With summers getting hotter, bushland is drier than ever in the United States and many other parts of the world. Wildfires are becoming bigger and more destructive, which is why a firebreak is important if you live next to a forest. It may be back-breaking work, but it could save your home and loved ones one day.

In this guide, we’ll show you how to make a firebreak with an axe and other basic tools, the old-school manual way. It’s not a complicated job, but you’ll sleep well once you’ve finished. If not from the peace of mind, then definitely from the workout you’ll get.

Safety warning: This page is meant to provide general advice. We recommend checking with your local fire service and authorities to get specific advice for where you live. 

What is a firebreak?

A fire break, or fuel break, is an area of cleared land that deprives a fire of fuel to keep moving forward. They can occur naturally or be man-made and should be clear of all vegetation, even crops or grass.

In this guide, we discuss making a firebreak around buildings and another one around your boundary perimeter or some other location away from valuable buildings.

Tools for making a firebreak 

If the land you intend to clear is dotted with saplings or small trees, then a hatchet or tomahawk will work well. They’re lighter and more maneuverable.

For larger trees, you may want to call in an expert tree feller for safety reasons. If you must do it yourself, check out our guide to felling a tree with a felling axe. Keep in mind a chainsaw is a safer option with large trees.

  • hatchet 
  • felling axe or Pulaski axe
  • rake
  • loppers
  • shovel
  • waste bags (optional)

A step-by-step guide to making a firebreak with an axe

1. Preparation

Before you start throwing energy at making a firebreak you need to first decide the best place for it. Start by looking at the areas need to protect like your home, barns, and livestock zones. All your work should center around protecting these assets.

Keep in mind also that sloped properties are more affected by fire. It can travel more quickly downhills. There’s also a bigger risk of embers getting blown down a slope and catching fire to your home.

Look for areas that already have clear patches and try and use them as a starting point. This will make your life easier as it will involve a lot less grunt work.

High-risk vegetation that will aggressively feed a fire include:

  • thick vegetated, scrubby bushes
  • dead branches and fallen trees
  • long grass
  • Branches and leaves excellent fire spreaders

2. Clear the perimeter of your home

For homes on flat or gently sloping terrain, clear out flammable vegetation to an area of 30 feet from buildings. Start by cutting the lawns and ensuring they stay well maintained. Try to only keep plants that stay green year-round as they won’t burn as easily.

Trees that are outside the 30-foot zone should be thinned for another 100 feet. Prune any branches to a height of 10 feet and remove any dying or dead trees. A hatchet or tomahawk may work well for this job.

Properties on a slope of 20 degrees or more should maintain a firebreak of 100 feet rather than 30 feet for other homes. Areas that are super-dry like some parts of California, should have a defensible zone of 100 feet for flat properties and 200 feet for sloped properties. 

Did you know? A Pulaski axe is excellent for creating firebreaks. It has an axe for chopping branches and trees. It also has an adze that can dig up the earth, useful for retarding fire.

3. Check any large trees on the property

If fire reaches the crown of large trees it can result in huge fires. You can reduce the chance of this happening by pruning the branches of large trees up to a height of 10 feet.

You can use an axe like a Fiskars X10 which is great for chopping through branches but also easy to use. Another excellent tool you may want to consider is a folding saw which easily slices off branches.

Remember to remove the lopped branches once you’re finished. Any wood left on the ground will do more harm than good.

4. Seek out other fuel sources

Be ruthless with anything lying around the property that could help a fire. This could include furniture, boxes, stacks of firewood, and any other junk that’s lying around. Also clear out the gutters, ensuring there are no pine needles or leaves that act like tinder when a bush fire approaches.

A large pile of old furniture and other junk in the yard
Old junk makes excellent fuel for a bush fire.

Toss out whatever you don’t need and move anything else well away from the home. You may be able to store some items in the home.

A true firebreak should be free of all fuel, including leaves grass, and trees. The ground should have the soil tilled, causing the fire to go around your property or die out. Although this may be hard to achieve around your house, you may be able to create a firebreak further away from your property which is nothing but soil.

Commonly asked questions

How wide does a firebreak need to be?

A firebreak should range from 2 to 15 feet in width and should be two to three times as wide as the surface vegetation that’s nearby.

Do firebreaks work?

The effectiveness of a firebreak will depend on how wide it is, whether the fire is producing embers, the length of flames, and weather conditions such as wind strength and direction.

Can fire jump roads?

A road will act as an excellent firebreak, but the fire can jump over the road. Factors such as road width, wind conditions, and fire intensity will all play a part.

A road stopping a fire from continuing
Roads are useful firebreaks, but not always.

Summing up

If you live near forest or fire-prone areas protecting your home from potential bushfires should be a priority. You’ll want to anything that can fuel a fire immediate vicinity of your house or other buildings. In addition to this, a firebreak around the perimeter of the property will further protect you from the threat of fire.

An axe is a useful tool for thinning out sparsely populated trees and lopping off branches. But it’s best for properties that don’t have a lot of foliage. For thick forests, you’re better off with a chainsaw. In some cases, heavy excavating machinery will make your job much easier and provide a better result.

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