Wildfires might seem terrifying, especially if you’re in their path. But they’re as natural as the land they burn. Traditionally, lightning strikes or volcanic eruptions can spark wildfires that tear their way across the landscape, burning everything in their path. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
These fires clear away dead plants and underbrush and leave behind a healthy ecosystem, encouraging new growth and keeping everything in balance. There are even some species of plants and trees that can only grow after their seeds get burned in a wildfire.
Indigenous and aboriginal cultures around the world learned how to live with these fires as a fact of life, tending to the surrounding forests and building their lives around the wildfire cycle. They would even start small controlled fires to prevent larger uncontrolled blazes from threatening their fields and settlements.
Unfortunately, in our quest to become civilized, we’ve forgotten or even outlawed many of these more traditional techniques.
This willful ignorance of ancient knowledge make wildfires worse and more dangerous every single year. By the end of September 2020, wildfires had burned 4.7 million acres in the United States alone — and the wildfire season isn’t over yet. As things get hotter and dryer, wildfires will continue to get worse every year.
Wildfires are a threat to everyone, but dealing with them becomes more challenging when living off the grid or homesteading. What can you do as a homesteader to protect yourself and your property from the growing threat of wildfires?
What Causes Wildfires?
We’ve already mentioned that lightning strikes and volcanic eruptions can spark wildfires, and did for much of history. But what causes them today?
Humans are responsible for most wildfires today. Arson is one cause, with people choosing to deliberately set fires in a variety of different environments, although campfires, casually discarded cigarettes, burning trash and fireworks top the list.
There are still natural causes for wildfires, like the ones mentioned above, but the majority of the fires we see today are caused by human hands, either intentionally or accidentally. Knowing that fact only solves part of the problem, especially since there will always be people who forget to put out their campfire correctly or flick a cigarette out their window during red flag conditions. The only thing we can control is how we prepare for these wildfires and how we respond to them when they occur.
What can you do to keep your homestead safe from wildfires?
Clean Up Your Property
Start by cleaning up as much of your property as possible. This is a large part of how indigenous peoples would protect themselves and their settlements from fires.
Fires can’t spread without fuel to burn. If you remove the fuel — fallen leaves, dried underbrush, dead trees and anything else that could allow a fire to spread — you make it more difficult for the blaze to cross your property and reach your home.
You don’t need to waste all of this plant matter, either. It could make a handsome addition to your mulch or compost pile, depending on the exact composition of the underbrush in your area. The goal here isn’t to throw it all away, just to collect it in such a way that it won’t provide a wildfire with easy access to your homestead.
Store Fuel Away From Buildings
Fuel for homesteads comes in a variety of shapes and sizes. These include gasoline and diesel for generators and farm equipment, as well as wood for cooking and heating the home.
Stocking up on fuel and storing enough to keep you warm and powered for at least a few months is part of the homesteading process. It might seem like a good idea to keep your fuel nearby in case the fireplace goes out in the middle of the night or the generator fails when you need it most.
If you live in an area that’s prone to wildfires, the best idea is to trade convenience for safety. Store your fuel well away from any inhabited buildings, especially if you’re relying on volatile substances like gasoline. You will need to have them around, but the last thing you need when you’re trying to protect yourself from a quickly encroaching wildfire is an explosion when your fuel storage goes up like a Roman candle.
Utilize Natural Barriers
Fire is a very simple force. If it has “food,” it spreads. If it doesn’t have anywhere to spread, it burns out its fuel supply and dies. Creating natural barriers around your homestead might not be a foolproof way to prevent a wildfire from devastating your property, but it can discourage the spread of the blaze.
The idea here is to create barriers around your homestead made from non-flammable materials such as sand, gravel or even paved roads. Fires are capable of jumping these barriers, but as we said, its “motivations” are simple. It will follow the fuel, and if it’s easier to burn its way along your barrier than across it, that’s where it’s going to go.
Reduce The Number Of Trees
We all love having trees around our homesteads. They provide cover and shade during the summer and fuel in the winter. Unfortunately, they’re also a massive fuel source for wildfires.
Coniferous trees such as pines and cypresses are the worst because they are full of sap, which burns fast and fiercely. You don’t have to clearcut the entire area, but it is a good idea to reduce the number of trees on your property.
The large and ancient trees on your property have probably already survived dozens of fires over the years. It’s the smaller, younger, trees that often end up causing problems by providing the flames with a ladder into the canopies of the ancient giants in your forests.
Be careful with the spacing of trees and shrubs on your property and reduce the number of trees to make it more difficult for fires to spread.
Plant Fire-Mix Grass Seed
Yards covered with grass have been considered the standard for decades, but they aren’t the best option in wildfire-prone areas.
Grass dries out quickly and burns even faster, providing wildfires with a clear path directly to your homestead. States like Colorado, where wildfires are common, have started recommending grass seed blends that are more resistant to the spread of wildfire.
These mixes use a combination of native and non-native seeds that grow well in Colorado, so you may have to research a similar blend of grasses that will serve the same purpose in your area. If you are intent on having grass in your yard, look into a species of grass that won’t dry out as fast or burn as readily.
After a wildfire comes through, there is an increased risk of flooding because the fires burn away all the underbrush that would otherwise help manage the floodwaters. That’s where hydroseeding comes in.
Hydroseeding combats both wildfires and post-fire flooding by fighting the fires with a slurry of water plus seeds and nutrients that encourages new growth after firefighters extinguish the flames.
Hydroseeding isn’t something the average homeowner might consider because you need specialized equipment to apply the hydroseed slurry. However, for homesteaders who are looking for ways to protect their property and their homes, hydroseeding may be a viable option.
Have A Plan for Livestock
Raising livestock is an integral part of the homestead life. Whether you’re raising goats, cows, chickens, pigs, horses, or anything in between, you need a plan in place for how you’re going to protect or evacuate them in the event of a wildfire.
Don’t rely on luck or divine intervention to protect your flock. And don’t expect the outcome to be a feel-good story. Have a comprehensive plan in place for evacuations and for riding out the fire.
It’s a good idea to practice your plan as well, to get your flock used to the idea of loading up at a moment’s notice if necessary. Keep in mind, though, that if there’s a wildfire looming on the horizon and the sky is full of smoke, your animals will likely be panicked and more difficult to manage.
Invest In Ember-Resistant Building Materials
Vents, roofs and attics are often the most vulnerable parts of your home. A wildfire can throw embers into the air, and those embers can set your home on fire from up to a mile away. Take the time to harden your home by investing in ember-resistant materials. Take a close look at your home and see what parts might be most vulnerable.
Even things like your rain gutters can create a fire risk if they’re full of leaves or other plant matter. You don’t need to worry about rebuilding your home from the ground up. There are plenty of materials and retrofit kits available on the market, so do your research and harden your house to prevent flying embers from doing untold amounts of damage ahead of the actual fire.
Look Into Water Needs And Pumping Capabilities
While you won’t have the power to fight an entire wildfire, having sufficient water pumping capabilities can help protect your homestead if a blaze is heading your way.
You need to take a close look at your water table and supplies, and how you can tap into them to fight fires that might approach your property. If you have a well or another perpetual source of water, you only need a way to pressurize the system so you can use hoses to protect yourself.
If you rely on cisterns for rainwater collection systems as your sole source of water, you may need to look into some of the other options on this list to protect yourself and your homestead.
Have Bug-Out Gear Ready To Go
We all want to protect our homes and belongings from wildfires. However, all the preparation in the world won’t do a thing if there’s a blaze barreling down on your home. You need to have everything ready to go at a moment’s notice.
This includes your bug-out supplies like food, water, first aid, clothes and other belongings, as well as important or sentimental items — things you can’t replace or can’t live without.
Make sure you have all of your important paperwork packed and ready to go as well. Birth certificates, driver licenses, car titles and house or property deeds should all be included as part of your bug-out kit. If you have homeowners insurance or wildfire insurance, make sure you have that policy information handy as well.
It’s also a good idea to make digital copies of all of these pieces of paper that you can store in the cloud. Even if you lose your property, you still have proof of these items available.
Have An Evacuation Plan Ready, Then Practice
Do you know how you’re going to escape your homestead if evacuation becomes necessary? What if your primary evacuation route is blocked by flames? Do you have a secondary route to get out of the way of the fire?
Have your evacuation plan ready and rehearse it with your entire household. Everyone should know where they need to go and what they need to do in the event of an emergency. Practice it until you don’t even have to think about it.
[Editor’s note: Early warning is crucial! Invest in a quality NOAA weather radio, utilize smartphone disaster/weather apps, and pay attention to the local news each day so you know what might be headed your way.]
If You’re Told to Evacuate, Just Go!
Finally, while protecting your homestead might be first and foremost on your mind, if you’re told to evacuate by firefighters or first responders, you need to go.
Don’t question or argue or think you know better than the fire forecasters. They’re not telling you this lightly or because they want to make your life harder. They’re telling you to evacuate because there is a high chance that your home is directly in the path of a wildfire and you need to get out to stay alive.
Don’t argue. Just go, and trust that all the preparations you’ve made will do everything they can to protect your homestead. When it comes down to it, belongings can be replaced. You can’t.
Be Ready, Even If You Never Need It
Wildfires are becoming more common and more dangerous every year. Preparing for them isn’t optional anymore. Be ready and know what you’ll do in the event of a wildfire. Even if you never need the preparations, it’s better to have them in place, just in case something sparks.
Emily Folk is a conservation and sustainability writer and the editor of Conservation Folks.