How to Control a Homestead Brush Fire

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While three years of fighting fires with the U.S. Forest Service hardly makes me an expert, the experience has given me the basic knowledge I need to deal with most types of rural or backwoods blazes.

The country dweller has to be many things: a bit of a
doctor, a bit of a plumber, a bit of all those other
specialists who handle’ emergencies for city folk. Well, I
can’t give you a Red Cross first aid course, and I
certainly can’t offer you police protection, but there is
one type of mishap which I might be able to help you deal
with: wildfire. 

How to Control a Homestead Brush Fire

While three years of fighting fires with the U.S. Forest
Service hardly makes me an expert, the experience has given
me the basic knowledge I need to deal with most types of
rural or backwoods blazes and I’ll try to pass on enough of
what I’ve learned so that you’ll know what to do if flames
spring up on your property. If you live more than a few
minutes from a fire station, the information might come in
handy someday.

No, this isn’t going to be the same talk the fire chief
gave your class back in fourth grade. If you don’t already
know how to store oily rags, gas cans, and matches safely,
I’m sure your rural fire department will be glad to advise
you and they’re also the people to call if smoke is pouring
from one of your buildings and you don’t have a chemical
extinguisher. I’m here to tell you how to understand and
control a brush, grass, or timber fire before the flames
spread to the house.

The first rule of fire fighting is the simplest, the most
important, and the most often ignored: DON’T DO ANYTHING
FOOLISH! Wildfire can be an unpredictable, even deadly
animal. Keep thinking … all the time!

OK, let’s get down to specifics. What do you do if you
discover a brush fire in the woodlot or a patch of grass
ablaze in the meadow? First, size up the
situation — quickly — by asking yourself the following

[1] How big is the fire? If it’s more than a few feet
across, you should probably get help.

[2] How fast is it spreading? Air temperature, humidity,
wind speed, type and density of fuel, slope of the land,
and nearness to barriers such as roads and streams will all
affect the rate of advance. On hot days, large wildfires in
certain types of brush have been known to climb hills at
speeds up to 40 miles per hour and unless you can run that
fast, the answer to this question is of critical

[3] What tools are available? A shovel is nearly always
essential for most fire fighting, but anything that will
move dirt can be substituted in a pinch. If timber is
burning, you’ll need an axe or the like. And a supply of
water, along with a bucket or a pump and hose to transport
it, can save a lot of work.

[4] Will I need help? Use the answers to the first three
questions as bases for this decision. When in doubt,
respond “Yes”. In fact, you should always get assistance if
you can do so without abandoning a spreading blaze for a
long time.

If you can contact the fire department, do … the men there
know more than you about fire fighting. But if you can’t
reach professional help, or already have and are waiting
for aid to arrive, what’s next?

As long as you’re in charge of the situation, you’re faced
with two top priorities: to cool off “hot spots” and to
contain the blaze within a fireline.

[1] Knock down hot spots. A hot spot is any part of the
fire that’s exceptionally hot: a flaming bush, a glowing
stump, or a rapidly burning anything. If such troublemakers
are more than a few feet in from the edge of the blazing
area, don’t worry about them at the outset. But if you find
any near the perimeter, you’ll need to cool them as quickly
as possible first, because they give off sparks and heat
that spread a fire, and second, because you want to lower
the temperature enough to let you get in close and dig a

Water is good for quelling hot spots, but a well aimed
shovel full of dirt can do wonders, too. Blazing grass can
usually be flattened by slapping it with a shovel, a wet
broom, or a soaked burlap bag. Remember, you don’t have
time at this point to worry about putting the offenders
dead out, you’re just trying to cool them down.

[2] Dig a line around the fire. Your next job is,
essentially, to starve the advancing monster by removing
fuel from its path. This means using your shovel, hoe,
rake, or anything that’s available to scrape a clear space
all the way around the fire. Dig right down to mineral soil
to create a bare are a couple of feet wide and completely
free of anything burnable. Be careful as you work not to
knock any flaming material outside the line, or you’ll have
to dig a whole new one later. In case the fire is near a
ready made barrier such as a road or stream, you can anchor
the new line to the existing boundary. You’ll want to keep
your cleared path as close to the burning area as possible,
though, to contain the advancing menace as tightly as
possible. If the flames are spreading rapidly in one
direction, get the line in on that side first. A blaze
that’s really moving probably can’t be checked if you have
only a shovel to work with but a tractor with a digging
attachment might be able to do the job fast enough.

Once you’ve gouged out the initial line around the fire,
take time to clean up the barrier. Use an axe or saw to cut
away all branches that overhang the cleared space and every
root that passes under it. (Yes, fire can travel
underground through a root system.) Also, make sure that
the area a few feet on either side of the dug out path is
clear of all branches, bushes, and other potential fuel.
Throw any singed or partially burned matter in toward the
center of the fire. Anything completely untouched by flame
can be tossed well outside the line.

OK, the fire is contained and the hot spots are cooled. The
worst of the emergency is over but don’t leave the scene
yet, or you’ll likely be digging a new line tomorrow or
next week. You still have a lot of dirty work ahead of you.

[3] Mop-up. Here’s where you make sure the whole fire is
dead out. Water is especially handy at this stage, but it’s
not enough. If the blaze was at all intense, it probably
left some hot areas underground that could smoulder for
weeks and then flare up again and you can’t depend on water
to wipe out such danger spots. You’ll have to turn over the
soil inside the line to be sure you’ve caught them. The
Forest Service uses shovels for this purpose, but a tractor
might be a help in a timberless location.

Mop-up also involves separating and scattering any bits of
fuel that remain inside the line. Don’t leave piles of half-consumed debris … either spread the material or burn it

When you’re satisfied that everything within the line is
out cold, and that there are no spot fires outside the area
(be sure to check the whole vicinity for a goodly distance
in all directions, sparks can really travel), declare
yourself a hero and take a rest.

[4] Check up. Don’t forget where the blaze was, because
you’ll have to check the spot carefully at least once a day
for the next few days. You’d be surprised how many dead
fires return from the grave.

Remember throughout the whole process DON’T DO ANYTHING
FOOLISH! By most rational value systems, your life is more
important than your property and fighting fire can be a
risky business, especially for the inexperienced. Here are
some rules to supplement your own common sense;

[1] Don’t tackle more than you can handle. Call on your
neighbors and the fire department for help and extra tools.

[2] Let the most experienced or knowledgeable person in the
group take charge. Too many chiefs can be dangerous as well
as inefficient.

[3] Don’t work too close together. Allow 10 feet between
fire fighters. Axes, shovels, and chain saws can be as
dangerous as flames.

[4] Watch out for the safety of everybody near you. Look up
as well as around, and don’t let anyone work under a
burning tree or snag.

[5] Always have an escape route in mind. You can’t outrun a
fire if it surrounds you.

[6], Be humble around fires … there’s a lot you don’t know.
Still, what I’ve told you in this article should help in an
emergency. May you never have to use the information!