Staying Alive When Wildfires Take Lives

California, 2018: A deadly wildfire rages out of control, destroying approximately 149,000 acres of land. 85 people are killed, while another 17 suffer extreme injuries. Thousands are evacuated and permanently lose their homes. 

Just a few short miles down the road, another wildlife known as the Woolsey Fire burns. It, too, is immensely destructive, killing three people and causing millions of dollars worth of damage.

These two examples might be from California, but the Sunshine State is far from the only place where wildfires happen. In fact, National Geographic reports that the US suffers from nearly 100,000 fires every single year.

This is YOUR wildfire survival plan.

Understanding the Risks

Few people ever truly understand how immensely destructive and unpredictable wildfires can really be. They think they’ll see the fire from a distance and have time to leave. Or, they assume they’ll be safe because they’re on a peninsula near the water with very few trees.

The reality is that wildfires can change in an instant, and you must be prepared for every eventuality. A fire 10 miles away can catch wind over the course of as little as five minutes, turning and barreling towards you before you can ever get away.

Similarly, a small fire isn’t necessarily innocuous. Every wildfire on Earth starts with a single spark or flame. They can grow and expand at unprecedented rates.

The biggest tip we can ever give you is to always prepare in advance. Have a plan, a contingency plan, and a back-up plan – and expect the need to improvise if conditions change.

Home Safety Strategies

Your home is your sanctuary, but it, too, is vulnerable to the destructive power of wildfires. The more resistant your home (and your local environment) is to fire, the more likely you are to survive and lower the cost of repairs.

Start with these smart strategies:

  • Build Fire-Resistant Homes – Some homes burn – or catch fire – faster than others. Generally, brick, steel, natural stone, clay, and concrete are far less likely to catch a passing spark than materials like engineered wood.
  • Water Sources are Key –  Whether it’s the fire hydrant at the end of your driveway or the shoreline just a few steps away, water sources can be critical in a fire. A pond installed between the woods out back and your home could, in some cases, stop fire from progressing.
  • Keep grass trimmed – and clear away brush, dead trees, and excess sources of fuel, too. Gravel, concrete, or sand placed directly around your home extending at least 10’ out will also act like a firebreak.
  • Secure flammable items – like barbecue tanks, propane tanks, and gas line shut-off valves, at least 30 feet from your home. This will limit harm to your home (and potentially, your loved ones, too).
  • Ditch the fireplace – or at least keep your chimney in good repair. Inspect your system top-to-bottom regularly. Repair any issues you find promptly.
  • Clear your roof – you might be surprised to learn that debris on a roof (or in gutters) is highly likely to catch sparks from passing wildfires. Keep your roof clear to limit the chances of this happening.

Preparing Yourself

As with most things, the best defense is a full understanding of what you’re up against.

  • Get to Know Wildfires – Know that wildfires often change direction and intensity so quickly that people lose their ability to escape via normal routes. You can’t assume you’ll be able to simply get in your car and drive away. Plan for what happens if roads close, if escape routes become inaccessible, or if your main escape option suddenly “goes up in smoke.” Above all else, have a plan in place.
  • Know Your Resources – and how to use them, should it ever become necessary. Make a list of local, state, and federal points of support, including local fire stations, national disaster relief agencies, and government agencies. Use them if you need to, but be cognizant of the fact that they may be burdened and over-tapped. You are ALWAYS your own best savior.
  • Stay Tuned In – sign up for alerts from national and local weather agencies. Keep at least one or two power banks charged, and have basic weather radios and/or C/B radios available if communications go down. Knowing what’s happening is your best defense against getting caught in a fire.

Prepare a Wildfire Bug Out Bag

While no one ever wants to think about losing their home, there may be a situation where a wildfire simply gets too close. Never try to stick it out, assuming the fire won’t turn towards you or won’t affect you. Operate under the assumption that something will happen and be prepared to leave the moment the risk becomes too high.

Your wildfire bug out bag should include:

  • At least 3 days of water and food (per person or pet)
  • At least two weeks of any critical medication (e.g., blood pressure meds)
  • First aid supplies (especially those specific to burns)
  • Copies of important documents, such as ID and passport
  • At least two outfits per person (light and heavy preferred)
  • A compass and a map of the local area
  • At least one swiss army knife and/or multitool
  • A length of good, durable rope
  • Defense items (e.g., rifle, pistol, or knife)
  • Fire-starting tools (e.g, waterproof matches)

Remember that this list is limited. What you need will ultimately depend on your own skill set and living situation. Someone with three kids in tow and two dogs will naturally need more than someone flying solo – but being prepared is still your best defense. Plan ahead now for peace of mind later.