exit.
    • Identify an adequate water source outside your home, such as a pond, well, swimming pool or hydrant.
If there is a fire in my home, how can I exit safely?
    • Fires may occur at night. Practice getting down on your hands and knees with a flashlight while crawling to safety. Crawling close to the ground, below the thick layer of smoke, will help you breathe.
    • Make sure that the whole family knows that if they hear the smoke alarm or someone shouting “fire,” they should immediately begin following the family’s fire evacuation plan.
    • Before exiting any room, feel the door for heat and check for smoke or heat coming through the air in the crack at the bottom of the door. If you don’t smell smoke and the door and air are cool, still on your knees, open the door slowly, turning your face away. If smoke is present or the door is hot, use another exit. Close doors after you as you proceed through the house.
    • If you cannot exit, open the nearest window and wave a bright item of clothing to attract attention. Stay near the window until help arrives. Never hide during a fire.
What do I need to know about wildfires?
    • A wildfire is an unplanned and uncontrolled fire that's fueled by vegetation. It can spread to damage natural environments and ignite combustible buildings and homes.
    • Wildfires typically ignite in vegetation during seasonally dry or drought conditions. Driven by winds and aided by dry fuels, fires can spread rapidly in areas with large expanses of vegetation and combustible buildings.
    • By reducing the combustibility of homes and the landscape, residents can easily protect themselves and their property from loss by wildfire.
    • There are three classes of wildfires:
      • Surface fires are the easiest to put out. They burn loose debris, such as dead branches, leaves and low vegetation, on the surface.
      • Ground fires consume the dried-out organic material beneath the ground surface, such as a peat and humus.
      • Crown fires may be independent of a surface fire, but usually advance by travelling from top to top of trees or shrubs, in conjunction with the surface fire so that the trees are burned up their entire length.
How can I reduce the threat of wildfires to the grounds around my home?
    • Keep the area around your home’s foundation clear of combustible litter, including leaves, pine needles and other dry vegetation, firewood and lumber.
    • Create an ignition-resistant buffer around your home by keeping your plants well irrigated. Or, use non-combustible landscaping techniques, such as rock.
    • Mow and water lawns regularly.
    • Avoid campfires near the home, or ensure you use a safe site on a rock or bare dirt surface at least 3 metres from stumps, trees or branches, and 15 metres from buildings or tents.
    • Clear flammable materials, such as leaves and bird nests from the roof area, under decks and walkways.
    • If you live in a fire-prone area, allow at least a 10-metre buffer zone around your house and keep it clear of excess brush and leaves.
    • Ask a pro at The Home Depot Garden Centre to help you select fire-resistant plants, such as ice plants, and consider hardwood trees rather than highly flammable pines and firs.
    • Keep tree limbs – even those of hardwoods – cut back and off the roof. About 3 metres is recommended.
What do I do when a wildfire is reported in my area?
    • Take action immediately to avoid being trapped by fire. Wildfires are pushed by strong winds and move much more rapidly than most people expect.
    • If time permits, gather up your Family Emergency Kit or anything else you might need in case of evacuation.
    • Tune into local radio or television stations for emergency information. If instructed to evacuate, do so immediately.
    • If you know you have several hours before the fire front arrives, take time to prepare. Remove valuables and deal with pets but leave long before the fire arrives.
    • If you have not yet been instructed to evacuate, take the time to turn off the gas at the meter or tank and move any flammable liquids or gas grills away from your house. Close vents under your house or in the attic where heat can enter. Take down any thin curtains and any combustible window coverings; close all windows and metal shutters to block as much radiant heat as possible.
    • Park cars in a garage or an open space clear of vegetation. Keep all windows rolled up.
What should I include in my Family Emergency Plan?
    • Create a fire evacuation plan with your family. Discuss how you would reach each other from school, work or home. What routes would you take? How would you communicate if cellphones are not working? How will you reach and transport pets?
    • Include children in your plan: Prep them for potential emergencies and scenarios, teach them to dial 9-1-1 and reassure them that this plan is “just in case.”
    • Plan for two scenarios: Remaining in your home after a disaster or evacuating to a safer location.
    • Identify more than one evacuation route from your residence. Draw a floor plan for each storey of your house and circle escape routes.
    • Familiarize yourself with the nearest shelter.
    • Choose designated meeting places nearby and far away in case you get separated. Choose a friend who lives in another region or province to be your “check-in contact.”
    • Keep a list of key phone numbers by each phone in the house, stored in your cell phone and in your Family Emergency Kit. Include each family member’s cell phone number, your check-in contact and emergency resources including your doctor, the nearest emergency room, and the closest shelter or local emergency support such as the Canadian Red Cross.
    • Ensure you have smoke alarms and carbon monoxide alarms that comply with your building code (at least one on every floor of your home and in sleeping areas.) Replace any that are more than 5 or 10 years old depending on the model.
    • Check smoke alarm and carbon monoxide alarm batteries regularly to ensure they are working, and check the battery back-ups for hard-wired models.
    • Make sure your property is clearly marked with a visible street number so emergency rescue workers can easily locate you.
    • Store all important records, including passports, health and insurance records in a waterproof container. It is also a good idea to make copies of birth and marriage certificates, passports, licences, wills, land deeds and insurance.
    • Regularly check fuel-burning appliances to ensure they’re properly installed, ventilated and working according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
    • Make sure all family members know where your Family Emergency Kit is stored.
What should I include in my Family Emergency Kit?
  • Every family should have a Family Emergency Kit ready, be it for a fire or any other unexpected occurrence.

    • Baby wipes or moist towelettes
    • Backpacks or wheeled totes to carry essentials in case of evacuation
    • Batteries and chargers (phones, flashlight, radio, etc.) Remember to replace batteries as they expire or at least once a year.
    • Battery-powered or crank radio
    • Bottled water. Replace as per expiration dates on packaging, or at least once a year. Recommendations are for at least two litres of water (and up to four) per person per day for three days, and remember to store the water in small bottles, which would make them easier to transport in the case of an evacuation order.
    • Can opener (manual)
    • Cash in smaller bills and change for payphones
    • A change of clothes, especially sweaters and raincoats
    • Chlorine Bleach and a medicine dropper. (When diluted – nine parts water to one part bleach – bleach can be used as a disinfectant. Or in an emergency, you can use bleach to treat water by using 16 drops of regular household liquid bleach per gallon of water. Do not use scented, color-safe or bleaches with added cleaners.
    • Copy of your emergency plan and contact information
    • Duct tape and/or rope and/or Bungee cords (to secure tarp and seal windows or vents if necessary)
    • Emergency candles
    • Extra keys to your car and house
    • First Aid kit
    • Fire extinguisher and fire escape ladder. Be sure to have a large (5-10 pound), multi-purpose (ABC rated) fire extinguisher in all major rooms of the house including the kitchen, garage, bedroom, living room, laundry room and any room with a chimney. Be sure to check fire extinguishers annually to be sure the pressure gauge is functional and the unit is working. You can find companies that refill and service extinguishers online.
    • Flashlights
    • Hand sanitizer
    • Household essentials that apply to the unique needs of your family (i.e. for pet owners: leashes, carriers, etc.; for families with children: diapers and infant formula (check expiry dates regularly); eyeglasses, and feminine hygiene products, etc.
    • List of emergency contacts including local authorities and your “check-in contact”
    • Map showing routes to shelters and emergency contacts
    • Paper and pencils
    • Prescription medications (check regularly to ensure they don’t expire)
    • Re-sealable plastic bags
    • Sleeping bags or blankets
    • Tarp or tent (makeshift shelter)
    • Toiletries, including toothbrushes and toothpaste, and toilet paper
    • Tools (basic: hammerplierswrenchscrewdrivers (cordless and held-held) work glovesdust maskutility knives
    • Trash bags
    • Utensils
    • Water purification tablets
    • Waterproof matches in a waterproof bag
    • Whistle
    • 3-day supply of non-perishable food (replace as it expires or at least once a year)

      Note: Store items in large waterproof containers
       
Where can I find more information about preparing for fires?
Helpful Products Checklist for Preparing for Fire Situations in addition to my Family Emergency Kit:

Dealing with fire damage can be devastating, but early detection can help prevent it from spreading and causing additional damage.

Your first concern after a fire is to ensure it’s safe to return to the area. Check with fire officials before approaching the scene of any fire. Dangers in the area may include smouldering embers, structural instability, debris including rusty nails and broken glass and water damage that can bring on mould and mildew.

FAQ About Recovering From Fire

What do I do once the threat of fire has passed?
    • Once it’s safe to return to the area, check the exterior of your home and roof immediately. Ensure that all embers have been extinguished. If not, leave the area and contact the local authorities (dial 911 if the embers have ignited into surface fires.)
    • Survey the damage. If it is safe, take photos of any damaged areas and keep all receipts for repair-related purchases. Thorough documentation will help your insurance agency assess the situation.
    • Check inside the attic for hidden burning embers. If there are still embers or surface fires, leave the house and contact the local authorities.
    • Once the area is clear of smoke, keep all doors and windows open to allow ventilation and to help dry the home.
    • Continue to check your home and yard for burning embers for several hours.
    • The Red Cross recommends having professionals check appliances and systems before turning anything back on.
How do I clean up after a fire?
    • To remove soot and smoke from walls, furniture and floors use a mild soap or detergent. You can also use tri-sodium phosphate (TSP) diluted in water However, it does irritate skin so avoid direct contact. Wear rubber gloves and long sleeves. Be sure to rinse surfaces with clear warm water and dry thoroughly.
    • TSP can also reduce smoke odors in colour-fast fabrics. Test garments before using. Measure 4 to 6 tbsp and 1 cup household cleaner or chlorine bleach for every gallon of warm water you will use. Or, for a more gentle option, try washing clothes in cold water using laundry detergent and one tablespoon of pure vanilla extract.
    • Place small saucers of vinegar, vanilla or activated charcoal throughout your home to help absorb odours as the smell of smoke can linger. You will also likely need to clean everything in your house many times. If you are unsuccessful at eliminating the smoke odours, contact a professional.
    • Wash all dishes, pots and flatware in soapy water, then rinse.
    • Drywall and insulation that has been soaked by water from fire hoses will need to be replaced before it warps and buckles. Don’t put this off—it will begin rotting and growing mould almost immediately. Cut it using a utility knife at least 50 cm above the waterline and remove the affected material beneath it.
    • Remove any soaked materials like drapes, rugs and furniture. If you’re storing them for pick up or putting them on lines to dry, keep them as far away from your residence as possible to discourage the spread of mould and mildew.
Helpful Products Recovery Checklist for Fire Situations (in addition to your Family Emergency Kit):
    • Broom, bucket, mop
    • Camera or video camera to document damage.
    • Cleaning solutions
    • Clothesline and clothespins
    • Construction adhesive
    • DampRid® or another desiccant product that absorbs moisture from the air
    • Respirator
    • Dehumidifiers
    • Extension cords
    • Exterior paint and stain
    • Fans
    • Insect and mosquito control
    • Interior paint
    • Large containers for soaking bedding and clothing, and lines to hang them to dry
    • Paint brushes and rollers
    • Paint brush and roller covers
    • Plywood to patch holes or board broken windows
    • Portable generator and fuel
    • Portable water heater
    • Rags, cloths and sponges
    • Rubber boots
    • Squeegees
    • Tools and hardware (will vary according to the job but start with these basics): Saw horse and workbench, Screwdrivers, cordless and hand-held, Construction adhesive, Hammers, mallets & sledges, Measuring tape, Nails, Wood screws
    • Wet/dry vacuum
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