Best Strategies for Surviving
Wildfire Disasters...



What Are the Kinds of Wildfires?

Wildfires come in two basic forms—-forest fires (example shown below) and grass or range fires. (examples shown after that)

New Mexico Forest Fire

Recent New Mexico Forest Fire

Wind can serve as a primary contributor to the rate of wildfire expansion. At times the wildfire, especially forest fires, can become so hot that they can create their own weather including small tornados. In forests, it is a bad situation when the fire gets up into the tops of tall trees and begins rolling across the forest in what is often known as a “crown” fire as was the case with the great Yellowstone wildfire some years ago in Wyoming as shown below.

Hot Grass Fire

Hot Grass Fire

Each type has its own set of dangers and characteristics and is contained and extinguished in different ways. Both types of fires generally occur when the forest or grassland have become environmentally dry. Either type of fire can be initiated by natural or manmade means. Natural causes are generally limited to lightening. Manmade causes stem from deliberate arson to carelessness such as campfires, smoking, and mechanically related causes.

Smoldering Grass Fire

Smouldering Grass Wildfire

Wind can serve as a primary contributor to the rate of wildfire expansion. At times the wildfire, especially forest fires, can become so hot that they can create their own weather including small tornados. In forests, it is a bad situation when the fire gets up into the tops of tall trees and begins rolling across the forest in what is often known as a “crown” fire as was the case with the great Yellowstone wildfire some years ago in Wyoming as shown below.

Yellowstone Wildfire

The Famous Yellowstone Wildfire

The heat generated near the frontline of a wildfire can become extremely intense, igniting combustible before it and killing all exposed life forms.

What are the Chances of a Wildfire Near Your Home?

The threat of wildfires for people living near rural or wild-land areas or using recreational facilities in wilderness areas is real. Dry conditions at various times of the year and in various parts of the United States greatly increase the potential for wildfires. The dry California grasslands, Arizona deserts, Florida areas, and the mountain forests all suffer from the threat of annual wildfires. Knowing the type of risks that can and do occur in your area is important. If your geographical area has a known risk profile, one needs to prepare before something occurs because it typically involves a lot of preplanning and work.

Advance planning and knowing how to protect buildings in these areas can lessen the devastation of a wildfire. There are several safety precautions that you can take to reduce the risk of fire losses. Protecting your home from wildfire is your responsibility. To reduce the risk, you'll need to consider the fire resistance of your home, the topography of your property and the nature of the vegetation close by. And, don’t forget to consider the safety of your pets and/livestock.

The subjects below will help you understand how you can best protect yourself and property from a wildfire.

What Typically Happens When a Wildfire Occurs?

Today, with all of the alert systems that exist, you generally get advice about being in the path of a wildfire. Advisories are usually fairly current and simple visibility all support your decision planning based on the threat level and the probability of being impacted.

Forest rangers, fire fighters, and law enforcement all coordinate activities and generally keep the public advised. At times when the threat is extremely high, these people will go through neighborhoods, even door-to-door telling people to evacuate the area. Don’t be stubborn—do take their advice. Your life is more valuable than your property.

Surviving Wildfire Disasters by Proper Planning and Preparation.

Listed here are several suggestions that you can implement immediately. Others need to be considered at the time of construction or remodeling. You should also contact your local fire department, forestry office, emergency management office or building department for information about local fire laws, building codes and protection measures. Obtain local building codes and weed abatement ordinances for structures built near wooded areas.

First: Find Out What Your Fire Risk Is From Local Authorities

Learn about the history of wildfire in your area. Be aware of recent weather. A long period without rain increases the risk of wildfire. Consider having a professional inspect your property and offer recommendations for reducing the wildfire risk. Determine your community's ability to respond to wildfire. Are roads leading to your property clearly marked? Are the roads wide enough to allow firefighting equipment to get through? Is your house number visible from the roadside?

Learn and teach safe fire practices.

  • Build fires away from nearby trees or bushes.

  • Always have a way to extinguish the fire quickly and completely.

  • Install smoke detectors on every level of your home and near sleeping areas.

  • Never leave a fire--even a cigarette--burning unattended.

  • Avoid open burning completely, and especially during dry season.

What to Tell Children

  • Practice stop, drop, and roll.

  • Know how to stop, drop, and roll in case your clothes catch on fire. Stop what you are doing, drop to the ground, cover your face, and roll back and forth until the flames go out. Running will only make the fire burn faster. Practicing makes the appropriate response more of an automatic reaction, requiring less thinking time during an actual emergency situation.

  • Matches and lighters are tools for “grown-ups”.

  • These tools help adults use fire properly. Instruct children to tell an adult right away if they see someone playing with fire, matches, or lighters. National Fire Protection Association research has shown that children associate tools with grown-ups, and “grown-up” is a term children use for someone in authority.

  • Firefighters are our friends, and they will help in case of a fire.

  • Visit a fire station to help ease children’s fears. A fire suit and mask are often frightening and children may try to hide from a firefighter in full protective gear.

Always be ready for an emergency evacuation.

Evacuation may be the only way to protect your family in a wildfire. Know where to go and what to bring with you. You should plan several escape routes in case roads are blocked by a wildfire.

  • When building or planting, consult with your local planning and zoning department, fire department, or local building officials.
  • There may be restrictions on the types of materials or plants used in residential areas. Following local codes or recommendations will help reduce injury and damage to you and your property.

  • Make sure that fire vehicles can get to your home.
  • If wildfires threaten, firefighters will try to reduce damage around your home.

  • Clearly mark all driveway entrances and display your name and address.
  • Post fire emergency telephone numbers.
  • If wildfires threaten, contacting emergency officials as quickly as possible may reduce further damage. Having critical phone numbers posted will avoid wasted time looking them up.

  • Plan two ways out of your neighborhood.
  • Your primary route may be blocked; know another way out just in case.

  • Plan your water needs
  • Sometimes you may be able to fight small fires, preventing them from becoming larger or delaying their effects until emergency responders with appropriate materials arrive on the scene.

  • Identify and maintain an adequate outside water source such as a small pond, cistern, well, swimming pool, or hydrant.
  • Keep a garden hose that is long enough to reach any area of the home and other structures on the property.
  • Install freeze-proof exterior water outlets on at least two sides of the home and near other structures on the property.
  • Install additional outlets at least 50 feet from the home.
  • Consider obtaining a portable gasoline-powered water pump in case electrical power is cut off.

  • Equip chimneys and stovepipes with a spark arrester that meets the requirements of National Fire Protection Association Code 211.
  • (Contact your local fire department for exact specifications.) This will reduce the chance of burning cinders escaping through the chimney, starting outdoor fires.

  • Have a fire extinguisher and get training from the fire department on how to use it.
  • Different extinguishers operate in different ways. Unless you know how to use your extinguisher, you may not be able to use it effectively. There is no time to read directions during an emergency.

  • Consider installing protective shutters or heavy fire-resistant drapes.
  • The heat from a fire creates wind, which can blow hot cinders, sometimes large enough and with enough force to break windows. Reduce the potential for these cinders to cause your home to burn.

  • Develop an evacuation plan.
  • Everyone in your family should know where to go if they have to leave. Trying to make plans at the last minute can be upsetting and create confusion.

  • Discuss wildfires with your family.
  • Everyone should know what to do in case all family members are not together. Discussing wildfire ahead of time will help reduce fear and anxiety, and lets everyone know how to respond.

Create Safety Zones Around Your Home

All vegetation is fuel for a wildfire, though some trees and shrubs are more flammable than others. To reduce the risk, you will need to modify or eliminate brush, trees and other vegetation near your home. The greater the distance is between your home and the vegetation, the greater the protection.

Create a 30-foot safety zone around the house.

Keep the volume of vegetation in this zone to a minimum. If you live on a hill, extend the zone on the downhill side. Fire spreads rapidly uphill. The steeper the slope, the more open space you will need to protect your home. Swimming pools and patios can be a safety zone and stone walls can act as heat shields and deflect flames. In this zone, you should also do the following:

  • Remove vines from the walls of the house.

  • Move shrubs and other landscaping away from the sides of the house.

  • Prune branches and shrubs within 15 feet of chimneys and stove pipes.

  • Remove tree limbs within 15 feet of the ground.

  • Thin a 15-foot space between tree crowns.

  • Replace highly flammable vegetation such as pine, eucalyptus, junipers and fir trees with lower growing, less flammable species. Check with your local fire department or garden store for suggestions.

  • Replace vegetation that has living or dead branches from the ground-level up (these act as ladder fuels for the approaching fire).

  • Cut the lawn often keeping the grass at a maximum of 2 inches. Watch grass and other vegetation near the driveway, a source of ignition from automobile exhaust systems.

  • Clear the area of leaves, brush, evergreen cones, dead limbs and fallen trees.

Create a second zone at least 100 feet around the house.

This zone should begin about 30 feet from the house and extend to at least 100 feet. In this zone, reduce or replace as much of the most flammable vegetation as possible. If you live on a hill, you may need to extend the zone for several hundred feet to provide the desired level of safety.

Clear all combustibles within 30 feet of any structure.

  • Install electrical lines underground, if possible

  • Ask the power company to clear branches from power lines.

  • Avoid using bark and wood chip mulch

  • Stack firewood 100 feet away and uphill from any structure.

  • Store combustible or flammable materials in approved safety containers and keep them away from the house.

  • Keep the gas grill and propane tank at least 15 feet from any structure. Clear an area 15 feet around the grill. Place a 1/4 inch mesh screen over the grill. Always use the grill cautiously but refrain from using it all during high risk times.

Protect Your Home

Remove debris from under sun decks and porches.

Any porch, balcony or overhang with exposed space underneath is fuel for an approaching fire. Overhangs ignite easily by flying embers and by the heat and fire that get trapped underneath. If vegetation is allowed to grow underneath or if the space is used for storage, the hazard is increased significantly.

Clear leaves, trash and other combustible materials away from underneath sun decks and porches. Extend 1/2-inch mesh screen from all overhangs down to the ground. Enclose wooden stilts with non-combustible material such as concrete, brick, rock, stucco or metal. Use non-combustible patio furniture and covers. If you're planning a porch or sun deck, use non-combustible or fire-resistant materials. If possible, build the structure to the ground so that there is no space underneath.

Enclose eaves and overhangs.

Like porches and balconies, eaves trap the heat rising along the exterior siding. Enclose all eaves to reduce the hazard.

Cover house vents with wire mesh.

Any attic vent, soffit vent, louver or other opening can allow embers and flaming debris to enter a home and ignite it. Cover all openings with 1/4 inch or smaller corrosion-resistant wire mesh. If you're designing louvers, place them in the vertical wall rather than the soffit of the overhang.

Install spark arrestors in chimneys and stovepipes.

Chimneys create a hazard when embers escape through the top. To prevent this, install spark arrestors on all chimneys, stovepipes and vents for fuel-burning heaters. Use spark arrestors made of 12-gauge welded or woven wire mesh screen with openings 1/2 inch across. Ask your fire department for exact specifications. If you're building a chimney, use non-combustible materials and make sure the top of the chimney is at least two feet higher than any obstruction within 10 feet of the chimney. Keep the chimney clean.

Use fire resistant siding.

Use fire resistant materials in the siding of your home, such as stucco, metal, brick, cement shingles, concrete and rock. You can treat wood siding with UL-approved fire retardant chemicals, but the treatment and protection are not permanent.

Choose safety glass for windows and sliding glass doors.


Windows allow radiated heat to pass through and ignite combustible materials inside. The larger the pane of glass, the more vulnerable it is to fire. Dual- or triple-pane thermal glass, and fire resistant shutters or drapes, help reduce the wildfire risk. You can also install non-combustible awnings to shield windows and use shatter-resistant glazing such as tempered or wireglass.

Other safety measures to consider at the time of construction or remodeling.

  • Choose locations wisely; canyon and slope locations increase the risk of exposure to wild land fires.

  • Use fire-resistant materials when building, renovating, or retrofitting structures.

  • Avoid designs that include wooden decks and patios.

  • Use non-combustible materials for the roof.

  • The roof is especially vulnerable in a wildfire. Embers and flaming debris can travel great distances, land on your roof and start a new fire. Avoid flammable roofing materials such as wood, shake and shingle. Materials that are more fire resistant include single ply membranes, fiberglass shingles, slate, metal, clay and concrete tile. Clear gutters of leaves and debris.

Other Items to Consider--

  • Post emergency phone numbers by every phone in your home.

  • Make sure driveway entrances and your house number or address are clearly marked.

  • Identify and maintain an adequate water source outside your home, such as a small pond, cistern, well or swimming pool.

  • Set aside household items that can be used as fire tools: a rake, ax, hand saw or chain saw, bucket and shovel. You may need to fight small fires before emergency responders arrive.

  • Select building materials and plants that resist fire.

  • Regularly clean roofs and gutters.

  • Plan ahead and stay as safe as possible during a wild fire.

  • Plan and practice two ways out of your neighborhood in case your primary route is blocked.

  • Select a place for family members to meet outside your neighborhood in case you cannot get home or need to evacuate.

  • Identify someone who is out of the area to contact if local phone lines are not working.

Prepare an Evacuation Kit for Your Family.

  • Water—one gallon per person, per day (3-day supply)

  • Food—nonperishable, easy-to-prepare items (3-day supply)

  • Flashlight

  • Battery powered or hand-crank radio (NOAAWeather Radio, if possible)

  • Extra batteries

  • First aid kit

  • Medications (7-day supply) and medical items

  • Multi-purpose tool

  • Sanitation and personal hygiene items

  • Copies of personal documents (medication list and pertinent medical information, deed/lease to home, birth certificates, insurance policies)

  • Cell phone with chargers

  • Family and emergency contact information

  • Extra cash

  • Emergency blanket

  • Map(s) of the area

  • Other essential items that could not be replaced if they were destroyed

Survival Actions to Take During a Wildfire Disaster.

If you see a wildfire, call 9-1-1. Don't assume that someone else has already called. Describe the location of the fire, speak slowly and clearly, and answer any questions asked by the dispatcher.

Before the Fire Approaches Your House

  • Evacuate on Advisory Notice or On Your Own if Necessary.

  • Evacuate your pets and all family members who are not essential to preparing the home. Anyone with medical or physical limitations and the young and the elderly should be evacuated immediately.

  • Wear Protective Clothing and Equipment.

  • Remove Combustibles.

  • Clear items that will burn from around the house, including wood piles, lawn furniture, barbecue grills, tarp coverings, etc.. Move them outside of your defensible space.

  • Close/Protect Openings.

  • Close outside attic, eaves and basement vents, windows, doors, pet doors, etc. Remove flammable drapes and curtains. Close all shutters, blinds or heavy non-combustible window coverings to reduce radiant heat.

  • Close Inside Doors/Open Damper.

  • Close alt doors inside the house to prevent draft. Open the damper on your fireplace, but close the fireplace screen.

  • Shut Off Gas.

  • Shut off any natural gas, propane or fuel oil supplies at the source.

  • Water.

  • Connect garden hoses. Fill any pools, hot tubs, garbage cans, tubs or other large containers with water.

  • Pumps.

  • If you have gas-powered pumps for water, make sure they are fueled and ready.

  • Ladder.

  • Place a ladder against the house in clear view.

  • Car.

  • Back your car into the driveway and roll up the windows.

  • Garage Doors.

  • Disconnect any automatic garage door openers so that doors can still be opened by hand if the power goes out. Close all garage doors.

  • Valuables.

  • Place valuable papers, mementos and anything "you can't live without" inside the car in the garage, ready for quick departure. Any pets still with you should also be put in the car.

Preparing to Leave

  • Lights.

  • Turn on outside lights and leave a light on in every room to make the house more visible in heavy smoke.

  • Don't Lock Up.
  • Leave doors and windows closed but unlocked. It may be necessary for firefighters to gain quick entry into your home to fight fire. The entire area will be isolated and patrolled by sheriff's deputies or police.

If you are trapped, crouch in a pond or river.

You cannot outrun a fire. Cover your head and upper body with wet clothing. If water is not around, look for shelter in a cleared area or among a bed of rocks. Lie flat and cover your body with wet clothing or soil. Breathe the air close to the ground through a wet cloth to avoid scorching lungs or inhaling smoke. Wildfires move very fast and create their own wind, helping them to move even faster.

Actions to Take After Surviving a Wildfire Disaster.

  • Check the roof immediately. Put out any roof fires, sparks or embers. Check the attic for hidden burning sparks.

  • If you have a fire, get your neighbors to help fight it.

  • The water you put into your pool or hot tub and other containers wilt come in handy now. If the power is out, try connecting a hose to the outlet on your water heater.

  • For several hours after the fire, maintain a "fire watch." Re-check for smoke and sparks throughout the house.

Additional Information for Surviving Wildfire Disasters

Check with your local forest service office and sheriff’s department for advice and information.

Historical Notes for Surviving Wildfire Disasters:

None at this time.

Credits:

The content of this guide is in the public domain. Any requested attribution is as follows:

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American Red Cross: http://www.redcross.org/

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Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA): http://www.fema.gov/

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National Disaster Education Coalition consisting of:

American Red Cross, FEMA, IAEM, IBHS,NFPA, NWS, USDA/CSREES, and USGS.

Links:

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