Defending Against Wildland Fires

Written by Andrew Morrison

Wildland Fire spreads through the forrestIt seems clear that the frequency and size of wildland fires is growing across the US and abroad. One thing that we know for sure is that they are devastating and that sometimes, there is absolutely nothing that can be done to stop them in their path. In those moments, all the preparation in the world won’t help you, but in every other case (the majority of cases) it might just be your preparations that save your home and even your family. To me, that’s worth taking seriously.

First Line of Defense Agains Wildland Fires: Your Property

As much as I want you to build a house that stands a better chance against wildland fires, I want something more for you: a property that is defensible. After all, it all starts with your property. If you have large amounts of fuel for the fire, it will be happy to spend time around your home, a perfect recipe for a wildland fire to turn into a structure fire. So make sure to get it right with your property first and foremost.

Prepare for Wildland Fires with defensible space

Consider using the following tips to help slow down a wildland fire and maybe even steer it away from your structure. You can improve your chances of surviving a wildland fire by implementing these details within 30 feet of of your home in most locations or within 50 feet if you live in an area with lots of trees. It may be necessary to create a 100 foot defensible space around your home in you live in a designated wildland fire area or a location with sloping hills and heavy tree cover. I personally maintain a defensible space 100 feet around our home and have always aimed for that when I’ve lived remotely. Check with your local fire authority for wildland fire requirements to make sure you are meeting them and setting yourself up for success during fire season. Some of the following will be obvious solutions while others may be new ideas for you.

Meet These Requirements to Defend against Wildland Fires

  • Remove all dead trees and shrubs. This includes those that are clearly dying but not yet dead. Look to the crowns of the tree for signs of death on coniferous trees and to the overall health of the bark, leaves, and limbs for deciduous trees.
  • Plant vegetation that is native to your area. These plants will be more drought tolerant and are less prone to burning.
  • Do not connect wood fences to your home. Find a fire resistant alternative: can anyone say “straw bale landscape wall!?!?”
  • Keep the ground in your defensible space clear of flammable materials such as pine needles, dry leaves, downed branches, and other similar potential fuels.
  • When possible, keep space in between trees. A spacing of at least 10 feet helps reduce the ability for wildland fire to jump from tree to tree. That said, this can be hard to accomplish in wildland interface zonings. In which case, see the following tip.
  • Be sure to keep all of your trees and shrubs properly pruned and “limbed up” from the ground. Branches should be limbed up (cut tightly to the trunk) for a minimum of 6 feet off of the ground. I prefer to limb all my larger trees up as high as I can reach with my cutting tools. For me, that’s about 13′, which by the way is the minimum required over driveways in many jurisdictions to allow for fire trucks to enter your property unrestricted. Shrubs under trees should either be removed or be no more than 18 inches tall.
  • Ladder fuels are a major problem in wildland fires. These are fuels that making the growth of a fire from the ground to the canopy easy. Picture dry grass catching shrubs on fire and those shrubs flaming up the low hanging branches of the trees to catch the forrest canopy on fire. You can see how quickly such a situation can become a major disaster. Scan your property for ladder fuels and remove them or protect against flame spread as necessary.
  • Mow your lawn regularly. Keeping grass short reduces its ability to act as a “flash fuel” which would otherwise allow a wildland fire to rapidly cover ground and race away from firefighters.
  • Install and maintain an irrigation system to keep your planting alive and well around your home.
  • Remove leaves and other debris from your roof, gutters and eaves. Be sure to check any roof vents (if present) and all the spaces around your home that can gather debris. The space beneath decks is an especially important area to keep clear.
  • Insurance companies would have you trim branches away so that they don’t reach over your roof. As much as I appreciate the idea, I am not a fan of this, unless the branches would end up near a chimney or other heat source. The benefit of a house that is properly shaded by the natural environment in which it sits is valuable and something that needs to stay in balance with the need for fire protection.
  • Be sure that all stacked (or unstacked) firewood is not directly next to the house. We have a wood shed roughly 50 feet from our house, making it relatively easy to stack and use the wood. It’s also far enough away so that it’s not a risk to our home in case of a wildland fire event.
  • All fuel storage tanks should be located as far away from the home as feasible. A minimum of 50 feet is recommended. Be sure to keep the areas around those tanks clear and free of debris.
  • Store gasoline, diesel, and other flammable liquids in approved metal safety cans. Plastic cans don’t offer the same level of protection as metal; however, neither provides much protection in reality so it’s best to store as little flammable liquids on site as possible.

Emergency Escape for Wildland FiresOne thing that’s not often discussed but that I think is really important for those of us who live rurally is to create and know your escape route. I live up a long dirt driveway and it’s the only way out of our property. If we get cut off from that escape route, we have a major problem on our hands. Be sure to implement the same requirements for your escape route as you would for your circle of defense. Further, practice fire drills with your family so that people know where to meet and how to exit the property safely, even if under duress. It’s also a really good idea to have your street address visibly placed at the road, especially for rural properties. Be sure that the numbers are reflective and noncombustible so that they are easy to see both night and day and won’t be damaged being recognition if the fire passes them by.

A Straw Bale House Can Be the Difference in Escaping a Wildland Fire

Wildland fires almost burns straw bale houseYou’ve likely read my article about how well straw bale homes have done in recent years in wildland fires across California in particular. This is not to say that it’s the California homes that provide the extra protection, but rather that the bale homes themselves are an added layer of protection in the puzzle that is wildland fire. So let’s consider some details of your home’s construction that will make it more resistant to potential wildland fires in the future.

  • Build your house with plastered straw bale walls. The high levels of fire resistance that have been shown time and again by third party test results and anecdotal evidence point to the effectiveness of plastered straw bale walls to resist wildland fires.
  • Use only adequately fire-rated or non-combustible roofing materials. Metal roofs are popular for many reasons and this is one more feather to stick in the metal roof’s hat!
  • If it fits in with your priorities for budget and sustainability, consider using closed cell spray foam or SIPs panels for your roof insulation. The closed foam doesn’t require venting and so eliminates the potential penetration of fire through roof vents: a very common entry point for wildland fires. 
  • Use fire resistant materials like cement-board for your soffits and fascia to minimize flame spread. 
  • Install ¼” non-combustible screening over all vents in the foundation and eaves (if applicable).
  • Use the best rated spark arrester you can on all of your chimneys.
  • Close off the space underneath all decks with fire resistant materials. Be sure to leave a way for you to inspect and clean out those areas too as the “closed off” areas might still be at risk of filling with debris if left unattended for too long.
  • Use double paned or even triple paned glass if the budget allows. Consider using tempered glass for all windows too.
  • Fire suppression systems are required in much of residential construction these days, but you may want to consider installing a system even if not required in your area. Granted, these systems are not designed to stop your house from burning, but are instead designed to give you more time to get out of your house should it succumb to fire. Don’t count on the system to beat back a wildland fire, but consider giving yourself a few more minutes of escape time.
  • If you have access to a lot of water, you may want to install a wildland fire suppression system on your home. This is basically a really big sprinkler system that can help keep your house exterior and surrounding area wet during a wildland fire event.

With all of these items in place, both for your house and your property, you will improve your chances of surviving a wildland fire. Obviously the most important thing os the health and safety of those in the house, but it sure is nice to know that if you leave, the house will have the best chance of survival too. Protect yourself first, but give your house the best fighting chance you can. As mentioned in the article referenced above, I will be teaching a straw bale workshop on a home for some folks who lost their house to a wildland fire in Colorado. If you want to join us to help rebuild their lives and to learn how to build a bale house at the same time, you can sign up HERE.

4 Responses

  1. Thank you! I have been a follower of yours for many years and if I was younger I would definitely built a strawbale house. The benefits of strawbale building would seem to be a no-brainer but you have found a way to make it understandable and easily accessible to everyone who is interested. I am constantly sharing your posts, but after the horrific year we had here in northern California, this article is one I will be sharing more than once. The whole west coast is going to have another very bad fire year this year so it is even more important to consider how to protect our homes and property. Once again, thank you for all that you do.

  2. Hello Andrew and all at
    I have emailed you the Firewise consultant contact for the Ashland Oregon Fire department. And would just like to post it here as well:

    Ashland Fire Dept Fire Wise Program
    Katie gibble
    [email protected]

    She is very interested in gathering all of the most solid research/evidence you have gathered regarding wildfire protection construction and retrofitting techniques.

    The more you can compile and present evidence of a variety of constructions in general that have and have not been successful so far in our west coast communities struggle to mitigate decades of fire suppression and global warming, the more you will be able to influence the world.

    I lived in a concrete stucco metal roofed home on the Frey vineyards ranch ten years ago in redwood valley mendocino. During the Nor cal fire storms of 2017 that included the Tubbs fire, a large swath of redwood valley in mendocino county burned, killing quite a few people.
    That house burned. The concrete walls were significantly in tact and the metal roof warped and collapsed.
    I believe it was built with a wooden frame and the fire probably ignited the home via the eves.

    I prefer straw bale to concrete for many aesthetic and ecological reasons. With the most up to date firewising amenities to the structure are concrete builds and strawbale comparably fire resistant?

  3. Hi Caroline. Thanks for this information. I don’t have the testing data to discuss this in detail, but I can tell you that bale walls performed VERY well in ASTM testing. You can find the results of those tests on YouTube. We have seen some great anecdotal evidence in California in recent fires that show that bale structures do really well under those conditions.

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