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Don’t get burned: Tips for protecting your home from wildfires during drought

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — As communities in Florida face a record drought, many residents have been waking up to the smell of smoke from nearby wildfires. And some may even face blazes in their own backyards.

“Those most at risk will be those who live near undeveloped land or wooded areas,” said Alan Long, emeritus professor of forest resources and conservation at the University of Florida. Long remains active in fire-related research and outreach through the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

Properties with substantial shrub cover containing saw palmetto, gallberry, wax myrtle and other highly combustible plants are especially vulnerable, Long said.

Homeowners are encouraged to create a defensible space — an area where flammable vegetation is greatly reduced and separated by lawn, walkways or non-flammable mulches — of at least 30 feet around their homes, Long said.

Flammable plants aren’t the only things to watch out for.

“People often overlook the hazard posed by wood-based mulches, such as pine bark and pine needles, near exterior wood structures, such as house siding, decks, porches, eaves or wood piles,” Long said.

A house can quickly catch fire when embers land on these mulches or wood surfaces. A home is actually more likely to be ignited by embers than actual flames, Long explained.

To reduce the threat from embers, experts recommend keeping mulches at least five feet away from wooden structures, said Long. Individual shrubs should be five to 10 feet away.

“It’s also important to clear out flammable materials, such as fallen pine needles, from under decks and stairs because they too can ignite when embers slip through cracks,” Long added.

Other tips for making your defensible space more fire-resistant:

  • Prevent trees from becoming fuel ladders by removing vines and adjacent shrubs. Remove branches growing up to 10 feet off the ground.
  • Cluster plantings into islands, rather than continuous beds. This will make it more difficult for fire to spread.
  • In addition to firewood, keep other combustible items, such as propane tanks, gas grills and compost piles at last 30 feet away from your home.
  • Leafy hardwood trees such as oaks and maples are less flammable than pines. However, all large trees provide shade for your house and help keep the area around your house moister.

For more information on protecting your home from wildfires, please see this UF/IFAS Extension publication co-authored by Long, or contact your local UF/IFAS Extension office.


The mission of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences is to develop knowledge relevant to agricultural, human and natural resources and to make that knowledge available to sustain and enhance the quality of human life. With more than a dozen research facilities, 67 county Extension offices, and award-winning students and faculty in the UF College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, UF/IFAS works to bring science-based solutions to the state’s agricultural and natural resources industries, and all Florida residents. Visit the UF/IFAS web site at and follow us on social media at @UF_IFAS.


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