7 Things To Do at Your Cabin To Prevent Wildfires

From cleaning yard debris to putting out camp fires, here's a list of things to do at your vacation cabin to help prevent the spread of wildfires.

The peaceful woods that make your vacation cabin so appealing can also be its downfall. In 2021, there were more than 48,366 wildfires in the United States, which burned more than 6.5 million acres and caused billions of dollars of property damages, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. That same year, whole towns were lost to wildfire, like Greenville, California, and Lytton, British Columbia.

Over the years, these wildfires have taught fire managers a lot about the science of how fires catch and spread, and therefore what are the most effective steps homeowners can take to prevent fires. Below are some precautions to not only help protect your cabin, but also your neighbors and the firefighters charged with putting out the blazes.

“What happens in communities is when one house starts on fire, then that becomes another source of fuel for the neighborhood,” says Scott Peterich, wildfire mitigation specialist for the Everglades District Florida Forest Service. “Once a wildfire gets in the community, I don’t know of any city in the country that has enough fire rescue to protect all of the homes.”

Create Defensible Space

If your vacation cabin is in a rural area, the first task is to make sure you don’t have flammable vegetation too close to your home.

“Creating a defensible space is the number one priority,” says Peterich. “Out West you might have pine that’s highly flammable. In Arizona, you might have sage. Here in Florida we have palmettos, which are green plants but are very flammable because of their oil.”

Guidelines vary from region to region, but in general, a five-foot perimeter around your dwelling is the most critical area to clear, then keep vegetation in the next 30 feet more sparse and trimmed up.

Clear Roof and Gutters of Debris

The next priority is to regularly clear leaves and needles from your roof and gutters. That makes it less likely that floating embers will catch the roof on fire.

“You don’t even think about it,” says Peterich. “You’ve got this beautiful landscape, but you don’t look at your roof. I’ve seen embers float a quarter to a half a mile. They’ll land on the roof, catch that litter on fire and then a hole burns into your attic and then the house is pretty much done.”

Store Flammable Materials at a Distance

Although it feels convenient, refrain from storing combustibles under the deck or within the skirting of a mobile home. Move those lawn mowers, gas cans and piles of yard waste a safe distance away from the dwelling.

Watch Campfires Closely, Then Extinguish Them

Wildfires are often caused by campfires. Winds can blow embers out of the fire ring and into leaves and needles. Clear a large perimeter around the fire pit of any forest debris before building a fire. Never leave a campfire unattended, even for a few moments, and keep an ample water supply nearby.

Refrain from putting newspaper, cardboard and unseasoned wood onto fires, as they cause excessive sparks and floating embers. And if you see an unextinguished fire in someone else’s fire ring, take a moment to put it out.

Even embers that have been buried for a few days can be uncovered and spread by gusting winds. That’s how one fire in Colorado started, ironically by a longtime member of a fire department. No matter how much we know, we can still underestimate the tenacity of a campfire.

Clean the Chimney

If you have a wood stove or fireplace inside your vacation cabin, clean the chimney and stovepipes annually. This is especially important in areas like the Western U.S., where pine is the primary wood used for heating, because pine produces an excess of combustible creosote.

Take Responsibility With Fireworks and Other Hazards

People cause about 90 percent of all wildfires through careless actions, which means there is a lot we can do to help prevent fires, such as:

  • Properly extinguish cigarettes;
  • If your area allows trash burning, do it only on calm days;
  • Keep the tow chains on the RV from dragging along the asphalt (it creates sparks);
  • Pay particularly close attention to the fire conditions before lighting any fireworks.

“Please don’t shoot fireworks off at the Fourth of July,” says Peterich. “There’s a time and a place for everything, and when it’s dry, fireworks are a problem.”

Know the Fire Forecast

When fire danger is especially high, your area might be put under a flag alert. A good step toward fire safety is to get used to watching for these warnings and understanding what they mean, says Stacey Sargent Frederick, program coordinator at the California Fire Science Consortium.

“It’s a really easy warning system that says if a fire is to start, it would be pretty dangerous and destructive,” she says. “Especially during those times, really try to prevent accidental ignitions. It’s also a really good reminder of, oh yeah, I haven’t cleaned up my gutters, or I should trim up those trees out there.”

What To Do if There Is a Fire

Have an evacuation plan already in place and follow evacuation orders.

“Definitely get out early,” says Fredrick. “Sometimes people want to stay, but then their mentality changes when the flame front is coming at them. [They can] panic to the point of thinking, ‘I have to get out of here,’ and then they get in cars and oftentimes that’s when mortalities happen. Cars are not good at going through a fire.”

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.