By now, few people need to be told of the importance of good fire safety procedures and fire prevention…
Each year in the U.S. alone, there are an estimated 358,000 house fires and many more structural fires of other kinds. They cause billions in damage and many deaths.
Of all the disasters likely to befall you personally, a house fire is the most likely, and the most serious.
It might not make you feel better to learn that if you live on a farm or homestead, your risk is even greater.
That’s because the same things that make a homestead or farm such a wonderful place to live or work also make it more susceptible to fires in the first place.
That, and being “out there” means a slower and less effective response from fire departments, city or otherwise.
Great self-sufficiency in life almost always entails more responsibility when it comes to emergencies, and a fire is no exception.
But you’ll need to arm yourself with knowledge in order to prepare yourself and your family for dealing with a fire on the homestead. This article will show you how.
Table of Contents
Causes of Fire on the Homestead
There are many causes of fire just waiting to ignite in your average home and many more on the average homestead. Here are some of the most common:
- Heat lamps, space heaters, and brooders.
- Candles, oil lamps, lanterns, and other open flames
- Electrical problems
- Hot machinery and tools
- Sparks from power tools and engines
- Storage of flammable liquids like gasoline, kerosene, and solvent-based cleaning products
- Abundant combustibles- hay, straw, wood shavings, sawdust, etc.
- Woodstoves and chimneys
- Compost piles
- And more…
Any single one of these could be enough to result in a devastating structural fire, or worse yet, a chain reaction that can destroy multiple buildings, kill your livestock, and maybe even hurt your family.
That’s why it’s imperative to have a plan and be prepared, both to fast-track a response from firefighters but also to keep you, your family, and your animals safe.
With diligence and preparation, you might wind up being the best chance of fighting the fire before it gets too bad.
But before you can do that you’ll need to give your grounds and buildings an honest, hard look to assess your risk.
Determining Your Level of Risk
The first step in preparing for any fire event on your homestead is to determine your level of risk.
That means taking a good, hard look at all the potential fire hazards on your property and making an honest assessment of how likely they are to cause a fire.
Some things, like a lightning strike or freak accident, might be out of your control. Other things, like careless storage of fuel or haphazard maintenance of tools, are entirely within your control. No matter what, there are always things you can do to mitigate the risk.
For example, if you store large quantities of flammable liquids, you might want to consider investing in storage containers that meet or exceed OSHA standards.
You can take care to cut back and clear branches, leaves, and more from your grounds and especially from near buildings. You can practice safe operation of equipment and much more besides.
The terrain itself is a major factor.
Do you live in an area that is typically dry with lots of flammable vegetation, or in a damp and sparsely vegetated place? Something in between?
Do you have huge fields of crops you might try to save or are you just worried about your house and barn? Fires can happen anywhere, but they happen more often and get worse, faster, in some places compared to others.
Another important factor is having a clear understanding of your property’s boundaries and the state of neighboring properties. If a fire starts on or reaches your neighbor’s property, will it likely head your way or not?
Start thinking in terms of “when,” not “if” when giving your property a critical evaluation, and then you can start planning and taking action accordingly.
Phases of Homestead Fire Preparation
In general, there are three components of homestead fire prep:
- Preparing in Support of Firefighters
- Preparing to Survive or Fight Fire Yourself
- Preparing to Save Your Animals
These phases overlap in some areas, and all contribute to greater safety and a better chance of a good outcome should a fire occur. But we will approach each one separately to make the concepts concise and crystal clear.
The place to begin is at the beginning, with the assumption that you will in fact call for help for dealing with a serious fire.
Preparing Your Homestead for Firefighters
Don’t think I am backing out on the notion of self-sufficiency when it comes to fighting a fire yourself.
We’ll get to that, but unless you live in such a remote area that there is no chance whatsoever of firefighters arriving before it is too late you should always prepare your property to receive them.
Firefighters have the training, equipment, and grit to tackle even the nastiest blazes, and they can likely limit damage to the rest of your property if they get there, get set and get to work in time.
But to do that, they need to:
- find your property as quickly as possible
- maneuver their giant trucks to where they are needed
- have a huge water source on hand.
If you do your part, they will have all three of those requirements. Consider the following action items:
1. Keep Your Driveway and Grounds Clear for Fire Engines
This seems like an obvious one, but it is amazing how often driveways and access roads are blocked by debris, fallen trees, overgrown vegetation, or even just rutted to hell and gone.
A road that is impassable after a good rain is similarly a liability. Fire trucks are huge and heavy, and they should be able to traverse your driveway and grounds without clipping branches, bottoming out, or bogging down.
If your driveway or any part of your grounds might impede these vehicles, see to it. Have it graded, paved, trimmed, cut back- whatever you need to do so the firefighters can get their big rigs in position quickly.
Make it a point to park your personal vehicles and farm implements in a way that they won’t block or slow the access of fire engines.
Also, consider their turning radius; if they need to maneuver around buildings, fences, or gates will they have room to do so? Keep this in mind when building or installing anything on your grounds.
2. Mark Your Drive with High-Vis Numbers
This is common sense, and a big part of rural fire prep, but a step that is easily overlooked, neglected, and forgotten.
Make sure your house number by the access road is large, reflective, and boldly contrasting both night and day. If it’s hard to see in the daytime it will be utterly impossible to spot at night and at speed.
This number should be visible when approaching from either direction. Don’t assume the firefighters will only come from one
It might also be helpful to post flanking signs or markers at the beginning of your driveway or access road, and depending on the length and path of your drive, indicators at forks or turnoffs. Include your address number wherever it is necessary.
If firefighters have to guess at or miss your drive it will cost valuable time when minutes matter.
3. On-Site Access
Consider the status of locked gates and doors on your property.
When firefighters arrive, will they need to cut open paths or break down doors? Is unlocking them something you can integrate into your own fire response procedures?
You can give them access by having someone on site to unlock gates as needed, or by giving firefighters a key or code for an automated system. But whatever you do, make sure it is simple, foolproof, and fast.
4. Water Sources
This is the big one. Virtually no rural location will have pressurized fire hydrants. This means that firefighters responding to a blaze will need a water source on your property, and that water needs to be readily available, both easy to reach and easy to draw from.
There are a couple of ways to provide this critical resource. The first is an above-ground cistern or holding tank.
These are commonly used in rural locations for irrigation, drinking water, or other purposes, and they provide an invaluable service in the event of a fire. Another option is a convenient pond, lake, or pool.
In any case, ideally it will be located in such a way that it will be near the endangered or involved structures, and situated in a way that the fire truck can safely pull up near it. Running longer hoses to connect the truck to the source is going to cost time.
To facilitate this, consider installing a nice gravel or pavement pad near the designated source for the truck to park on.
Also, some homesteaders go as far as digging a convenient pond for the express purpose of firefighting duty. In all cases, your water source must be accessible and not frozen for firefighters to make use of it.
5. Install Fire Hydrants
If you have a substantial water source on your property, you should strongly consider the installation of a hydrant fed from that source.
This will dramatically speed up the set time of the firefighters that arrive. Your insurer or local fire safety retailer will be able to advise you about this process.
6. Arrange Planning Session with Responding FD
This is one of the most important but overlooked aspects of preparing for a fire. The very best way to insure that firefighters will be able to do their job quickly and effectively on your property is to have a planning session with the local department that will respond in the event of an emergency.
Most departments will be happy to send a firefighter out to your property to make notes and file a basic response plan in case there is ever a fire on your property they need to respond to.
This will give them a good idea of what to expect, what unique challenges or obstacles they need to be aware of, and where the best access and water sources are.
You should also be sure to keep this plan updated as any major changes are made to your property.
If you do this, you can rest assured that firefighters that respond will have a good idea of what they are up against and how best to deal with it.
7. ID All Hazards and Shutoffs
As mentioned above, it is rare that a homestead does not have a large stash of highly flammable fuel and other chemicals on the property, even if it is just a big tank of propane.
All such materials and any applicable shutoffs or valves should be identified and placarded for firefighters in the event they need to be dealt with.
This is also a good time to review your property for any other potential hazards or areas for special attention that might exist, such as high-voltage power lines, dangerous animals or other obstacles and place signage accordingly.
Prepare to Survive and Fight a Fire Yourself
The basic notion for most folks when it comes to a house fire is simply to get out as quickly as you can. No possession, no structure, and no animal are worth your life or the life of your family member.
That being said, I know not a single homesteader who would be willing to walk away and watch it burn without at least trying to get a handle on the situation.
The next phase of homestead fire prep is planning to survive a fire, and once everyone is safe and accounted for, planning to fight it.
1. Arrange and Practice a Family Fire Plan
Undoubtedly the single most important element of your homestead fire preparations. This is a plan that everyone in the family should be familiar with and practice so that it becomes like second nature.
At its most basic, this plan should have two main objectives:
- to get everyone out of the house (or other structure, enclosure, etc.) as quickly and safely as possible;
- to account for everyone once they are out. This might entail detailing one family member to see to another that is less capable or who cannot self-rescue.
There are many ways to achieve these objectives, but a good starting point is to identify escape routes and then drill to reach them as quickly as possible, even in zero visibility conditions.
You should also designate two meeting places: one near the house, and one further away in case the fire blocks the primary exit route.
Once everyone is accounted for at the rendezvous location, you can begin to organize and initiate your firefighting efforts if you so choose.
Omitting this elementary but essential step is courting disaster.
2. Create and Practice Your Fire Response Plan
Escaping a fire is one thing, fighting it is another. And while it is always best to leave fighting a fire to the professionals, there are times when the only thing between your home or animals and total destruction is you and whatever tools and water you have on hand.
This is where knowing what you are up against and having a plan makes the difference: how will you respond and with what?
Your response plan will be dictated by the type of fire you are dealing with, as well as its location.
For example, if you have a small contained kitchen fire, your primary objective will be to smother it or douse it with water before it grows out of control while simultaneously getting everyone out of the house via your pre-planned routes.
On the other hand, if you have a large wildfire raging through your pasture, your primary objective will be to a firebreak and protect structures that are most at risk.
This might entail wetting down roofs, using fire retardant chemicals, or quickly carving a deep furrow through the dirt ahead of the fire.
In all instances, the key is to have a plan and to be familiar with the tools and resources you have on hand to execute it.
This way, when faced with a real emergency, your adrenaline-fueled brain will at least have a road map to follow. All responsible family members must drill together on this.
3. Get Plenty of Fire Extinguishers
“Of course,” you might say. Fire extinguishers are as basic as it gets. Yes, but I am making these a separate bullet because a homestead needs more and bigger fire extinguishers for basic readiness compared to a typical home alone.
Your fire extinguishers should be ABC rated for combating all typical fires and the largest that someone can handle effectively.
Believe me when I say that the dinky little fire extinguisher you keep in your kitchen in case of a burned casserole is not going to cut it when trying to tackle a rapidly growing barn fire.
Be sure everyone in the family knows how to properly operate each type of fire extinguisher and that they are familiar with their locations.
You should hang them where they can be quickly reached in an emergency, but not where they will likely be consumed by fire.
4. Make Your Own Fire Truck
Firefighters get the job done, but let me tell you, the big red truck really helps. You won’t have access to your own genuine fire engine, but you can make the next best thing with some clever planning.
Once the extinguishers are empty you’ll need water and lots of it, and the sooner the better.
You can create your own fire response vehicle using any truck, ATV, or other motorized conveyance that can haul a large container of water and a powered pump and sprayer apparatus.
This could take the form of an old flatbed truck with a large water tank in the back and a hose, perfect for fighting a small crop fire, or a side-by-side with a 30 gallon tank and sprayer rig. That one can get where bigger vehicles cannot fit.
Either way, your DIY fire truck needs to be able to get where it is needed quickly and be ready to go at a moment’s notice. Be sure everyone knows how to operate it and keep it fueled, maintained, and ready to roll.
5. Planning for Wildfires
Wildfires can happen anywhere, but they are a particular and seasonal threat in some regions. If you live in a wildfire-prone area, you’ll need to take special steps to be prepared. This might entail creating a defensible space around your home, evacuating early, or both.
A defensible space is an area where there is nothing to burn surrounding a structure. This is usually accomplished by clearing brush, carving trenches, thinning trees and generally making the area as fire-resistant as possible well ahead of any approaching fire.
You may also consider installing special fire-resistant materials on your roof and windows or using sprinklers to soak the perimeter of your property in the event of an encroaching wildfire.
These are just some of the things you can do to make your home more resistant to wildfires…
Of course, no matter how well you prepare, there may come a time when it is simply not safe to stay and try to fight it.
If this is the case, you need to have an evacuation plan to escape the immediate area and the path of the fire. This should include a safe meeting place, multiple routes to get there, and a way to alert all family members that it is time to go.
You will, of course, have to take special care to accommodate your animals, or if that is not possible, at least let them loose ahead of the fire so they have a chance to survive.
Preparing to Save Your Animals
Many of us have more than a few animals on our homesteads, and compared to one or two pets this greatly complicates your fire response efforts.
Except in the case of structural fires for animals kept on open pastures, any livestock housed in buildings or barns will be incredibly vulnerable to fire.
It will be up to you to save them before it is too late, but doing so might entail serious risks.
1. Terrified Animals are Unpredictable and Dangerous
It is easy to think that all animals will instinctively retreat from fire and much of the time that is true.
However, in the case of livestock that is threatened by a nearby fire, they will often be so panicked that they will not behave as you expect, even to the point of resisting your efforts to save them.
Cows may stampede, and horses may kick wildly. Chickens and smaller critters might seem to have no self-preservation instincts at all, even as you try to guide them out.
The smoke generated by a fire can also disorient and frighten animals, making it difficult for them to find an otherwise obvious exit away from danger.
This adds another level of risk to the equation aside from the obvious one of the approaching flames.
If you are going to try to save your animals, be aware that they may not make it easy for you, and take whatever precautions you can to protect yourself against being injured in the process.
2. Get or Let Your Animals Out Early
The best way to protect your animals is to get them out early, well ahead of any approaching flames.
No matter how small the fire, no matter how “under control” it seems, give them an exit from their habitation.
Preferably this will be in another contained area or pasture where you can round them up later easily enough.
3. Designate a Family Member to See to the Animals
Don’t trust that “someone” will get around to tending to the safety of your animals. Make sure that you have a plan for who will be responsible for getting the animals out and to safety.
This person should also be aware of your property layout and the locations of all animals, so they can make an efficient round in the event of a fire.
4. Talk to Neighbors about Contingencies
This phase of fire planning is a great time to talk to all of your neighboring property owners about what might happen if you are forced to let your animals out during a fire. Animals might flee in fear for some distance, and could wind up on their property.
Let your neighbors know ahead of time that, if they see flames or smell smoke from over your way, that they should be on the lookout for any animals coming their way, and be prepared for you or yours to come on their property looking for them. With their gracious permission, of course.
Be Ready for a Fire on the Homestead
Building an effective fire response plan is critical to protecting your homestead from disaster.
By taking the time to assess your risks, ensure a swift response from firefighters and take action yourself you can be better prepared to deal with the threat of fire when it comes.
Tom has built and remodeled homes, generated his own electricity, grown his own food and more, all in quest of remaining as independent of society as possible. Now he shares his experiences and hard-earned lessons with readers around the country.