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Homesteading / Gardening

Preventing Fires on Your Homestead

In many parts of the U.S., wildfires happen seasonally. They’re typically caused by a combination of dry, combustible material, high temperatures and low humidity. Once a wildfire starts, it can be very difficult to keep it under control.

Unfortunately, thousands of people lose their homes every year because of wildfires. Many more individuals suffer property damage, including losing their trees, barns and livestock. The smoke from these fires can travel thousands of miles and affect people who live far away.

When many people imagine a wildfire, they think of a wall of fire approaching their property. However, small ground fires can do just as much damage and are far more common. Kick a single ember into a pile of combustible material and you’ll quickly have a blaze.

Fortunately, there are many practical steps you can take to protect your home from fire damage. Although these precautions aren’t a guarantee of safety, they will significantly reduce your property’s vulnerability to wildfires and house fires. Here are nine steps you can take to prevent fires on your homestead.

1.   Consider Your Location

Start by considering your homestead’s location. If your property is located in the northeastern United States, there isn’t much risk of a wildfire destroying your property. Fire preparation and land management are still wise, but they aren’t essential.

On the other hand, homesteaders who live along the West Coast or in hot, dry states like Texas and Wyoming need to take fire risks very seriously. Large wildfires are seasonal phenomena in these areas and affect thousands of families each year.

If you’ve just moved and are unsure about your area, look up wildfire statistics or talk to your neighbors about their experiences. You can also check news stories from the last several years. If wildfires are a problem where you live, important information will be available about how you can prepare and respond.

Homesteaders who live in high-risk areas should consider joining a fire-fighting team over the summer. This will give you valuable experience with property protection and connect you to other members of the fire-fighting community. You’ll also learn more about the risks common to your area.

2.   Map Your Property

Before you can form a plan to protect your property, you need to understand its geography and the way fire could spread from one structure to another. Many different factors contribute to the spread of a wildfire. It’s helpful to draw a map marking vegetation, buildings and water sources.

Fires move faster uphill than downhill. If your house is located above heavy vegetation,  removing or protecting that vegetation should be a priority. It’s best practice to keep all structures free of the tree line. You also shouldn’t store chopped wood and other combustible materials right against your house.

Accessibility is also important for protecting your property. If you or a fire-fighting team aren’t able to quench fire at its source, it can spread rapidly and do more damage. You need to ensure easy access to your home, barns and any water sources on your property. Roads do double duty as a firebreak.

Wind plays a massive role in the spread of wildfires, causing fire to actually leap between open spaces. Wide firebreaks can slow down this progression. By mapping your property, you can quickly assess which areas are most vulnerable to wildfires. You can also create a plan to protect your home and other valuable assets on your property.

3.   Clear a Perimeter

Professional fire-fighters suggest creating several circles of protection around your home and other valuable structures. The first defensible space reaches about 30 feet beyond a structure on all sides. This area should be clear of combustible materials that could allow a wildfire to reach your house.

An ideal defensible space is a green lawn that’s clear of debris. A well-watered lawn will resist a fire that’s moving across the ground. Although it’s okay to have some plants around your house, you should try to keep them separate, away from the walls and clear of bushy undergrowth.

Some types of trees and shrubs are more flammable than others. For example, conifers contain pitch, a highly flammable substance. If you must have trees close to your house, choose deciduous hardwoods that take longer to catch fire and burn.

Any trees near your home should be thinned so that there’s plenty of space between them. You can use a pole saw to remove lower branches. Pruning prevents fires from climbing up trees and spreading overhead, creating a secondary crown fire.

4.   Manage Forests

Maintaining woodlands on your property can improve their fire resistance and help you protect your home. If you own 100 acres of trees, it will take years for you to thin and improve the forest. However, managing the area right around your home can give you a significant edge if your forest does catch fire.

Old-growth forests contain large, mature trees that lack lower branches. The healthy canopy overhead shades the ground, reducing undergrowth and new saplings. The ground stays wet for a long time because it’s shaded from the sun. This type of forest is ideal for fighting wildfires.

You can stimulate this kind of ecosystem by thinning the trees in your existing forest. Remove lower branches and then find the drip edge of each tree. This is the point where the tree’s lowest branch would drip water on the ground. Trees should be spaced with 10 to 20 feet between their drip edges.

Start by removing damaged or unhealthy trees. If you have mature timber, it’s perfectly fine to leave those trees together in a clump. The goal isn’t to create a perfect forest but to reduce the conditions that allow fire to spread quickly. Once the forest is thinned, remaining trees will grow quickly and be healthier.

5.   Fireproof Your Home

In addition to managing external threats, you also need to consider the internal risk for fire. If your home has an indoor fireplace, it’s incredibly important to maintain it. You should seriously consider having a professional clean and inspect your fireplace and chimney at least once a year.

Chimneys are lined with a flue that allows heat to flow upwards. However, if soot and other materials build up on the flue, it can catch fire. Cracks in your chimney can also allow embers to fly into your home. While some fires are obvious, slow-burning fires can be hard to identify before they get out of hand.

Whether or not you have an indoor fireplace, you should always keep a working fire extinguisher in your house. It’s not a bad idea to have several –  one for each floor and several in your kitchen or garage. In certain situations, a fire extinguisher can make the difference in saving your house.

Smoke alarms are another must on your homestead. Accidents happen and they sometimes happen while you’re asleep. A smoke alarm can give you the time you need to safely evacuate your home and stop a blaze from destroying everything you own. You should also consider installing smoke alarms in your barns.

6.   Upgrade Building Materials

If you’re still in the process of construction, you can also consider using fire-resistant materials on the outside of your house. Some types of building materials are more flammable than others – for example, wooden cladding is much more flammable than concrete options.

Your roof is an especially sensitive part of your home. If an ember gets caught on this flat surface, it’s only a matter of time before your home catches on fire. However, some roof materials are more fire resistant than others. You can check product fire ratings to decide which material is best for you.

Examples of fire-resistant roofing include slate, concrete, composite and metal roof tiles. Some homeowners also install a sprinkler system on their roof so they can preventatively wet the house and extinguish embers quickly. You can also install these on your porch and around the perimeter of your home.

Another sensitive area is the part of your home that touches the ground. If a ground fire did reach your home, what material would it come into contact with? If your house has wooden siding or is made of other combustible materials, you should consider replacing lower cladding with more protective materials.

7.   Focus on Maintenance

Keeping your home and yard clean can make a huge difference for fighting a wildfire. Before a ground fire can reach your home, it has to travel across combustible material. Dry organic matter like dead leaves is effectively fuel for any fire that crosses your property.

This means keeping leaves cleaned up and swept away from your home is very important. You should also regularly clean out your gutters and remove debris from your roof. Keep your yard free of fallen branches and remove leaves from any decks or porches.

You should take this same approach to protect barns and other structures on your property. Keeping your lawn short can also slow down wildfires. Tall grass will burn longer and is harder to put out once fire starts to spread. You need to reduce combustible materials around your home as much as possible.

Tree maintenance is another part of this process. Keep trees trimmed and make sure you dispose of the branches. You can use a wood chipper and reuse the wood in your garden or burn piles of brush preventatively. If you’re planning to burn excess wood, check to see if your area has a burn ban during certain times of the year.

8.   Keep Water Accessible

If your homestead is remote, it may take a while for fire-fighting services to reach you. In the meantime, it’s up to you to protect your home. You can fight fire much more effectively if you have access to water on your property. Some homesteaders have natural lakes and ponds they can draw water from.

You can also set up a covered pool or invest in a water storage tank. Covered rain barrels can help you shore up enough liquid to protect yourself during wildfire season. Again, you should check local laws to ensure water storage is legal where you live – in some states, water storage is regulated.

Once you’ve established a water source, the next step is to keep it accessible. You’ll need a system for drawing water and moving it around your property quickly. Some homesteaders build a fire-fighting system in the back of their trucks. With a hose and pump, you can transport water anywhere on your property.

When building your own fire-fighting system, don’t forget to consider the impact of friction. Smaller hoses reduce water pressure much faster than large hoses. The length of the hose can also impact how far water will spray once you reach your destination. Do the math and practice with your system before it’s needed.

9.   Make an Evacuation Plan

Of course, the most important part of fighting fire on your homestead is having an evacuation plan. Things can be replaced – your home rebuilt, trees replanted and a new garden sown next year. If local fires get out of hand, sometimes evacuation is necessary and the wisest decision to make.

Before wildfire season comes around, have a family discussion about what to do in case of an evacuation. Family members should have a designated meeting place and you should talk to your kids about what they can and can’t take with them if you have to leave.

During wildfire season, have your bags packed and ready to go. Put food, clothing and other necessities in your car. If you have pets, stack their crates in the car and consider crating them overnight. Make plans to transport your livestock so they’re safe as well.

In case of an escalating emergency, you should consider getting walky-talkies to communicate with your neighbors. You can use these tools to update each other, send warnings and coordinate your movements. The more you do to prepare before a fire, the more effective and safe your response will be.

Stay Vigilant

Wildfires are a powerful natural phenomenon that can completely wipe out your homestead. Thankfully, there’s a lot you can do to prevent fire from hurting your family or damaging your property. Start with these nine steps and you’ll significantly reduce the risk of a fire destroying your homestead.

Fire safety in your home begins with personal habits. Always be careful of open flame and completely extinguish campfires and burn piles before you leave. If you use a dryer, don’t run it while you’re not home. Keep the lint trap clean and don’t keep pots and pans under your oven.

If you use candles, don’t keep them burning when you leave a room. Keep fire extinguishers on hand and learn how to safely extinguish electric fires. If your water pump is electric, you may want to invest in a generator so you can access water even without power.

Ultimately, it’s your responsibility to protect your property. Fire can be a major threat to your homestead, so it’s essential to prepare several lines of defense to keep your home from going up in smoke. Don’t wait until wildfire season to take these essential steps for protecting your property.

[Note: This was a guest post.]

By Damian Brindle

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