Fire is one of the most costly and damaging hazards to a homestead. You can put years of effort and money into a place only to see it literally go up in smoke.
Thankfully, it’s also a hazard you can actually do something about.
But it requires a different management tool than other hazards.
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Fire is Energy
In modern survival philosophy, energy replaces the traditional “fire” part of the 5 survival needs (water, food, shelter, fire, security).
This makes sense, since fire is just released energy.
Now, as I said above, preventing unwanted fires requires a different approach than minimizing water hazards.
Floods are mitigated somewhat by choosing not to build in a low spot, river bottom or near a river/stream.
No, you can’t control when it rains, or where the rain goes once it hits the ground (off your land).
But proper water management and earthwork design reduces the water hazard.
Unlike water, fire can go uphill for “free” and will actually travel very fast uphill. It will also burn downhill, just more slowly.
So using the water model will not work properly for fire.
When developing a permaculture design, one important aspect is understanding sectors.
Sectors are directions of factors that influence your home.
Some of these are summer/winter sun path and location, summer/winter prevailing wind, view/smell/neighbors, and fire.
You may have more than one fire sector. There is one at the summer prevailing wind, and one if you have any downhill land from your house. You also have another if you have land with a southern aspect (south-facing).
Realize though that a north-facing aspects may not be a saving feature. North slopes have more vegetation but are usually cooler and wetter and because of this they burn more slowly.
But in drought times the fuels abundance creates a high fire danger.
These sectors may overlap but do not have to. If they do overlap the danger is more extreme, because wind and uphill terrain make fires burn very fast.
In this case, you should take even more fire precautions in this area.
According to the Colorado State Forest Service FireWise construction guide, wind-blown burning embers cause many home losses in the wildland-urban interface.
In that PDF, they talk about ways to evaluate the hazards of wildfire around your home. I go over many of them in this article.
Specifically, they note that slopes over 30°, lots of grass and brush, and flammable surfaces like shake roofs and horizontal surfaces like wooden decks show the greatest risk from burning embers.
Also, if like most people you use an oil-based product to preserve that wooden desk or roof, that increases the fire danger even more.
There are 3 main factors affecting wildfire: weather/climate, land shape, and available fuels.
You can’t really do anything about the climate or landshape, so that leaves you with fuels management.
Nearly any plant (or plant materials like log in a log home or a deck) will burn, but the drier and smaller diameter it is the faster it will burn.
Green grass doesn’t burn very well, but most native grasses dry out and “cure” in the summer heat and lack of rain.
This makes it extremely flammable, and will burn very rapidly.
Likewise, growing brush have green tips in the spring that are fairly fire-resistant. But this changes as summer dries out the new growth.
Brush also has more woody fuel available than grass, which helps brush burn hotter.
Tree will burn as either surface fires or crown fires. Surface fires usually only burn the forest floor fuels around the tree, and occasionally burn a whole single tree (called torching).
Crown fires are where an entire section of whole trees are burning. Note that coniferous tree like fir and pine are more susceptible to crown fires.
This is partly due to their resin and oil content.
Burning embers mostly come from torching and crown fires, which can start new fires downwind.
Any woody debris can also burn, whether from logging or natural falls.
Most areas have more than one fuel type, so dealing with them is more complex than just one fuel type. They may also feed off one another in a chain of escalating conflagration.
In other words, the fire can step up and get bigger the more fuel it has.
For example, grass catches fire easily but doesn’t have much fuel capacity. However, cured grass can combine with dry brush to start a bigger fire, which can then start torching or a crown fire.
In the real estate business, they say “location, location, location” is most important.
So, how about proper home site selection?
As I’ve written about several times, putting your house in the right place can save you money, time and frustration.
Avoid putting your house at the top of a ridge or hill. It means you have to pump water up that far, as well as build an expensive road, and you have no protection from hot and cold winds.
It also means a fire coming from ANY direction really wants to go up the hill and say hi.
Now, that’s an unwelcome visitor if I ever saw one!
And even if the fire doesn’t get all the way up, as I talked about in the last section, you get burning embers on your house.
They get blown up into the air by the convection action of the hill feature you so conveniently put your house on.
A house on a hill also has the fun feature of causing winds to turn and swirl. This could cause embers to start a fire on the opposite side of the hill, so that you now have two fires burning towards you
Even more fun!
Don’t be that guy. Don’t put your house on top of a hill.
For the same reason, don’t put your house near a land feature that tunnels wind like a saddle, valley, canyon, or ridge.
These features also have water hazards, so just avoid them.
Another condition to consider is orientation. Generally, cold climate houses should be positioned with a long axis eat-west to take advantage of winter solar gain.
If your fire sector is to the north or south, this means more of your house is at risk than if it was to the north and south.
When this is case, consider adding non-flammable walls or feature barriers between the fire risk and your house.
Placing fire-resistant barriers between your house and the expected path of a fire is an excellent idea.
Features like bare rock, deciduous trees, wetlands and streams or lakes resist the fire’s growth and provide a buffer against blown burning embers.
Colorado State Forest Service recommends clearing most to all flammable vegetation and material from a “Zone 1” at least 15-30 feet from the last flammable structure.
Note: To avoid confusion, realize that I’m not talking about permaculture zone 1.
This includes needles and other dry material from lawns, flower beds, and gutters.
When landscaping, don’t plant evergreens/conifers like juniper near the house.
If you have a wooden deck or gazebo, start measuring your 30 feet at the end of that structure.
You could also screen or enclose your deck to prevent embers from igniting it. Enclosing it also makes summer and winter entertaining more enjoyable.
More space is better, as it increase the likelihood of your home surviving a wildfire.
This may seem at odds with the permaculture idea of planting trees to shade your house in the summer.
But you can have your (deciduous, right?) trees and fire safety too. Just push out the easily burnt fuels radius to compensate.
Also, make sure not to have firewood in this zone. Put it into a structure not attached to your house.
I have seen and heard of too many house fires helped along by stacking firewood next to the house.
Don’t be the guy that burned down his family’s home because he was too lazy to walk 30 feet in the cold.
I mean, you’ve heard how wood warms you 3 times right?
When you cut it, bring it in, and finally burn it.
Fire zone 2 & 3
Fire reduction’s “zone 2” extends to at least 100 feet in all directions from your house. This zone is for reduction of fire intensity, by limiting fuels and fuel combinations.
CSFS calls these combinations ladder fuels, since they can climb from grass to bush or bush to tree.
Here they recommend removing all dead, dying, and diseased tree and shrubs.
They also suggest removing trees so that they are at least 10 feet between crowns, measured at the edge, not center of the trees.
On steeper slopes, increase the distance between crowns.
Clumps of a few trees can remain together, but leave more space around them.
In effect, you’re creating more of a savannah system than a closed-canopy forest, and this can be a Good Thing.
Why? Because savannahs are one of the most productive biomes in the world.
This is due to the many different microclimates from the many different types of shade, filtered sunlight and direct sun in an open canopy savannah.
These microclimates support a vast array of species, and have many interacting edges.
In permaculture you know that the edges always have the most production and energy transfer.
CSFS also suggest not combining shrubs with trees, as the combination can increase a fire’s temperature and likelihood of spreading.
This does change how to implement food forest guilds, but a design with more restrictions simple becomes more elegant.
If you’re using small well-pruned fruit tree guilds like you should be this close to the house, this restriction should not much increase your fire risk.
Properly spacing your guilds with 20 feet or more between them is also wise.
Make sure your trees and bushes are well-watered, especially during summer heat. Dried-out plants catch fire easily, while green growing ones are hard to set ablaze.
Prune and maintain shrubs and trees to prevent excessive growth, and to remove dead branches.
Also, mow grass to 6 inches to prevent fire traveling toward your home. But if you plant a low-growing groundcover, you can save on water and mowing both.
Locate propane tanks and gas meters at least 30 feet from the house. They should be at the same elevation as the house.
Likewise, firewood and brush piles should also be 30 feet away, and at the same elevation or uphill.
Zone 3 transitions zone 2 to unmanaged forest. Fuels reduction and forest health here are both important.
The roof, the roof, the roof is on fire!
Roof covering choice is also a critical consideration.
Mission-style half-pipe roof tiles allow rodent or bird-built nests that have flammable materials. Block any openings to prevent this.
With these tiles, embers may also fall into the cracks, against the flammable roof panels.
Asphalt (AKA composite) shingles have either an “organic” (AKA paper/wood) or fiberglass base.
The fiberglass were formerly made with asbestos, but are now made by bonding fiberglass strands with urea-formaldehyde resin. These fiberglass shingles do have a better fire rating than paper-based ones.
Regardless of base, the shingles are then impregnated and coated with asphalt.
They also have mold and mildew inhibitors. In addition to making rainwater harvest a dubious prospect, asphalt shingles easily break in high winds and are not fire safe.
Older shingles, especially the paper ones, are a fire risk. But at least they are cheap(er)!
Ideally, use a non-combustible roofing material like clay, slate, steel/copper and concrete.
Be aware that a metal roof is best combined with a gypsum board underneath for best fire protection.
Also consider using metal gutters and downspouts, since any embers that land on the roof may end up here. Plastic gutters can melt, support and feed an ember, which is exactly what you don’t want.
Metal won’t melt from an ember’s heat, and will tend to dissipate heat and cool the ember until it’s safely out.
Simpler shapes are less expensive to build and heat/cool in addition to inherently more fire-resistant.
Multiple intersecting planes creates eddies and dead air traps for embers to collect and fire to grow.
Examples of these are dormers, changing roof angles and pitches.
Using non-combustible materials is also a wise idea when looking at home construction.
For exterior walls, use cob, plaster, brick/stone, concrete, or dirt in some or all of your house’s construction to lower your fire risk.
Many homes are sided with thin wood products, which while cheap, fire can burn through in less than 10 minutes.
I do beat up on log homes a little (OK, a lot), but I’ve recently seen too many log home fires to recommend them to anyone.
Traditional stick-built houses are horribly toxic hell-stews when they burn. That’s partly why firefighters have respirators.
Of course, stick-built homes with modern materials can be toxic when they don’t burn, too.
Personally, my favorite house construction technique is the timber-framed strawbale house.
The interior exposed timbers look great, while the thick plaster-covered strawbales don’t burn, are great insulation, and the plaster provides thermal mass. This all adds up to an energy-efficient, quiet house.
It’s also way less toxic, in addition to being possible to build a more sustainable house.
I’ve also considered building an earth-bag office or root cellar, over which you then apply a plaster to the walls.
Windows & doors
Windows in a fire are often the weak point that allows hot gasses and embers to enter a home.
The heating and cooling flexes the frame, which cracks the glass. If the window glass isn’t tempered or is too big and heavy, the glass will fall out, allowing flame & ember entry.
Modern double-pane windows provide a second barrier when the outer glass breaks.
So double-pane tempered windows less than 2 feet wide or tall are better at slowing fire than untempered, larger or single-pane windows.
Glass block is even more fire resistant, used in places only requiring light and not visibility.
Wood doors are almost as bad as wood siding when it comes to fire resistance. Thicker wood doors or metal doors are better.
Consider installing a roof sprinkler system. This can help cool your house even if you never have a fire.
During wildfire, it prevents burning embers from taking hold on your roof.
Also, if you have a pond or stream, make sure local fire department can get their trucks to it.
Move rocks, clear a path and prune vegetation make access easier.
They can use a floating intake hose to suck water out and spray on the fire.
Speaking of the local FD, if you have a rural property behind a locked gate, ensure they have the key or combination to it.
Most commercial buildings have a “Knox box” that the FD can use to get building access.
After all, you don’t want to lose your house because the fire department didn’t want to cut your lock.
Installing frost-free faucets away from your house makes irrigation easier and keeps plants from getting dry and fire-prone. They are also helpful during a local fire for putting out small spot fires from blown embers.
Properly site your house considering aspect, sectors, and orientation.
Reduce fuel loads, especially close to the house.
Remove ladder fuels where possible.
Add non-combustible barrier features.
Use non-combustible construction materials.
Install fire suppression.
See the CO State Wildfire Mitigation site for more info.
OK, that’s all folks! Do you have any questions or comments about dealing with fire, sustainable homesteading, permaculture design or anything else? Ask your question down below and let’s talk! You can also use the contact form, or email me at info at thepermaculture dot life.
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