A wildfire can occur at any time, causing chaos and forcing families from everything they know. No matter where you live in the country, your property may be susceptible to damage or loss from an unexpected wildfire and it is important to always have what you need at the ready in the event of an unexpected evacuation.
What is a wildfire?
Wildfires occur in natural areas, such as forests, prairies, or grasslands. They can happen at any point in time, but the risk is much greater during times when little or no rain has fallen. The brush and trees are dried out and burn quickly and easily. While wildfires in the news show the devastation in populated areas and known national parks, they can also be started in your own backyard.
The fires start naturally, from sources like lightning, but often flare up due to human error. Unattended campfires, cigarettes, or refuse burning have triggered some of the largest fires in history. There have also been many destructive wildfires intentionally set.
Wildfires are affecting more personal property due to the expansion of residential and commercial buildings into forested areas. As we continue to expand communities into these areas, wildfires will cause more devastation to homes, businesses, and natural resources.
What damage do wildfires cause?
Wildfires are unpredictable and can destroy anything in their path. According to Scientific American
, wildfires have historically cost billions of dollars in damage. In addition to the total loss of structures and devastation to trees, grass, and natural waterways, wildfires have a significant impact on other factors, including:
- Respiratory issues in humans and animals due to smoke inhalation
- Injuries and death to humans and animals
- Damage and destruction to transportation and communication services
- Interruption of utilities
- Flash floods and mudslides due to fire damage
Fire damage is not only limited to the immediate area. Flying embers can be carried for more than a mile, causing structure fires and potentially igniting other dry, natural areas. Damage depends on the wildfire’s size and the amount of fuel in its path
When winds are factored into the equation, wildfire damage can stretch for miles, affecting thousands of acres of natural and agricultural land. This damage can result in long-term changes to the environment, increasing the risk for floods and poor agricultural growth in affected areas.
How to be Prepared for a Wildfire
No matter where you live, you may be at risk for damage caused by a wildfire. There are several things you can do to ensure you are prepared for the unexpected circumstance and are able to get yourself and your family to safety.
One of the most effective strategies for minimizing or preventing wildfire damage to your property is known as fire mitigation.
What is fire mitigation?
Fire mitigation is a wildfire prevention strategy involving a variety of preventative measures to protect a building and surrounding areas from wildfires. Homeowners located in forested or grassland areas with regular periods of little or no rain should implement these strategies to increase protection during a wildfire.
Fire mitigation strategies include the following:
Wood fences provide excellent fuel for wildfires. To better protect your property, consider installing metal fencing around your property instead of wood. If you have to use a wood material, choose a fire-resistant type.
If your fence is wooden, do not connect it directly to your home. This can cause a backyard fire to ignite the building as it consumes the fence.
It is also important to keep flammable materials, including leaves and trash, away from the fence area. Any trash in the fence area can ignite and blow around, starting more fires once the fence has burned away. Never store firewood near a wooden fence or anywhere near your home.
Wooden decks are a significant fuel source for a wildfire. While most decks are comprised of wood materials, there are other substitutes to consider if you’re planning to build a deck. If you must use wood, choose a thick wood type as it will take longer to catch fire.
If you already have a wooden deck, never store flammable materials on or under the deck. Keep the area well weeded to prevent dead vegetation from catching fire.
Broken windows permit a fire to easily enter your home. To help protect your house from fire damage, consider installing dual pane windows to decrease the risk of breakage due to excessive heat. Tempered glass is the preferred material to use as it handles heat better than other glass types.
Replace old, decaying wood from around the window frame and keep the area free from trash and dead vegetation, including potted plants.
Custom window covers can also be purchased and used before an evacuation. There are a variety of cover types available, including a convenient roll-down version, which can be put into place quickly.
Gutters and Roofs
Always keep the roof and gutters free of flammable materials, including dead leaves and bird nests. You can also install gutter screens to prevent birds from nesting and leaves from collecting during the year. It is important to regularly check and clean all gutters, including those on second or third stories.
In the area where two sloped roof surfaces meet up, metal flashing can be installed to strengthen a natural weak point. Any skylights should be protected like the other windows of your home, including custom protective covers.
Plants and Trees
Even in a heavily forested area, it is important to keep trees and plants well-groomed and away from structures. Trees should be thinned out to prevent a continuous path for the fire to travel towards the house and other structures. They should also not be closer than six feet of a structure.
Routinely collect and remove all dried, dead vegetation and wood. Keep living plants watered. Don’t use a wood mulch as part of your bedding.
Outdoor vents without screening can admit fiery embers into your home. Check and screen all vents, including those in the attic, on the roof, and in crawl spaces around the house. A metal, non-combustible mesh screen can be used to prevent embers from coming into the structure.
Protect your home by regularly inspecting the surrounding areas for dead vegetation and loose trash. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) offers a convenient checklist guide for homeowners, with more extensive fire mitigation strategies
How do I protect my family during a wildfire?
Wildfire watches and warnings are issued by the National Weather Service when environmental conditions are favorable for wildfire, including when humidity levels are low and temperatures are high, and when wildfires are in the area.
A fire watch is issued when there is a potential danger for fires within a 12 to 72 hour period. A fire warning, or red flag warning, is issued when a fire danger exists within 24 hours. Watches may be issued before a warning, but in some cases, the fire warning is the initial alert to go out to the public.
Local communities also issue fire risk warnings
based on environmental conditions of the day, including a low, moderate, high, very high, or extreme fire danger risk.
Protecting Your Family
Be prepared for what may come by having an emergency plan for wildfires, flooding, mudslides, or severe storms. Keep it current and get your family involved in the planning and practicing of the plan on a regular basis.
Other ways you can protect your family from wildfire dangers include:
Contact Your Insurance Company
Make sure you understand your insurance policy coverage in relation to a wildfire before a fire is in the area. You want to ensure you have the right coverage to recoup losses to structures, belongings, and land in the event of a wildfire. Also find out what evacuation costs may be covered under your insurance policy.
Stay Current on Conditions
One of the most effective steps you can take to protect yourself and your family is to stay informed by listening to weather conditions and staying up-to-date on local emergency warnings. If your local community offers emergency alerts via text or email, sign up to receive the information. Investing in a NOAA Weather Radio is also a good idea to stay current on weather conditions.
Build Your Emergency Supplies
It is important to have the items you need ready for an emergency. If a wildfire is in the area, you may lose power and access to services, like grocery stores. Having your own emergency food supply and other necessities available for such times will ensure your survival while at home.
Emergency supplies should include:
- Non-perishable foods, MREs, freeze-dried food, etc.
- Clean, bottled water
- Weather radio
- Extra batteries
- Extra clothes and blankets
- Prescription medications
- Important documents (birth certificates, insurance papers, etc.) – store electronic copies on a thumb drive for convenience
- Irreplaceable pictures, valuables
- Phone and chargers
- Pet food, carriers, water bowls
If you need to evacuate, make sure your emergency supplies are packed in sturdy backpacks so travel is easier. You should also store food and other supplies in your vehicle in preparation for an evacuation.
Practice Your Evacuation
Wildfires often require last-minute evacuations due to the unpredictability of the fire’s path. To ensure your family can react quickly to a sudden evacuation, plan how to get out of the house and the affected area quickly and safely. Once a plan is in place, make sure to practice it frequently with every member of your household so everyone is familiar and comfortable with what needs to be done during an evacuation.
Evacuation planning considerations:
- Identify local evacuation routes to safe zones within or outside of your community
- Identify services for the handicapped, sick, elderly, and other special needs individuals
- Find all evacuation shelters in your area
- Arrange a place to stay for extended evacuations (family, friends, local resources, etc.)
- Keep vehicles fueled up and well-stocked with necessities (food, drinking water, blankets, clothes, etc.)
- If you rely on public transportation, contact local services and inquire about emergency evacuation travel
It is also important to have a plan in place for your pets and livestock during a wildfire. As there is often limited time to escape, it is vital to know what to do with your animals if you need to leave. Find an animal shelter for pets if evacuation will be extended and you need to stay in a place that doesn’t accept pets. If you plan to travel with pets, find a friend or relative willing to accommodate your animals.
The Department of Forestry and Fire Protection of California offers a comprehensive wildfire safety checklist
for ensuring livestock and pets are kept safe during a wildfire emergency.
Do several practice-runs of an actual evacuation with your family so everyone knows what to do, where to go, and what their responsibilities are during an evacuation. Mock evacuation practices should include:
- Alerting members to a fire
- Gathering family members and pets in a central meeting location on your property
- Sending emergency texts between household members
- Gathering necessities
- Practicing fire extinguisher use
- Driving local evacuation routes
If you live in a community with elderly or infirm neighbors, contact them about their own evacuation plan. Exchange numbers and other information if they need assistance during a wildfire emergency.
During an Evacuation
During an actual evacuation, it is important to take care of a few items before leaving the area. These actions can help protect your property and aid emergency responders while they battle the blaze:
Inside your home, turn off any natural gas sources. You should turn on all lights inside and outside the home. This makes it easier for firefighters to see your home in heavy smoke. You should also close all windows, doors, and fireplace areas to reduce drafts and traveling embers from igniting your home. You should also move all flammable materials (furniture, books, curtains) away from windows and sliding doors. Leave everything in the center of the room.
Outside, make sure all garden hoses are connected and the faucets aren’t blocked by objects or debris. Fill any containers with water, including garbage cans and flower pots. Make sure propane tanks, gas cans, and the like are removed from structures.
If you have automatic garage doors, disconnect the power so they can be opened manually in the event of a power outage.
As you drive away from your home, keep windows and air vents in the vehicle closed to prevent respiratory problems. Keep your headlights on for better visibility. Avoid driving through areas of heavy smoke. Also remain alert for other people evacuating the area, including those on foot. Wildlife also flees from the fire and may cross your path unexpectedly.
Trapped by a Wildfire
In the event the fire reaches your property before you’re able to evacuate, contact 911 immediately to report the situation. Keep lights on all over the home to make it easier for firefighters to locate your residence.
Ensure all doors and windows are closed but unlocked. Fill every sink and container with water. Avoid all areas near windows and outside walls.
If you become trapped in your vehicle during an evacuation, leave your car immediately. The potential risk of fire or explosion is high in a vehicle due to the fuel tank. Head for a rocky area or to a body of water if rivers or streams are nearby. Report your situation to 911 immediately. Breathe through a clean cloth to reduce respiratory distress.
Teach the Family about Fire Prevention
As many severe wildfires are started by accident, make sure your family is familiar with fire prevention strategies. If you have campfires or use your grill in the backyard, make sure to keep fire areas away from structures and trees. Don’t store anything near the campfire area or grill. Never leave a fire unattended and put out campfires thoroughly before leaving the area. Smokers also need to extinguish cigarettes properly in an ashtray and not on the ground.
It is also important to avoid activities that can cause a spark, including welding. Don’t park your vehicle in tall grass, as the hot exhaust pipes can trigger a fire in dry grasses.
Life After a Wildfire
After a fire has passed through the area or has been extinguished, it is important to be highly cautious of remaining dangers. Burned areas may still contain hot spots which can burn you or reignite a fire.
Start inspecting your property as soon as the fire is gone and the smoke has cleared. Wear protective gloves and thick-soled shoes when outdoors. Take photographs to document damage as you go through the interior and exterior of your home.
Check your attic and rooftop for signs of damage. Inspect the siding and windows for breakage or melting. If you encounter smoke in any structure, contact 911 immediately. Use your garden hose to wet down as much of your house as possible, especially the roof and gutters.
You also need to remain alert for downed power lines. Line damage should be reported to authorities immediately. Carefully check the trees and brush surrounding your property. If they are still burning, douse them with water from the hose or buckets.
Stay Tuned In
Stay alert to continued weather alerts and emergency information. If winds pick up after a wildfire, new fires can ignite and spread quickly. Be ready to shelter back in your home or evacuate the area.
Health and Safety
Don’t use water for food preparation or hygiene until authorities confirm its safety. Make sure to throw away any food affected by smoke, soot, or heat from the fire. If you’re not sure if food has been affected by the fire, dispose of the food anyway.
In the event anyone is burned by embers or fire pockets, clean the burn area and protect it with clean gauze. Severe burns should be treated by a medical provider immediately. Keep pets indoors to avoid burns, respiratory issues, and other health problems.
Keep in touch with nearby neighbors, friends, and family members affected by the fire. Depression and anxiety risks can be high during such a traumatic event. If you feel overwhelmed by the situation, or recognize this symptom in your loved ones, seek help from an experienced medical provider.
Even if you lose everything you owned in an unexpected wildfire, remember that material things can be replaced but the health and safety of your family cannot. Prioritize your emergency planning steps to focus on your household’s welfare and ensure you have what you need to survive such an event well before disaster strikes.