Wildfires are absolutely hellish to deal with, and they can be even more frightening when you have a home and livestock to protect and a garden that you depend on for food.
While you personally can’t control a rampant wildfire, there are things you can do to protect your property.
The tips I’m sharing here are those I’ve learned over the past decade. Although my personal experience has been with wildfires in the Sierra Nevada mountains, many of these suggestions would work in just about any other locale.
Tried-and-True Tips to Protect Your Homestead from a Fire
Having lived through wildfires in rural California while working on homesteads, I’ve learned a great deal about what works well to protect the land and buildings from potential wildfire threats.
That said, people in other growing zones may have access to other protective measures that weren’t available to me at the time, which I would touch upon later in the article.
Note that wildfires are different than structural fires. If you want to learn how to prevent the latter, we have a guide to help you manage the situation.
1. Make Your Buildings as Fire “Safe” as Possible
Anyone who’s ever worked with building materials knows that some of them are more combustible than others. To protect your home from wildfires, choosing the right materials is key.
Think of the story of the Three Little Pigs and their houses built of straw, wood, and brick. Which do you think was the least likely to burn in a wildfire?
If you’re in a wildfire-prone location, choose building materials that are as least likely to burn as possible. Stone and brick are great ideas, and covering wood or cob structures with plaster will reduce their combustibility significantly.
2. Create a Buffer Zone Between Trees and Buildings
If you live in an area with many trees and bushes, clear out everything within 30 feet of all your structures. This includes your house, barn, garage, outbuildings, and pens where you keep your animals.
This 30-foot space is known as the “defensible space zone” (DSZ), and it means that there’s little to no combustible material within that area.
If you’ve ever tended a fire, even a bonfire or a wood stove, you know that no fuel means no fire. The same goes for the area around your structures.
If there’s nothing near your house to burn, the fire generally can’t creep any closer unless winds are insanely high and throw sparks across.
Be sure to check with your local fire dept to find out what the DSZ is in your area. For example, fire-prone locations in California have a DSZ of 50 to 100 feet, rather than 30.
3. Remove or Replace Anything Burnable Within 10 Feet of Your House
This is in addition to the buffer zone mentioned above. Basically, take a walk around your house and note anything that could possibly catch fire.
- Do you have firewood stored on or under your porch?
- What material is your porch/lawn furniture made out of?
- Do you have plastic planters in this area for herbs and flowers?
- How about umbrellas, decorative lights, etc.?
If any of this would go up in smoke if you so much as dropped a match nearby, move it away from the home, or replace it with non-flammable alternatives.
Swap out the plastic planters for terracotta or plaster. Get metal furniture and bring the cushions inside when you’re not using them. Create a woodshed for your firewood and kindling well away from the house, even though that’s inconvenient.
A few minute’s walk is worth the effort to protect your home in case of wildfire.
4. Clear Away All Detritus and Overhangs
If you’re in an area that’s prone to wildfires, make sure to clear away anything burnable in that defensible zone. Remove fallen leaves or needles, dead plants, anything random that blows in. All of it.
Should you choose to have grass in this 30-foot zone rather than gravel or stone, that’s fine. Just make sure to keep it well-watered so it stays healthy and juicy instead of dry and burnable.
If you’re on a larger property, then try to clear away as much detritus as possible within 100 to 150 feet of your buildings.
While you’re at it, make sure to cut back any tree branches that hang over any of your buildings. Sure, large trees can help provide shade to your house in the heat of summer, but if those branches are too close to the house, sparks can leap from them onto your roof.
If you use a burner or fireplace in winter to heat your place, sparks can fly up the chimney and light a tree on fire. Cut back branches, so they’re at least 10 feet from your place. Or, call an arborist to do it for you if you don’t have the equipment or physical ability to do it yourself.
5. Keep the Area Well Hydrated
Depending on how arid your region is, if you’re growing vegetables, herbs, and other plants in your garden, you’re likely watering them at least once a day. While you’re doing this, get into the habit of also watering the surrounding area.
Just like we talked about in terms of keeping grassy areas on your land well-watered, the same goes for any spots that you’ve allowed to go a bit wild. Keeping grass mowed is a good idea, but many people also like to keep a few areas full of taller grasses and wildflowers to attract native pollinators.
This practice is great, as long as you keep those grassy bits wet. Otherwise, they’ll turn into the most fire-prone spots on your land.
If you have water features on your property, such as a pond or stream, I’d recommend those spots for wild pollinator spaces. They’ll be hydrated naturally by the water there, and you can keep the rest of your property cropped and tamed.
6. If Possible, Create a Water Barrier
This only works if you’re close to a large natural body of water you can divert, like a river or creek. If possible, dig trenches around the perimeter of your property and divert flowing water to run through it.
Creating this kind of watery barrier can dissuade, or even prevent potential wildfires from spreading across your land.
Check out our guide on using water to protect your home and property from wildfires for more tips.
7. Skip the Straw Bale Gardens
Many people choose straw bale gardening because it’s a cheap, easy, quick option for growing a lot of food in a small space. Unfortunately, these are also prone to catching fire quickly.
They can also harbor smoldering fires without being detected. Let’s say a wildfire passes close to your property, and you lose a few straw bales to the burn.
Once the main threat has passed, you’ll think all is well… but embers are being kept alive inside those straw bales, and nobody knows. Then, they ignite several hours after the fact (in the middle of the night, perhaps), and you’re caught off guard.
If you live in an area that’s really prone to wildfires, please skip the straw bales. Create raised beds with cheap materials like salvaged bricks or rocks that you find in the wild nearby. These bales aren’t worth the potential risk.
8. Only Use Mulch that Retains Water
If you live in an area where erosion is a problem, make sure you choose the right types of mulches. Mulches help retain moisture around the base of your plants, but the wrong type can cause issues.
Only use compost or a heavy, wet bark mulch. Skip the light wood chips, even though they’re pretty, as they catch fire really easily.
I know mulch seems small when it comes to trying to protect your home from wildfires, but it makes all the difference.
9. Choose Fire-Friendly Trees and Shrubs While Landscaping
Did you know that some trees and bushes are much more flammable than others? Most hardwood trees like sugar maples, apples, and cherries hold a lot of moisture and won’t catch fire easily. In contrast, conifers like pine and spruce are filled with highly flammable sap resin.
If you want conifers, edge the perimeter of your property rather than keeping them close to the house. And if possible, plant them 30 feet away from one another to protect from sparks jumping.
Keep these trees pruned, so you have six to eight feet of space between them and other shrubs. Keep these well watered too, cut off any dead limbs, and remove any fallen trees immediately.
Don’t Let Fire Destroy Your Property
Taking care of all of this might seem like a lot of work, but it’s worth doing if you want to keep your family, property, and animals safe from wildfires.
I have firsthand experience with the kind of devastation that these fires can cause, both in Paradise, CA, and the recent fires in Butte County. A lot of damage could have been reduced significantly if more property owners had been more diligent with upkeep.
Yes, there’s a lot of work involved with fireproofing (or at least fire protecting) your home and land. But trust me, it’s better to set aside a few hours every week to get this done than lose everything you have.
This may seem like a daunting project, but it doesn’t have to be. Create a “triage” sort of list so you can sort out the most pressing and threatening issues. Put the ones that are easier to deal with off until later.
Then determine approximately how long each of these chores is going to take, and create a work schedule to get them done.
Dedicate several hours to getting this stuff done every week, and you’ll be well prepared once fire season rolls around.