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Seven wildfire safety tips if you’re planning a trip this summer

Apr 07, 2023

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Across Canada, multiple wildfires are raging this spring season, forcing thousands of residents to flee and blanketing regions with a thick haze of smoke.

In Nova Scotia, a wildfire just outside Halifax has destroyed or damaged dozens of homes as of Monday and continues to burn out of control. Nearly 16,000 people have been ordered to leave their homes, say officials.

One province west in New Brunswick, officials have conceded a wildfire near the towns of Bocabec and Chamcook will be a "long, drawn-out firefight" as it remains uncontrollable as of Monday afternoon. And in Alberta, more than 5,000 residents were still displaced as of this Saturday, as nearly 50 fires continue to ravage the province, 14 of which are listed as out-of-control.

With even more fires expected this wildfire season — which lasts until the end of October in Ontario — here's how to keep safe if you live or are travelling to a fire-prone region.

Ensure you have everything you need if you are forced to evacuate by packing an emergency kit. The Government of Canada says an emergency kit should be easy to carry and that everyone in a household knows where it's located. A kit should include at least two litres of water per day per person, a flashlight, windup radio, first aid kit and non-perishable food items.

If you live in an area with a wildfire risk, do not store flammable materials near the perimeter of your house, recommends Michelle Laidlaw, associate vice president of national home product and portfolio at The Co-operators.

Bringing a combustible material right outside your house "can increase the risk of a wildfire doing significant damage to your home," she said, noting you should store wood at least 10 metres away from your house. She also said those living in vulnerable areas should keep their lawn trimmed and regularly clear debris, such as branches and leaves around their house.

During wildfire season, it's especially important to stay on top of all advisories and evacuation orders as fires can start and spread rapidly. When outdoor conditions are extremely dry or if firefighting resources are limited, the Ontario government may enact a Restricted Fire Zone, prohibiting open fires in certain areas of the province.

It's also imperative to stay informed of any evacuation alerts or orders. The former means you should be prepared to evacuate on short notice, while the latter means you are in danger and should evacuate immediately.

David Arama, a wilderness survival expert, said most townships have post wildfire warning and fire bans on their websites. "Check with the local townships to find out what the fire danger is," he said.

During the summer season, Ontario sees an average of one wildfire each day caused by an unextinguished or unattended campfire. Recreational forest users can prevent wildfires by practicing good campfire safety, including: picking a site sheltered from the wind and near water; clearing a space around the fire; keeping the flame small and never leaving it unattended; and ensuring the fire is properly put out.

If you find yourself in a wildfire, "the best thing is evacuate and get the hell out of there, obviously," said Arama, "but if that's not possible, then get to a clearing away from all flammable bush."

Forest fires can spread rapidly, so he doesn't recommend trying to outrun a wildfire. The Ontario government advises instead that those trapped should find a river, pond or lake to crouch in. If you’re not near water, head to a low-lying area and breath air closest to the ground, ideally through a moist cloth to avoid inhaling smoke. Cover yourself with soil, dirt or anything that can shield you from the heat of the fire.

If you are told to evacuate, listen to the radio or TV and choose a route away from fire hazards, advises the provincial government. If possible, wear long-sleeve clothes and covered shoes to protect yourself from ashes and sparks. And if you have time before you leave, pack enough supplies for a week (see the tips for an emergency kit above), turn off the gas line, turn on your lawn sprinklers and move flammable items away from your dwelling.

You can stay informed and plan your trips properly this summer by keeping track of active wildfires. The Ontario government maintains a forest fire info map. Google Maps also has a feature (under "layers") that shows users information about the major fires across the country.

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