Mostly caused by lightning or human carelessness, a wildfire is any type of uncontrolled and unwanted burning of any wild land. Wildfires occur all over the world at any time of the year, but the hotter summer months produce more forest fires than other months. Further, the Southern and Western regions of the United States are most at risk, with California having the highest chance for damaging forest fires. Wildfires burned over 4.3 million acres of U.S. land in 2013 alone.
All fire needs is fuel, heat and oxygen. Even the smallest spark from a tumbling rock can start a forest fire. Forest fires have the capability to spread quickly, moving over 14 miles per hour and can last months. In 1988, a forest fire, started from a small fire in Storm Creek, north of Yellowstone National Park, lasted three months, burned 793,000 acres and killed 300 large animals.
Eighty thousand wildfires occur every year and most houses catch fire from burning embers. The wind can carry burning debris from a wildfire up to 1.5 miles away, igniting and demolishing entire neighborhoods. As a fire continues to burn it creates its own heat, helping it spread.
The severity of wildfires depends largely on the weather—that is why the hotter summer months are when we see more occurrences. Low humidity, high temperatures and drought are the reasons behind why many forest fires are so devastating and almost impossible to control. Lack of rainfall kills brush, grasses and makes wood even drier, creating excellent fuel for a fire. May is Wildfire Awareness Month, the perfect time to clean up around your property and create a defense plan to avoid losing your home during the wildfire season.
This guide will help you survive wildfire fire season by preparing before, what to do during and after a wildfire happens.
It is best practice to build up your home’s defenses by limiting the fuel in what experts call the “home ignition zone.” This means removing and maintaining flammable materials surrounding your house. In fact, areas of California legally require homeowners to create a “defensible” space of 100 feet from their house. This “defensible space” creates a barrier between wild fires and the home making it less likely for a home to catch fire, in turn saving money in insurance costs and helping fire fighters fight the blaze.
Start by creating a safe zone. Keep all flammable material at least 30 to 100 feet away from your home; this includes brush, flowerbeds, fences and woodpiles. Clean gutters regularly and sweep brush, limbs, leaves and pine needles off the roof. Routinely check the chimney and have it professionally cleaned once a year. Keep grass cut short and trim overhanging limbs and branches. Thin the trees in your yard. No one expects you to remove the beautiful trees, brush and plants in your yard, but thinning them out gives the fire less fuel. If you are thinking about landscaping, plant low-sap producing tress such as cottonwood, sycamore, maple, oak, dogwood and cherry trees and work with your local nurseryman to determine what works best in your area.
After clearing the yard, place 1/8-inch metal mesh screens over all vents and openings, even place screens around and underneath the deck. Make sure the barbecue grill and propane tanks are at least 30 feet from the house.
For even further protection, fire-proof your property by treating wood fences, decks and the roof with fire-resistant chemicals. Install double-paned, tempered glass windows. Alternatively, for those rebuilding, just building or with the budget to redo, you can reroof your house with metal, tile or composition material.
Installing a stone wall around the perimeter of your yard helps, as well. Rock, stone, slate, tiles, stucco and metal building materials are better to use than any type of wood. An Arizona fire fighter says, “Fire fighters don’t have the resources to save every house. We constantly have to make split-second decisions about which structures we’re going to try to save. We’ll bypass a cedar shake roof in a heartbeat because it’s a lost cause.”
Approaching Wildfire Preparedness
If a wildfire is threatening your area, law enforcement might mandate evacuations. The earlier you can evacuate the better. Last minute evacuations can be deadly—downed trees may block your path or smoke might be so heavy you cannot see to get out. Have your routes preplanned beforehand and know where you will seek shelter. Will it be a local Red Cross shelter or an out-of-town friend or family member? Always designate a point of contact for your entire family to stay in touch with, especially if evacuation calls during school and work hours. Know where you will meet if separated.
Keep a packed go-bag for your family in your car. Include copies of important paper work—birth certificates, passports, licenses, and especially copies of your insurance. You will also need:
- A list of important contacts
- Long-sleeved shirts and long pants in cotton or wool
- Cotton bandanas or respirators
- Sturdy, closed-toed shoes
- Personal hygiene items
Before evacuating, close all windows and doors, but keep them unlocked so emergency personnel can enter. Leave the lights on so fire fighters can see into the house. Turn off the air conditioning unit and switch natural gas off at the main. Water down the roof and yard and disconnect the automatic garage door so it will open without electricity. Leave a ladder leaning against the house and buckets of water around the perimeter. Do not leave the sprinklers on; this can diminish water pressure that fire fighters need.
During Wildfire Readiness
There are steps to take if you stay and defend your home. Do not evacuate if emergency personnel or the police tell you to stay.
- Fill every possible container with water—this includes all sinks, bathtubs, buckets and other water containers.
- Back your car into the garage so you can leave quickly, have a full tank of gas and your bug-out bag already in the car. Shut the garage door.
- Wet down the roof, yard, deck, patio, garage, any wooden storage sheds and all vegetation.
- Close all doors, windows, blinds and curtains, but leave all windows and doors unlocked for fire fighters to have easy access. Remove thin, flimsy, highly flammable window coverings.
- Move all flammable materials, including furniture to the middle of every room.
- Turn off natural gas at the main.
- Open the fireplace damper and close the screen.
- Turn on the lights.
- Bring outside flammable materials, such as the grill and patio furniture inside. If you have patio furniture safe to submerge, throw it in a pool or pond.
- Keep the road clear leading up to your house for fire truck access.
- Put a ladder on the side of the house.
- Go into an interior room away from windows. Predesignate this room as your safe room and stock accordingly with:
- Non-perishable food
- Essential medications
- Flashlight and extra batteries
- Shovel and bucket
- Alternative-powered NOAA emergency alert radio
- Fire extinguisher
- Sturdy shoes, long pants and long sleeve shirts
- Bandanas or respirators
- Copies of essential paperwork and important documents
Outdoor Wildfire Preparedness
Camping, hiking, biking or hunting in the woods during risky months means fire may trap you. Do not try to outrun a wildfire—not going to happen. Get away from all trees, timber, brush and grass as possible. If you can, find a low laying ditch or a rocky area and cover yourself with wet natural material such as cotton or wool. Breathe the air close to the ground and through a wet piece of cotton like your t-shirt or bandana. Fires tend to move uphill, so avoid going uphill. You might have time to create a safe zone—clear a 200 to 300 square foot radius of your surrounding area; any body of water—pool, pond, lake, or river—should also protect you. Before taking a trip to the wilderness, check area conditions and hazards.
Fire travels fast and even if you evacuated early, there is a chance of getting caught in your car during a firestorm. It is best to stay in your car, away from vegetation and trees. This is one instance where parking under an overpass might save you. Close all the air vents in your car and roll up all the windows. Cover yourself with any material you have, preferably cotton or wool and lay on the floor of the vehicle until the fire passes.
When the fire passes and it is safe to return after an evacuation, you need to make sure you take safety precautions. If the fire was very close, the radiant temperature outside will be up to five times hotter than inside your house. Wear protective clothing and stay hydrated when working outside. First things first, inspect the roof for embers. Put out any embers; then check the yard, deck and attic for any spot fires, embers or hot spots. Put out any fires. If your house sustains damage, call a professional to check its structural integrity. For 24 hours, plan a rotating fire watch with your family members.
Always practice fire safety.
- Observe bans and advisories
- Put cigarettes out completely
- Do not leave your barbecue grill unattended when in use
- Put campfires out cold with water and dirt or sand
Do you live in a wild fire-prone area? If so, what precautions do you take? Share your tips with others in the comment section.
Suzanne Wiley started shooting at a young age when her older brother bought a Marlin 60 and taught her to shoot. She took to shooting and developed a love for it when she realized she was a natural with a .22 LR rifle at summer camp. As an outdoor adventurer, she enjoys camping, fishing, and horseback riding. Suzanne specializes in writing for the female shooter, beginner shooter and the modern-day prepper, and is a staff writer at Cheaper Than Dirt!
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