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house in the country woods

Moving into a home in the forest has numerous advantages, including privacy and the sheer beauty that surrounds us every single day. But there are downsides too. Wildfires are one of those very rare but extremely dangerous downsides that can leave any homeowner fearful of the next report of a fire anywhere nearby. Though most wildfires do happen on wild and unpopulated areas, the sheer speed and size of a typical wildfire can mean that any home in the area can be at risk.

So what can you do to keep your home safe from the fire that burns over 1.2 million acres in an average year? Good preparation is the key to making sure that your home is left standing, even if the forest around it is reduced to embers. Here’s what you need to know.

1. Be aware of fire-starters around your home

Many wildfires begin because someone got careless. In fact, though 10 to 20 percent of the 100,000 lightning strikes that hit the earth every day cause fires, the vast majority — 80 percent of all fires! — are started by humans. Sometimes it is a campfire that got out of hand, a lit cigarette carelessly thrown from a window, or an electrical spark from a power line that runs through the woods. But many fires begin right there at home.

To avoid this, make sure of where the fire starters are. Never leave a fire pit or grill unattended. Clean away leaves, branches and other debris from your lawn and area around your home — a tiny ember from that grill might be all it takes to create an inferno if it touches dry leaves. Use non-flammable materials around your home, and make sure outdoor furniture, like patio sets or swing sets, is fire-resistant. Keep things like gasoline cans, propane tanks, and other potential sources of ignition stored properly.

2. Create a defensible zone

Keep your house safe with a defensible zone. The first zone extends 30 feet in all directions from the house and any attachments, such as decks or patios. Keep this area very clean, with the lawn regularly mowed and the debris picked up. Conifers should be at least 30 feet apart, and trees should be pruned six to ten feet from the ground. Firewood, propane tanks, and other sources of ignition should not be in this zone.

The second zone extends out to 100 feet around your home. In this area, there should be 30 feet between clusters of trees, and plenty of fuel breaks, such as driveways, gravel walkways and lawns. The third zone extends to 200 feet from the house, and requires thinning of smaller trees and removal of woody debris. If you can, reduce the density of trees so that the canopies aren’t touching.

For more information on how to create a defensible zone, check out Fire Wise.

Wildfires firefighter hose

3. Know what to do when a wildfire approaches

When you see a wildfire approaching your home, call for help. If your phone lines are down, try your cell phone. Then set about saving your house before firefighters arrive, if it remains safe to do so. Immediately close everything you can, including doors, windows, shutters, blinds, curtains, and vents. This helps prevent sparks and embers from getting into your house and igniting from the inside. Fill everything you can with water — buckets, bulk containers, you name it — if it holds water, fill it.

Wet down your roof if it is made of a combustible material. (Hint: Most roofs are!) Be sure to wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants, as well as gloves and heavy-duty shoes, no matter how hot it is outside. You want to stay protected from those flying embers. Turn off any natural gas lines, propane tanks, fuel oil tanks, or anything else that might explode. Back all vehicles into the garage and close the door. If you don’t have a garage, keep vehicles close to the house, loaded and ready for evacuation.

Then go to work on keeping the fire at bay until you are relieved by professional firefighters. Use water hoses to wet everything down. Use the buckets of water to dampen down any flareups around your home, and refill the buckets immediately to keep a steady supply of water on hand.

4. Know when to leave

Unfortunately, sometimes the wildfire wins. If the worst happens, the best thing you can do is save what you can and get out. Don’t hang around and wait to see — that could be deadly. When it becomes clear the fire has the upper hand, it’s time to go.

Have your evacuation route planned out, as well as alternate routes, just in case. An emergency plan can help you and your family, including your pets, stay alive and well. Make sure to go over the plan with your family at least every six months, so everyone is up-to-date on what must be done when an emergency happens.

Be aware and don’t take chances

Be very aware of what is happening above you and around you at all times. If a fire gets out of control, remember that your life is worth more than any property. If there remains to be any doubt about how much time or skill level you have to execute any of the above steps even if the fire doesn’t appear to be out of control, don’t take chances. Get out of there. Also, if you receive any instructions from firefighters at any point, follow them. Trust the experts who are on the scene, or on the phone, or both.

Wildfires are rare — thankfully — but they do happen. By being prepared now, you will know that you did all you could to help to save your forest home.

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Shannon Dauphin Lee

Shannon Dauphin Lee is a journalist and occasional novelist with a serious weakness for real estate. When she's not writing, she and her husband are taking road trips to explore covered bridges, little wineries and quaint bed-and-breakfast inns in their beloved Pennsylvania.