It is an unfortunate truth that wildfires gobble up thousands of acres of woodland, grassland, and even residential land every year. Depending on where you live, the risk of wildfires can be very real and you need to be prepared for it. These fires can burn at temperatures of 1,000 degrees and often there is nothing that can be done other than try to keep it from spreading into populated areas and letting it burn itself out.
If you know or even think you could be at risk for getting caught in a wildfire, then you need to know what measures to take to survive. But your survival will depend on your situation and where you are. What you do to survive a wildfire at home will be different than what you do when caught in your car or out in the wilderness. The following descriptions of what to do to survive a wildfire in each of these scenarios will ensure you have the information you need to plan ahead and turn a potentially tragic situation into a happy ending.
How to Survive a Wildfire at Home
If you live in an area that is prone to wildfires, particularly if you live in a rural area or at the edge of a town or city, then you should plan ahead. But first, I will say this – if there is a wildfire in your area and you have been told to evacuate, then do it!
Have a plan to get out and have a place to go to. Make sure to take your bugout bag (BOB – I know you have one prepared for each family member) and take a route that draws you away from the fire. Always be aware of changes in the direction and speed of the wind.
You will want to protect your property as much as possible. You can make your home and property less susceptible to fire damage, and if you are trapped in your home during a wildfire, you will have a greater chance of survival. Take the following steps to prepare your home in advance to withstand a wildfire:
- Prepare an area of 100 feet surrounding your house that is clear of any combustible material, including bushes and dry vegetation. This can be challenging in tightly packed neighborhoods where your neighbor’s house is 15 feet away.
- Any trees you do have on your property should be spaced 10 feet apart and no branches should be closer than 6 feet to the ground.
- Keep your roof, eaves, and gutters clear of debris.
- Keep the lawn mown and get rid of all cuttings right away.
- Build your home out of non-combustible materials if possible. This might not be possible if you buy an older house, but you can replace the roof shingles with metal or tile and you can replace the siding if it isn’t already stone, brick, or some other non-combustible material. You can also ensure you have tempered glass or double-paned windows.
- No wooden fencing should be directly connected to your home.
- Properly store all flammable liquids.
- Cover all vents leading into the house with 1/8 inch screens so that embers cannot get into the attic or any part of the house.
- Have a good source of water and a means to use it to put out small fires. Hoses, sprinklers around the property and filled barrels are ideal.
- Keep a set of fire resistant clothing for anyone who is able to help fight the fire should you be caught onsite.
If a fire is imminent and you haven’t evacuated your home early enough, you need to stay put. It can be far more dangerous at this point to be on the road. Your home will offer you some protection. Do the following (ideally some or all of the things above have been done already) to make your home as safe as possible during a wildfire:
- Clear brush and vegetation away from your home if you haven’t already and you have time to do so.
- Remove all flammable curtains and other window coverings from the windows.
- Close of any sources of gas, propane, or other fuel at the source.
- Close all vents leading into the house.
- If you have a fireplace, open the flu and close the screen.
- Make sure all fire tools, such as buckets, shovel, rake, and saw, are gathered and ready.
- Disconnect automatic garage door openers.
- Ensure all valuables are in the car if you need a quick getaway. If not, then try to put them in a waterproof container and submerge them in a pool, pond, or barrel of water.
- Spread lawn sprinklers around your home, including on the roof, and turn them on. Let them run for as long as possible.
- Ensure any gas-powered water pumps are fueled and ready for use.
- Place a ladder against the house and make sure it is in clear view.
- Fill all outdoor tubs, pools, barrels, garbage cans, and other containers with the garden hose.
- Move all flammable furniture away from windows and into the center of the house.
- Turn on all outside and inside lights to ensure your home is as visible as possible through the smoke.
Once you have done these things, stay in your home, away from all windows, as close to the center of the interior as possible. Close all inside and outside doors, but do not lock them. Wait calmly, keeping your family together, until the fire has passed. DO NOT try to run at the last minute – it is far more dangerous outside.
How to Survive a Wildfire in Your Car
Being caught in your car during a wildfire is not an ideal situation, but you can survive it. It is important to stay in the car instead of trying to run. When in your car, do the following:
- Close all windows and air vents and set the air conditioning on the recirculation setting.
- If you are still able to drive, then go slowly, keep your headlights and hazard lights on, and keep an eye out for other vehicles, pedestrians, and livestock or wildlife that might be fleeing the fire. If you are worried there might be people or animals nearby that can’t see you, then honk your horn.
- If you need to stop the car, then keep your engine running. If you can park behind a large, solid structure, then do so. It will block you from the worst of the radiant heat, which is the primary killer in this situation. If there is no solid structure to park behind, then park away from the largest concentration of trees and brush.
- Get on the floor of the car and cover up with a blanket or jacket made out of wool or cotton. Do not cover up with synthetic material, as it will melt and cause burns.
- If you have water in the vehicle, then wet a small cloth to breathe through and drink water to keep hydrated.
You will need to be prepared for a number of things as the fire passes you. The heat will be intense and could cause you and passengers to pass out. The car might rock due to strong air currents. Some smoke and sparks might get into the vehicle. Just ride it out until the main fire has passed you by. It is rare for a metal gas tank to explode, so you should be safe in that regard.
Once the fire has passed and it is safe, make sure you and anyone you are with is okay. Then use your mobile phone if you have one to call for help. If your vehicle will start, then drive it to a safe location. If your vehicle won’t start or is still burning, then walk away from it and look for help. Remember to keep far away from burning trees.
How to Survive a Wildfire in the Wilderness
Whenever you are preparing to go into the wilderness, whether you are going camping, hiking, fishing, or hunting, you should be prepared for the possibility of wildfires ahead of time. If you are going somewhere where the risk of a wildfire is present, then contact the local Forest Service ahead of time to find out the conditions. If the risk is high or there is already a fire burning, then choose another area or postpone your trip.
When you are in the wilderness, always be aware of your environment, including wind direction and speed, the safe areas to be in case of a wildfire, and the best escape routes. If you see smoke in the distance, then go immediately.
The safest place to be during a wildfire (when you can’t escape) is in a lake or river (you need to be in the water). If you don’t have a source of water nearby, then look for the following:
- Large areas that are level and clear of combustible material.
- If you are in a mountainous or hilly area, then downhill is the safest place to be. If you can, go to the backside or leeside of the mountain. Stay away from canyons, saddles, draws, or chutes as they can funnel heat toward you.
- If you are on or near a road, then you can lay face-down on the uphill side of a ditch or a road cut. Try to find something non-combustible you can use to shield yourself from the heat of the fire.
- If you are in the bush, then find a depression that is as free of combustible materials as possible. Clear any fuel away from the area, lay face-down, and cover yourself.
No matter where you are, even if you are in a roadside ditch or in the bush, stay there until the fire passes, no matter how hot and uncomfortable you feel. Face away from the heat source when inhaling and if you can find an area that has already been burnt out, you might find safety there. Just remember that the ground and anything else in the area will be extremely hot.
Signaling for Help
Now that you know the best ways to protect yourself if you are caught in a wildfire, you should know how to signal for help, particularly if your cell phone is lost or broken or you are in an area in which there is no signal.
When it comes to being rescued from a wildfire, you are most likely going to be signaling to helicopters flying above the fires. You will need methods of signaling that will be visible through heavy smoke. You need to get as high as you can while staying safe from the fire. This might be difficult if you have to go downhill to get away from an immediate threat, but get as high as you safely can. Then you can do any of the following:
- Use a signal mirror and aim the reflection at the helicopter. If you don’t have a signal mirror, any mirror or other reflective material will do. Just use your hand to help you aim the reflection at the target.
- Spread brightly colored clothing and/or blankets out so that they can be seen from the sky.
- Use a signal flag if you have one. You can make one out of a fishing or tent pole and a poncho or other piece of brightly colored clothing.
- Lay out stones in a large SOS pattern, although these won’t necessarily be visible if there is a lot of smoke.
Please note that in a wildfire rescue situation, you do NOT want to use any signaling method that could increase the risk of fire, such as signal fires and flares.
Prevention is Best
You don’t want to be caught in a wildfire situation. Conditions can change rapidly causing the fire to move more quickly.
This was the case for fire fighter Brendan McDonough, who was on lookout duty while his colleagues battled a wildfire in Arizona in June of 2013. Conditions changed so rapidly that he radioed his team that he was evacuating and they should do the same. His lookout trigger point (a point that, if the fire reaches it, the situation needs to be reevaluated) was ravaged by flames in three minutes. McDonough made it out, but his colleagues, 19 firefighters, all died because they didn’t have time to get out. If these professionals can be caught by rapidly changing conditions, you don’t want to take chances.
Naturally, the best way to avoid getting caught in a wildfire is to prepare ahead of time to prevent such a situation from happening. If the risk is high, don’t go to the area. If you are there and suspect there is a fire already burning, then get out as quickly as possible and notify the authorities (don’t assume someone else already has). If you have to leave your gear or your home behind, then so be it. These things can be replaced; you can’t. Know the tips above and stay safe!