Preparing for wood fires
By Len Garis Paul Maxim and Karin Mark
September 2015 - As wood becomes an increasingly popular building material in Canada, there is a corresponding need for fire-safety resources for both the construction industry and emergency responders.
To meet this need, the Canadian Wood Council, working with the University of the Fraser Valley in British Columbia, has produced an in-depth guide and research papers with the goal of reducing the risk and losses from construction-site fires. The project was funded through a grant from Natural Resources Canada.
“We know from research that once fire-safety systems are in place, wood-based buildings are as safe as any other type of building,” said Michael Giroux, president of the Canadian Wood Council. “However, like all buildings, they are vulnerable to fire during the construction stage, before those systems are installed. As representatives of Canada’s wood industry, we want to help ensure that construction sites across Canada that use wood are as safe as possible.”
The guide and research papers can be downloaded for free at cjr.ufv.ca or www.cwc.ca and include:
- Construction Site Fire Safety: A Guide for Construction of Large Buildings – practical tools and information for the construction industry (also available in French).
- Construction Site Fire Response: Preventing and Suppressing Fires During Construction of Large Buildings – analysis and response information for the fire service (also available in French).
- Firefighter Wood Project and Systems Awareness: A Resource Guide – sources of information on fire-safety topics related to wood-based construction.
While the materials focus on the design, planning and construction phases of new buildings, the content is also relevant to projects involving existing buildings, such as demolition, alteration or repairs.
It is estimated that more than 100,000 building projects in Canada each year involve wood-based construction (e.g. light wood-frame, heavy/massive timber post-and-beam, cross-laminated timber). These numbers may mushroom in the future following changes to the 2015 National Building Code and National Fire Code that allow the construction of wood buildings of up to six storeys.
With this widespread and growing use of wood comes the need for a greater focus on construction fire safety, both from the perspective of builders and emergency responders.
Regardless of the building materials used, construction sites present fire departments with a different set of challenges than those associated with completed buildings. The construction stage is the most dangerous point in the lifespan of any building, due to a number of risks, including proximity of combustible materials as ignitions sources (e.g. electric equipment and hot work such as welding and roofing); lack of completion of any built-in fire-safety systems such as sprinklers; absence of doors, finished walls and other separations that may slow fire spread; and potential site security issues.
The widespread use of combustible products such as wood on a construction site, along with the introduction of taller wood buildings, can add a further level of risk and complexity to both fire prevention and response. There have been numerous examples of large-scale construction fires in Canada, including those in Calgary in March 2015, Kingston, Ont., in December 2013, and Richmond, B.C., in 2011. Typical hazards at construction sites include:
- Temporary heating equipment
- Waste disposal
- Open burning
- Spontaneous ignition
- Cutting and welding
- Electrical malfunction
- Flammable and combustible liquids
- Flammable gases
Fire safety is the responsibility of everyone involved in construction projects, including the construction industry, employers, workers, site visitors, and provincial and local authorities. Some of these responsibilities are laid out in standards, codes or legislation, such as provincial occupational health and safety regulations.
Construction companies also have a vested interest in promoting fire safety at their sites from a business standpoint. Financial losses can be significant because fire departments in general take defensive approaches to construction-site fires as there is typically no need for occupant rescue. As a result, the focus at construction fires is firefighter safety and to prevent the fire from spreading to adjacent buildings.
Despite extensive property damages and financial losses typical of construction fires, many Canadian fire departments have limited experience preventing and suppressing fires at large construction sites. And construction-company managers may not fully understand the risks of inadequate on-site fire-prevention procedures and equipment, or know how to implement the appropriate measures.
These factors are a recipe for catastrophic losses, and is the focus of the new Canadian Wood Council publications that specifically tailor information to people who play roles in preventing and responding to construction-site fires.
The 52-page Construction Site Fire Safety: A Guide for Construction of Large Buildings targets construction professionals and assumes readers have varying levels of awareness of either the regulatory requirements or best practices regarding fire prevention. Topics covered include:
- An introduction to construction fire safety
- Legislation, regulation and other guidelines
- Fire basics, including theory and extinguisher types and use
- Construction site dangers and risk management
- Development of fire-safety plans
- Site security
- Fire prevention and protection best practices on more than 20 topics
- Advice for working with the fire department
- Working close to occupied buildings
- Knowledge, skills and abilities checklists for construction fires and hot work
- Construction site hazards and trends
- Fire department role
- Risk management
- Standards, codes and regulation
- The construction process and typical milestones
- Fire-prevention planning
- Pre-incident planning
- Suppression approaches and tactics
- Building construction and construction sites
- Fire protection and statistics
- Building and fire codes
- Structural design
- Fire safety elements in wood construction
- Fire protection products and systems
- Developments and studies in wood construction
- Additional resources such as videos, media releases, news articles and presentations
- Training resources and programs
- Websites for wood industry, building and fire codes, and fire organizations
Len Garis is the fire chief for the City of Surrey, B.C., and an adjunct professor at the University of the Fraser Valley. Contact him at LWGaris@surrey.ca
Paul Maxim is a professor in the Department of Economics and the Balsillie School of International Affairs at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont.
Karin Mark, based in Metro Vancouver, is a former award-winning newspaper reporter who writes for publications and corporate clients.