How To Protect Your Cabin From Wildfires

Learn how to prevent wildfires from destroying your family's cabin or summer home.

Many of us who live in wildfire country have had a close call, or maybe even lost our homes to a blaze. According to Verisk Analytics research, 4.5 million homes in the U.S. are at high or extreme risk of wildfire.

In the last 16 years, wildfires have burned close to 100,000 structures. This year’s Caldor Fire near Lake Tahoe destroyed more than 1,000 buildings, including cabins, vacation homes and part of a ski area.

“There’s more and more potential for these wildfires to really impact people, wildlife and ecosystems,” says Stacey Sargent Frederick, program coordinator at the California Fire Science Consortium. “When those fires do come through, they are burning very differently than they have in the past.”

Scientists attribute the increase in fire intensity in part to climate change, leading to drought, hotter temperatures, reduced snowpack and other shifting weather patterns. Past fire management practices such as fire suppression and restricting traditions of Indigenous cultural burning also played a role.

If you own a vacation cabin in a wildland-urban interface — the transition area where homes intermingle with undeveloped nature — planning ahead can help your home survive a fire while reducing the risk to firefighters.

“When you go into an area and you think about why did this home survive and this home didn’t, the number one reason is that there was suppression activity happening, meaning firefighters were there,” Frederick says. “So there’s all of these embers coming through, and we don’t have enough personnel to be there all of the time, which is why creating a defensible space is important.”

Here are some strategies to minimize the danger of wildfires to your cabin.

Ember-Proof Your Cabin

“Think about things like cleaning up gutters and combustible material right around the house,” Frederick says. “If you have a deck, make sure the needles are off that. If you have firewood right next to the house, move that.”

If you are not comfortable cleaning your gutters, try adding covers that allow water in but keep out excess vegetation.

Embers can also enter homes via exterior vents. To mitigate this, cover any openings with 1/8-inch metal mesh. This includes attic and foundation vents, roof eves and soffits.

Smooth out chips and splinters in wooden decks, which make it easier for a fire to catch. Frederick suggests thinking of it this way: If you hold a lighter up to a whole log, it’s not going to start the same way it will with kindling and finer fuels. There are also heat and ember resistant treatments that can be applied to decks and patios.

For further protection, create six inches of vertical clearance between the siding and the ground. Then, before you leave the cabin, make sure windows are closed and dog doors secure.

Clear a Five-Foot Perimeter

The first five feet around the house are the next critical area to address, to reduce the chances of flame and radiant heat igniting your home.

“You definitely want to have a gap to keep fire from reaching the house,” says Frederick. “You don’t want to have vegetation right next to the house. It’s a newer science, that idea of the zero to five-foot zone not having any vegetation. Our aesthetic is that you walk up to a house and there are bushes right next to the door, but that zone is so important for combustibility.”

Here’s what to do:

  • Clear the area of firewood and propane tanks. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) suggests putting them at least 30 feet away.
  • Move other debris such as brush, leaf piles and construction materials out of the five-foot zone.
  • Replace organic mulch with gravel or stone.
  • Prune or remove resinous plants like pines and junipers, and regularly water plants to keep them healthy.
  • Store flammable materials away from the home and in proper containers.

Create a Barrier

If possible, separate wood fences and gates within five feet of your home with a metal or masonry barrier. “If you have a wooden fence, it can almost be like a wick that brings flame up to the house,” says Frederick. “Even a little stop, the last five or 10 feet, make a difference.”

Create a Reduced Fuel Zone

The next two area to focus on are the five- to 30-foot perimeter, and then the space that’s 30 to 100 feet out. This makes defensible zones around your house to help keep flames at bay, while also giving firefighters a safe place to fight a fire.

“Lean, clean and green,” says Frederick. “Keep the grass watered so it’s a green zone. Have trees trimmed up. You still want to have bushes and trees, but think about how to limit it.” If you want to conserve water while maintaining a fire-resistant landscape, consider native plants.

Home Hardening

If you’re building an addition to a vacation home, renovating, or simply have the financial resources, take into account structural ignitability by using more fire-resistant materials and architecture.

Some suggestions:

  • Replace wood shingles with metal, slate or tile.
  • Install tempered glass windows with at least two panes. They better resist cracking and bursting from heat.
  • Eliminate plastic skylights, which can melt.
  • Reduce horizontal surfaces that can collect embers.
  • Install exterior vents that can be closed.
  • Replace siding, decks, patios and porches with fire resistant materials.

“I worry that people set up sprinklers and gels on their roofs and think that will just protect my home,” says Frederick. “But oftentimes the water gets cut off, or it takes water pressure away from other places where it’s needed.

“Thinking about these more long-term solutions, like home hardening and defensible space, I feel are more important that relying on water and foam systems.”

For more suggestions, see these codes and costs from Headwater Economics.

Consider Community

Fire mitigation is also a community effort.

“Some of the communities I’ve seen be most effective is when there’s that one charismatic person who throws neighborhood picnics and talks to people [about solutions] and is really passionate about having a fire-wise community,” says Frederick.

“[It’s also effective] when the Eagle Scouts or the 4H group do projects like go to neighbors houses who don’t have the physical capabilities of gathering brush and stuff. These are happy examples of people working together and bonding.”

Some other community fire prevention programs are the U.S. Forest Service’s Fire Adapted Communities, NFPA’s Firewise USA and programs sponsored by local fire departments.

For more details on creating a defensible space, see the NFPA’s guidelines.

Karuna Eberl
Karuna writes about wildlife, nature, history and travel for magazines, newspapers and websites including National Geographic, National Parks, Discovery Channel, Atlas Obscura and the High Country News. She's also produced a number of independent films and directed the documentary The Guerrero Project, about the search for a sunken slave ship. She and her husband, Steve, wrote an award-winning guidebook to the Florida Keys and are currently completely renovating an abandoned house in a ghost town. She holds a B.A. in journalism and geology from the University of Montana. Member of OWAA, SATW.