How to Protect your Forest and Cabin from Wildfires


Every year we hear about forest fires or wildfires tearing through beautiful forests around the world.

It’s always sad to see such beautiful land barren after a fire.  But nature does a fantastic job of bouncing back, and in a matter of a few years, the forest recovers and often thrives.  However, the destruction of wildfires doesn’t stick to forests alone.  Every year people are displaced because their homes are destroyed by the flames.

That’s why I’ve put together this guide to help you keep your cabin and your forest safe during wildfires.  I can’t guarantee that your cabin will survive a wildfire

Keep your Forest Safe and Healthy

Good forestry practices can do more than just help you save your cabin in a wildfire.  They can actually help you save your forest.

Wildfires through unmanaged forests often burn the trees all the way through and almost down to the ground.  There’s usually very little left after a forest fire like that.  But by doing a few things you can actually save a lot of your trees by keeping the fire in the tops of the trees.  You may lose your canopy, but within a year that will recover.  If you lose the trees completely, your forest could be barren for 10-20 years depending on the types of trees you have.

Here are some good forestry practices to use all around your property.  These are especially important the closer you get to your cabin to keep a forest fire from burning your cabin to the ground.

  1. Clear out brush, dead trees and limbs, pine needles, and other debris.
    • You don’t necessarily just want dirt on the ground, as it will quickly grow weeds that can be worse than the existing vegetation.  So leave as much small vegetation as you can.  But clear our larger brush and keep bushes spaced well apart so that there is very little on the ground to catch fire.
  2. Thin out the trees a bit
    • Depending on the variety of trees you have, unmanaged forests usually end up with very narrow tree spacing.  Cut down some trees so they’re a bit more spaced out.  This isn’t an exact science.  The spacing between trees will vary based on the variety and age of the trees.  But a good rule of thumb is to spread the trees out such that you maximize the distance between trees but still have a nice canopy above you.
    • Cutting down trees can be dangerous business.  If you have the knowledge and skills to do this yourself, that’s great.  But if you’re concerned, you can likely invite a logging company to log your property for you.  They should practice responsible logging which lead to good tree spacing without completely clearing your property.  And what’s better is that you shouldn’t have to pay for this.  In some cases, they may pay you for the lumber.
  3. Trim the tree limbs nearest to the ground
    • A good rule of thumb is to remove all limbs within about 10-15 feet of the ground or 1/3 of the height of the tree.  So a tree shorter than 45 feet will not need to have 15 feet removed but for trees taller than 45 feet 10-15 feet should suffice.  This doesn’t need to be exact.  Don’t worry about measuring the height of the tree.
    • Use a pole saw like this one on Amazon if you don’t have too many trees to keep trimmed.  If you have a lot of trees like I do, though, you’ll want something that can work a lot faster like this one, also on Amazon.  This one costs a little more but it’s a gas-powered chainsaw that can trim up to about 12 feet.  That’s about as far as the chainsaw style pole trimmers go, and it’s probably sufficient for most of your trees.

What this does, is it keeps small fires on the ground from climbing up into the tree canopy.  And if a forest fire comes through, it will keep the fire up in the top of the trees on your property rather than burning them all the way to the ground.

The Defensible Space Around your Cabin

You can’t always keep your entire property safe from wildfires.  Especially if part of your property is wooded.  But here are some important tips to keep the area immediately around your cabin clear and hopefully at least save your cabin should a wildfire come through your area.

  • In the first 5 feet around your cabin, get rid of any materials that can easily catch fire.  There shouldn’t be trees or shrubs this close to the house.  That also includes the wood pile.  Keep the wood pile outside of this space.  If embers were to land on it, it could catch fire and more easily spread to your cabin.  Having that wood pile is just 10 feet away from the wall of your cabin could save it.
  • The same goes for propane tanks or gas cans.  Keep them at least 5 feet away from the outside of the cabin.
  • The next 30 feet should be clear of things that easily burn.  You can have trees but you should trim up the branches at least 15 feet or 1/3 of the height of the tree.  Other plants should be fire resistant plants.  The National Fire Protection Agency recommends mowed and watered grass in this space but that’s not always feasible for a cabin in the woods
  • You don’t want to leave this space totally empty though.  If you clear out all plant life, it will tend to become overrun with weeds which often burn very easily.  Plant fire resistant shrubs in this space and find a grass that does well in your area and plant that around the cabin.  It may not end up a lush lawn but it will help keep other weeds down.
  • Outside of 30 feet, you can just follow good forestry principles to help keep your cabin and property safe from fires.

Cabin Building Materials

The National Fire Protection Agency has some good resources to help you keep your cabin or house safe from a wildfire.  You can click on this link to learn what they have to say about things like decks, attic and crawl space vents, and roofing materials in detail.  Here are some highlights.

Decks

  • Don’t store combustible materials (stuff that can burn) underneath decks.  Hot embers often fall between deck boards and can build up and ignite the materials under your deck.  It’s best to keep the space under you deck clear of things that will catch on fire.
  • Every now and then, clean out any debris that gets caught between deck boards and debris that gets caught between the deck and the house.  This debris—often pine needles, leaves, weeds, and twigs—can usually catch fire a lot more easily than your decking material
  • If your deck is made out of non-fire-retardant materials, then consider removing the deck boards within a few feet of your house and replacing them with fire-retardant decking materials.  That will help keep a fire on the deck from spreading to the house.
  • If you’re building a new deck, use decking materials that are fire retardant.  If you’re using wood joists on your deck, use a fail-faced bitumen tape product on the top of the joists.

These tips can greatly reduce the risk of your deck and therefore your cabin from catching fire.

Attic and Crawl Space Vents

If you have a crawl space, you probably have vents on each side of the cabin.  This helps generate good airflow and ventilation through the crawl space.  Likewise, you should have vents under the eaves of your roof to allow air into your home and vents going out the roof to allow air out.

The problem is that these vents are vulnerable to hot embers that can blow from a wildfire and into your crawl space or attic.  But here are some things you can do to keep your cabin safe.

  • Use mesh screening on your vents to keep embers (and animals) out.
  • It’s better to have the vents under the eaves of your roof than on the side of the wall.  These vents are less vulnerable to embers blowing into your cabin.
  • For roof vents, use vents with a ridge rated for resisting wind-driven rain.  The ridge that is designed to keep out sideways blowing rain will also keep out embers.
  • Using vents with a turbine on them can also help keep embers out.  It’s a good idea, though, to attach a some 1/8-inch mesh to the bottom of the roof sheathing where the vent goes into the roof.  This will catch any embers that get through the turbine and keep them out of your attic.

Roofing Materials

  • You should definitely build your roof using Class A fire-rated materials like asphalt shingles.
  • At least a couple times a year, get all the sticks, leaves, pine needles, and other debris off your roof and out of any gutters.
  • Cut off any tree branches that hang over your roof.
  • Inspect the exposed areas under your eaves to make sure they’re in good shape.  A rotted hole in a soffit could allow embers into your attic.
  • Maintain your roof and replace it when necessary.  Worn out roofing materials are won’t be nearly as effective against hot embers from a wildfire.

Fireplace and Chimney

This one is simple.  On your chimney or wood stove vent, install a spark arrester.  That will help prevent a forest fire from starting as a result of your own fire.  It’s also important to keep your chimney clean to prevent a fire in your cabin.

A few things to remember

There is no way to keep your property 100% safe from wildfires.  But you can do a lot to minimize your risk by how you maintain your forest and the area immediately around your cabin.

It can take a lot of work to keep your forest well maintained.  Prioritize the area immediately around your cabin and work your way outward from there.  If you can only maintain a 100 foot radius around your cabin, that will make a big difference in keeping your cabin safe.

The most important thing is to be aware of wildfires in the area and keep yourself and any other people away from them.  No matter how much you have prepared, if a wildfire comes through the area you should evacuate.  Leave your cabin and property in the best possible state to minimize the risk of losing them, but then get away.

The good news is that by adhering to good forestry practices, you’re more likely to be able to return to cabin and a forest that has survived the fire and can thrive in the years to come.

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