Among natural disasters, little can match a wildfire for ferocity, speed, total havoc and sheer terror factor. Wildfires pushed by high winds will race forward faster than you can run. A big wildfire easily jumps across firebreaks and highways and produces savage heat, igniting trees and homes even before flames reach them. Wildfires trigger mass evacuations as people flee ahead of the destruction.
A wildfire is also the only mega disaster that humans combat directly as it occurs. But fighting wildfires is more about containing the fire—stopping its advance—than about extinguishing it. There’s a second goal of attempting to protect structures such as buildings and power lines. Preparing for wildfires, avoiding them and surviving if trapped are your own responsibility.
On the U.S. Forest Service’s website (fs.fed.us), is a detailed Wildfire Hazard Potential map. It shows that wildfire risk is higher in the Western and Southwestern states. But wildfires occur throughout the U.S., and specific risks—and the level of risk—vary widely, depending upon climate and fuels in the larger sense, and upon topography and local weather in the smaller sense. For example, pine bark beetles combined with drought kill thousands of acres of trees. They leave them standing dead as prime wildfire fuel. Serious beetle outbreaks move about the country with the seasonal weather. So does its associated elevated risk of wildfire.
And it doesn’t take a forest to make a threat of wildfire. Grassland fires, like those in California each year, are equally devastating. The wildfire that killed 19 Arizona Hotshot firefighters in 2013 burned in chaparral—shoulder-high brush. Your best bet—especially when you move to a new locale—is to get information from local firefighting authorities closest to you.
Firefighters stop a wildfire mostly by denying it fuel. You can protect your own home in the same way by creating “defensible space.” That’s a minimum 30-foot area around your house cleared of all flammables such as brush, dried grasses and piles of firewood. Keep gutters and rooftops cleared of dead leaves and branches. If you’re building a home or re-roofing, consider fire-resistant tile or asphalt shingles rather than rustic wood shingles. During fire season, connect and stow garden houses long enough to reach everywhere around the outside of your home. A secondary benefit to creating defensible space is a possible reduction in the cost of your homeowner’s insurance. Check with your insurance agent, and while you’re at it update your list of your home’s contents and valuables.
The internet is a fabulous communications tool. Social media platforms like Facebook can be useful for staying updated on the status of nearby wildfires and of friends and family impacted by wildfire. But old-school local commercial radio broadcasts are still the government’s choice for alerting the public to immediate wildfire threats. During wildfire season, it’s a good idea to tune in to local radio throughout the day if possible—this may be your earliest source of wildfire news and alerts.
The NWS also broadcasts radio alerts on designated, non-commercial VHF frequencies, but listening requires an emergency radio or weather radio that can receive them on 162.40 to 162.55MHz. These radios are commonly available, starting at about $20. You can also buy standard AM/FM radios with the NWS emergency feature included. When turned on, the radio automatically switches from your standard listening station to the emergency VHF during an emergency broadcast.
The NWS Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system can send an alert directly to your cell phone, accompanied by a special vibration and ringtone, but NWS does not officially list wildfires among their emergencies. However, your own local or state emergency agencies may have the capability of alerting you to approaching wildfire via WEA. If a wildfire does break out in your area, local firefighting authorities will set up locations for displaying maps and disseminating the latest information and directives.
Escape And Evade
Of all natural disasters, escaping a wildfire requires more strategic thought than perhaps any other. Fortunately, wildfires also typically give at least a few moments for decisive action. Fires travel with the wind, so if you must run from a fire, angling across the wind may improve your chances by outflanking the wall of approaching fire. Keep in mind that fire-created updrafts make a wildfire move uphill faster than downhill, so take a downhill route if you can.
Select escape routes that have a minimum of fuel to burn, such as plowed fields, rocky areas and watercourses. If you find yourself trapped in front of a wildfire, you can protect yourself from burns by immersing yourself in a body of water such as a swimming pool, pond, lake or river.
Going to ground is your last-ditch effort at survival. Individuals have survived inside caves, drainage pipes, simple holes in the ground and by lying in ditches and covering themselves with dirt. Curling up can help reduce exposing bare skin to heat. But large fires consume large amounts of oxygen, and many wildfire victims have succumbed to suffocation, rather than to heat.
Rally The Troops
When a wildfire freight-trains its way toward your neighborhood with the kids in school and parents at work, your family may not be together when it becomes necessary to evacuate. The cell phone becomes an emergency communications tool in directing other family members to safety or providing peace of mind that they are safe. But be aware that wildfires can knock out communications and electricity when they reach power lines and cell phone towers, so it’s important to plan ahead of time where everyone will go if separated.
If anyone in the home is physically disabled, pre-planning and evacuating early could be critical to their survival—and yours. Roads will become choked with vehicles during mass evacuations, making departure at the first warning a good idea. Synthetic clothing materials like nylon can melt and stick to the skin when subjected to the heat near a fire. Don cotton clothing before evacuation, if time allows.
Your car is likely your best escape vehicle, so plan two or more escape routes by road. In this kind of disaster, your second most important piece of survival gear is plastic or paper: ATM and credit cards, and cash. None of these take up any room, leaving plenty of space for clothing and valuables you’ve selected to bring in anticipation of evacuation.
Prepare your most irreplaceable valuables—birth certificates and other important papers, jewelry, etc.—for evacuation ahead of time. This is definitely a grab-and-go situation, so keep them in or with your bugout bag. Your first aid kit should include burn salve or spray and pain meds.
Armed law enforcement or National Guard personnel routinely provide a measure of security in evacuated areas to prevent looting. Be aware that they will likely refuse to allow you to go back to your home until after the emergency is over. Evacuees are sometimes directed to camp together in designated areas (resembling refugee camps) if they have tents, camp trailers or RVs.
While emergency organizations such as the Red Cross often set up temporary shelters for evacuees, the home of a friend or relative is a lot more comfortable than sharing a high school gymnasium and portable toilets with scores or hundreds of others. Sometimes shelters won’t accept pets, especially large pets, and they may limit your quantity of personal items and prohibit firearms. There’s also the possibility of losing valuables to theft. For these reasons, it’s better to prearrange a mutual support agreement to share homes with others in case of evacuation.
Trapped, Now What?
Even though evacuation is the best assurance of wildfire survival, statistics show that more than half of homeowners refuse or fail to evacuate. Trapped inside a home assailed by wildfire is about as grim a situation imaginable, but don’t give up—you can take a few actions to possibly increase your chance of survival.
- Call 911 to alert authorities to your situation.
- Move BBQ grill propane tanks away from the house.
- Leave doors and windows closed but unlocked. That compartmentalizes fire and denies it free oxygen while allowing access to potential rescuers. Leave lights on. Keep flashlights on your person.
- Fill sinks, tubs, buckets—everything you can—with firefighting water; use cooking pots or anything similar for bailing. If you set sprinklers on the roof, turn them on.
- Move to the side of the home furthest from the approaching fire.
- A wildfire outside the home can raise internal temperatures enough to ignite flammables inside. Move furniture away from walls, into the center of the room. Keep exit routes clear.
- It will be much hotter outside than inside—extinguish any small fires that may appear inside, stay below smoke level and don’t leave the home unless it catches fully on fire.
- After the wildfire passes, check for smoldering embers throughout the inside and outside of the home.
- If the home already had surrounding “defensive space,” it ups your chances for survival.
Final Wildfire Notes
Surviving a wildfire is not impossible, but there’s no room for complacency. Your best course of action is always to prepare ahead of time, stay alert and informed. Leave nothing to chance and evacuate promptly when the people fighting the fire tell you it’s time to go.
This article is from a previous issue of Survivor’s Edge Magazine. Grab your copy at OutdoorGroupStore.com.
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