The Role of Construction in Wildfire Prevention

January 24, 2020

News of the Australian wildfires has taken over headlines and shocked people around the world. It’s hard to know where to focus – the destruction of homes, the environmental devastation, the lives lost, or the millions of animals killed and driven into chaos. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and powerless as a person on the outside.

Image borrowed from the New York Times.

The current fire crisis happening in Australia has been linked to climate change, drought, lightning strikes and a lack of environmental regulations and political action.

No matter what the reason for it is, it indicates a shifting tide in what we can expect in the future. Wildfires like the ones in Paradise, California, on Canada’s west coast, and now in Australia seem to be happening more often, and on a more destructive level.

2016 wildfires in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada. Image borrowed from NPR

As firefighters work tirelessly to control the fires, a cry for change is rising up from communities both in affected areas and around the world. People demand support from their governments, changes to environmental regulations, and updated housing standards to promote more fire-ready homes.

While many of these points are out of the hands of the general population, there are things that are in the power of contractors and construction companies to make a difference. If this is our new normal, it must fall to every one of us to challenge the way we used to do things.

The Role Of Construction In Wildfire Prevention

Construction companies can fight to institute building changes, to work with firefighters to prevent the spread of fire, and to push for change in the industry itself to prevent a fire disaster of this magnitude from ever happening again.

Leaning on Construction Contractors to Help Fight Fires

As bushfires become more common there may be a way for construction companies to play a bigger role in helping to fight these fires alongside firefighters.

“Construction can work really hard, and support with getting debris out of the way and creating fire barriers. You can have a fire happening and [construction companies are] able to clear out brush that would burn up with a ground fire,” said Desi Matal Anderson – Chief Wrangler at the Field Innovation team and CEO of the Global Disaster Innovation Group, LLC. 

Firefighters dragging a hose to battle a wildfire near Bendalong, Australia. Image borrowed from CTV News

Other Ways For Construction To Help

Creating these barriers between fire and brush is just one possible way for construction to play a part in fire control. The ability to merge heavy machinery and demolition tools with the knowledge of firefighting could help to mitigate the spread of a fire in specific situations. 

In areas where fires happen more often – like Australia – a need to strengthen the relationship between firefighters and contractors may need to become another new normal. This strengthened relationship could be helpful in post-fire cleanup and demolition, and in discovering what needs to change regarding materials and building practices in order to help make buildings more fireproof.

The Dangers of Toxic Fumes in Fires

The aftermath of fires often leaves large areas in a mess of debris, smoldering rubble, and toxic fumes. Many materials used in buildings contain plastic. It is harder to ignite than wood but burns much hotter and releases a toxic gas while burning. Petroleum based materials like house siding also burns hotter and generates a toxic smoke that can affect firefighters, demolition crews, and even the families living in the area.

Hempcrete is an example of an alternative building material that is naturally non-toxic and also fire resistant. Image borrowed from Archinect.

Modern clothing and furniture are more likely to be made of synthetics as well. Materials like polyurethane and nylon release hydrogen cyanide when burned. This toxic gas can be lethal when inhaled, even small doses.

With more and more synthetic materials being used in both construction and furniture manufacturing, the gases released during a fire make it more dangerous for firefighters, those in the windpath of the smoke, and potentially even the contractors tasked with tearing down and cleaning up post-fire. 

The toxic smoke from the Australian wildfires covers sydney, blocking the view of the Sydney Opera House. Image borrowed from CNN.

A New “Normal” For Safety Training

Construction companies in areas that experience wildfires, or are expected to in the future, should take these new dangers into consideration when putting their employees through safety training. Toxic gases and fumes can be extremely harmful and should be taken as seriously as trips, slips, and falls.

Demolition and safety work taking place in B.C. Canada after wildfires in 2017. Image borrowed from CTV

Contractors should always be aware of the history of a project when completing a demo or rebuild in order to wear proper PPE as applicable. Nose and mouth guards, eye masks, gloves and body wear could help keep contractors safe, depending on the situation. As the industry navigates wildfire demo, waste removal, and restoration on a new scale, safety should always remain a top priority.

When Rebuilding Begins

Once the fires are out, and houses torn down, rebuilding will begin. This is the true highlight of how construction can play a role in building up communities after a fire devastation. 

“Construction can certainly help to support bringing back a community and thinking about different and new materials that can be less toxic and hazardous if they were to burn,” says Matel-Anderson. This support for alternative materials can also include more fireproof materials.

After such a calamitous fire, there will most likely be updated fire codes and fireproofing requests from project owners. Contractors should be prepared to exceed these standards. It can fall to contractors to bring alternative ideas about fireproofing a building to the project manager. This is a small but impactful way for contractors to make a difference. 

The Impact of the Labour Shortage in Rebuilding Timelines

The need to rebuild homes and rehouse people is complicated by the labour shortage that continues to hang over the industry. California is feeling the impact of the labour shortage in it’s rebuilding plan, but they have come up with a plan to alleviate this shortage.

The state is planning to hold a construction training camp to help increase the number of workers available to help rebuild the homes lost in the 2017 fires. This innovative attempt at training a workforce could act as an example for how communities come together to rebuild after large scale fires. 

After the fires in Northern California, the neighbourhoods were preparing themselves to rebuild. Image borrowed from Wall Stree Journal

Although much of Australia’s fires destroyed large areas of forests and ecosystems, over 200 homes have still been lost. This system of leaning on the local community to help complete home rebuilds could help speed up the process of home recovery. At the same time, this training camp in California speaks to the willingness of communities to support each other and work together to rise up from disaster. 

Contractors should feel empowered to reach out to companies outside of their own, to offer their services to communities, and to assist as needed. The skills held by equipment operators and general contractors are unique and could be needed by communities following a fire. 

Continue To Do Your Part To Prevent Fires On Site

Another way for construction companies to combat wild and bushfires is to practice fire safety on their own sites. Have a fire suppression method on site, make sure that all equipment is fitted with a fire extinguisher, and store all flammable materials properly. As we have seen in California and Australia, and in many other instances around the world, one small spark can be incredibly destructive.

A construction site fire in Bramdton, Ontario lead to the distruction of 7 houses. Image borrowed from Brampton Guardian

Another way for the industry to do it’s part in preventing future devastation is to make choices that support the environment. Using technology to streamline projects, fleet management systems to monitor the health of equipment, and practising recycling programs for construction waste can all play a role at making a construction site a little greener.

Choosing sustainable building materials is another way to inadvertently reduce environmental stressors and protect our planet from fires. No act is too small, or too large, to make a difference. 

Everyone Can Help Fight and Prevent Wildfires

Whether building in Calgary, California, or Australia, or anywhere else in the world, fire safety needs to be taken seriously. Contractors should educate themselves on safety practises both to prevent fires, and how to properly work to fight them with fire fighters, and to stay safe while demoing and rebuilding in areas affected by a fire.

The construction industry is in a unique position to build relationships with firefighters to assist in fire maintenance and prevention, to introduce fire and fume safety into training protocols, and to challenge the building standards and material “norms” currently found in construction. Without a doubt, there is a role for construction in wildfire prevention and protection. As the industry responsible for building our world, it should become more of a duty to stand up, ask the questions, and push for change on behalf of those who do not have the power to do so.

Kevin Forestell

Kevin Forestell is CEO of DOZR and one of the co-founders. Kevin first got started as an entrepreneur when he founded Forestell Landscaping right after graduating from University. His love and passion for the industry and desire to help solve an equipment problem that contractors faced every day is what brought the founding team to start DOZR. Kevin is proud of the level of efficiency brought to the industry through DOZR and hopes that DOZR will help change the standard way equipment is rented.

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