This is every cottager’s greatest fear and here’s how to prevent it from happening

Published: January 9, 2019

These days, fire is never far from our thoughts. Here's how to keep your cottage, and the forest around you, safe.

fire-sparks Photo by Eduard Muzhevskyi/Shutterstuck

My husband is calling me, on his cellphone, from the sleeping cabin where he was napping.

I am not okay. I am clinging to the dog. He, too, is trembling, pressed tightly against my leg. My chest feels as if it will explode, like the massive thunder boom that just crashed somewhere close—too close—and left our old cottage vibrating like a drum. “Check outside and see if any trees were hit,” my husband says. I stand up and turn around. That’s when I see the smoke coming from the back bedroom. In an instant he’s beside me, with our ancient fire extinguisher. Miraculously, it works. He sprays the exploded ends of the frayed power cord that smoulders on the wooden floor.

We were lucky. The boom signalled a lightning strike that hit our property in multiple places, including a nearby pine tree. One of the strike’s paths was from the tree across the clothesline into the back bedroom. An explosive surge raced through our electrical system and blew out the power cord on a reading lamp—hence the smoke. There was a lot more damage, including split siding and floorboards, uprooted trees, cleaved granite rock, and a hole in the hull of our Boston Whaler.

Fire is possibly a cottager’s biggest fear, in part because it can start so innocently and because it can flare and spread so rapidly. Cottages are vulnerable, especially when they are hidden in the woods or, like ours, perched on a granite island. Ontario and B.C. cottagers learned this first hand this summer as they experienced some of the worst wildfires on record.

I still don’t understand the lightning’s convoluted journey at our place. What I do know is that we could have done more to protect it. Here are 10 key areas of the cottage where you can reduce the risk of catastrophic loss.

APPLIANCES AND WIRING

Where’s the fire? We love the old stuff inside our cottages, but Grandma’s flip-down toaster may have worn-out wiring or a frayed cord with exposed wires that can cause sparks and ignite nearby combustibles. Original wiring in walls may not be adequate to handle the number of modern appliances—espresso, anyone?—in use these days. Basically the circuit is trying to carry more power than it was designed for, and the extra heat generated can wear out internal wiring and cause a fire. You’ll know your electrical system is overloaded if the lights dim when you turn on an appliance or if you have to unplug one appliance in order to operate another without tripping the circuit breaker.

Prevent it Move power-hungry devices to a different plug, or install an additional plug in the high-use area. And of course, replace worn cords on your appliances, or discard the appliance. Your breaker box is designed to shut off the current when circuits become overloaded, but if the connections are loose, old, or worn, they may not activate the switch. You’ll know if the lights go out but the breaker switch doesn’t trip. If you have electrical know-how and feel comfortable DIY-ing the problem, simply tighten the connections at the terminals. If not, or if your circuit breaker is still not tripping, hire a pro to investigate, and consider replacing the breaker panel.

POWER SURGES

Where’s the fire? Power surges are spikes or dips in current in your electrical system that can damage electrical equipment or start a fire, especially in worn or faulty wiring or when there is a lightning strike.

Prevent it Consider installing two levels of surge protectors: individual smaller ones (they look like power strips but have an electrical rating expressed in Joules of energy) on electronics and a whole home protector that is wired into the electrical box. Even a whole home protector can’t protect against lightning 100 per cent of the time (if the lightning hits the water pump, say, and comes into the cottage that way). So, to be safe, unplug your appliances during lightning storms or when you leave the cottage for extended periods, in case your area is hit with a storm.

FIREPLACES, WOODSTOVES, AND CHIMNEYS

Where’s the fire? A common cause of chimney fires is creosote buildup from incomplete combustion or smoke condensing on the inside of the chimney. Creosote is highly combustible and a fire inside the chimney (you’ll hear a big roar) can spread to the cottage structure, especially if the chimney lining itself has cracks or holes.

Prevent it The National Fire Code of Canada requires that you inspect chimneys, flues, and flue pipes at least annually, and clean and repair them if necessary—for example, if there is greater than three millimetres of creosote buildup or if there are cobwebs or nests inside. (Can’t judge your chimney’s creosote status? Get an expert.) Check with your municipality to see if local bylaws require you to install a spark arrestor—a stainless steel mesh screen that attaches to the chimney guard to prevent burning debris from escaping. They’re a good idea in wooded areas, anyway, or if you have a cedar shake roof. The best way to reduce flaming debris is to burn only seasoned wood and not fill the firebox with paper or garbage.

LIGHTING

Where’s the fire? Like other electrical products, lamps have cords that can deteriorate over time plus a heating source—read fire hazard—in the bulb.

Prevent it If you have old lamps (and you probably do, because this is the cottage, right?), make sure your new bulbs are equivalent to the specification on the fixture to prevent the bulb from overheating and melting the socket. When you replace a shade, keep in mind that the higher the bulb wattage, the larger the shade needs to be for adequate ventilation. Finally, do we need to say it? Don’t drape cloth, paper, or anything else flammable over the shade.

BARBECUES

Where’s the fire? If you’ve ever been tempted to click, click, click when the grill doesn’t start, you know the result: a big whoosh when the accumulated gas finally ignites. If you’re lucky, you’ve still got your eyebrows.

Prevent it Make sure the barbecue’s lid is open when you light the burner. If it doesn’t light right away, turn off the burner, let the gas dissipate, and try again. Regularly check for leaks in the valve or hose (apply soapy water; look for bubbles when you turn on the gas) and spiders blocking the venturi tubes that feed gas to the burners. Fire experts would rather you didn’t set the barbecue on your wooden deck, but if you must, make sure the wood doesn’t become hot to the touch. Let charcoal cool before discarding it in a lidded fireproof container.

FIREWORKS

Where’s the fire? Home fireworks displays are like axe throwing: you don’t want to be in the way, as a friend of mine was when an exploding firework fell on its side. (He was okay.)

Prevent it Light them in an open area, well away from people, buildings, and the forest. If they don’t have a base, bury them halfway in sand or in a metal container like a pail or a wheelbarrow, filled with sand or dirt. Discard spent fireworks and debris in a bucket of water.

OPEN-AIR BURNING

Where’s the fire? Outdoor fires can fling sparks into the surrounding brush or can become out of control. They are also a hazard if not properly extinguished.

Prevent it Before burning, check your municipality’s open-burning policy and for provincial and municipal fire bans and restrictions in your area. Under Ontario fire laws, for example, while campfires have no timing restrictions, you can only ignite an “outdoor fire” (for burning leaves or brush, say) no sooner than two hours before sunset and extinguish it no later than two hours after sunrise (or apply for a fire-burning permit). Pick a spot that is at least three metres from logs, stumps, trees, and other combustible sources (remember to look up) and 15 metres from any buildings. Fire can spread underground, so scrape the area right down to the soil, and clear out any brush. Have water and a shovel nearby. When you extinguish the fire, douse it and the ground with water, and stir the embers with the shovel, until the ashes feel cool.

PROPANE

Where’s the fire? Propane tanks are extremely strong and resistant to bursting. But if a tank is heated and the pressure inside increases beyond what the safety release valve on the tank can expel, it can rupture. A nearby flame or spark can cause the released gas to ignite.

Prevent it Store propane tanks outside and out of the heat (including your car, if the interior is hot), away from the cottage. Check gas lines in your barbecue or propane appliances regularly for wear, such as cracking and leaks.

LIGHTNING

Where’s the fire? Forest fires that begin in July and August are likely to be caused by lightning. That’s because of higher temperatures and lower humidity than in spring and fall as well as dry forest cover and duff (natural ground litter).

Prevent it The best way to protect the cottage itself is to install a lightning rod system, which consists of a series of copper or aluminum air terminals (a.k.a. rods), copper or aluminum conductor cable, and a grounding system. With a good system, anything metal on the roof, from vents to eavestroughs and downspouts, is connected.

DAMAGED WIRING

Where’s the fire? Animals and storms can wreak havoc on outdoor wiring and receptacles, which, when damaged, can spark and become fire hazards.

Prevent it When you open up in spring and after a storm, walk around your property to check for downed lines or chewed or frayed outlets and wires.

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