Wildfire expert explains how to protect your paradise

A cottage on fire. Photo by Mantis Design/Shutterstock

Most of us listening to news reports of wildfires or watching videos of flames swallowing forests, homes, and cottages respond with fear or at least a sense of foreboding. It’s a reasonable response, given that estimates of what’s considered fire weather — dry, windy — in eastern Canada is expected to increase by 200 to 300 per cent, according to the Climate Atlas of Canada. Western Canada can expect a slightly less alarming 50 per cent increase.

But Dr. Eric Kennedy, an assistant professor in disaster and emergency management, specializing in wildfire management at York University, and a Lake Huron cottager, sees something else. To him, wildfire is a (mostly) natural force that has shaped our country. That’s not to say that he’s cavalier about the damage and pain that wildfire causes. Only that he’s spent years studying wildfire and its impact on our landscape and so approaches it like the scientist he is.

“Our country really is a country of fire,” he says. “Lots of the ecologies in Canada depend on fire happening regularly. It’s part of how systems maintain themselves, they need fire for regrowth and renewal. It’s a great thing and a terrible thing simultaneously.”

Cottages, situated as they often are in forested areas, are vulnerable to forest fires. But, says Kennedy, there are things we can do to protect ourselves and our properties. For a start, he says, if you’re in the building or renovating stage, consider the materials you’re using, particularly your roofing. It’s also crucial to cover dryer vents and air vents, keep eavestroughs clean and clean up debris around your cottage, including logs stacked for fire.

Mitigating fire risks

“It’s not the giant wall of flame that’s going to cause problems, it’s the little tiny ember that lands on your roof, in your eavestrough, or lands in the wood piled beside your house, or on your deck, or in the shrubs you planted,” says Kennedy. “It’s those little embers that actually cause the majority of home loss.” And though it can be important to have trees on your cottage property to prevent erosion, offer shade and mitigate flooding damage, you don’t want those trees to be touching your cottage.

Kennedy hopes we avoid being afraid and overwhelmed by disasters while still taking them seriously. “The good news is there are really simple practical things we can do that really increase the likelihood that your property will survive and increase the ability of firefighters to defend it. It’s important to feel empowered.”

Take that first step right now, he says. “Winter is a great time to take stock of what the risks are and put together a manageable plan.”

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