How to Prepare for and Survive a Wildfire

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Over the past 30 years, we’ve seen an uptick in the number of large wildfires. In the Western US, wildfire season has increased to 7 months of the year. (1)

But the numbers don’t adequately capture how bad wildfires have become. The “Holy Fire” in California forced 20,000 people to evacuate.  The Carr Fire destroyed over 1,000 residences. (2) The Mendocino Complex wildfire burned over 450,000 acres. (3)

Climate change means more snowmelt and rains during spring, which in turn causes lots of vegetation growth.  When this vegetation dries out in the hot summer, it is fuel for MASSIVE wildfires.

It isn’t just California which is affected. Projections show that every ecosystem is going to see an increase in wildfires. (4)

wildfire image
It takes a NASA satellite image to capture just how large these wildfires are becoming! Image credit: NASA

At FEMA, Ready.gov and Wunderground you can find some advice for preparing for a wildfire. However, I find this advice severely inadequate.  Sure, you should do things like make a “sign up for alerts” and “clear an area around your home.”  But the reality is that wildfire preparedness is a lot more intensive than their guides make it sound.

Jump To:

Denial: No One Wants to Believe They’ll Be Hit by a Wildfire

house destroyed by wildfire

The first step in wildfire preparedness is to take the risk seriously.  Unfortunately, whether it is for a wildfire, hurricane, earthquake, or massive power outage, we humans are generally terrible at planning for natural disasters.

We see this every time a natural disaster hits.

People refuse to evacuate their homes.  They don’t have basic supplies like food and water stockpiled. They let their emotions cloud their judgment. Many end up dying unnecessarily.

As this article points out,

“Generally, people don’t respect the power of potential disasters, and they don’t adequately plan for them.”

There are two main reasons for this. One is the “perfectionist fallacy”: That, since it is impossible to plan for a disaster perfectly, you might as well not do anything.  Of course this is ridiculous when you think about it rationally – any amount of preparing is better than nothing!

The other fallacy is simply wishful thinking.  But wishful thinking – or prayer or hopefulness — will not spare you from a natural disaster.

So, while it might seem tedious or “unnecessary” to go through all of these wildfire preparation steps, make sure you follow through. You don’t want to be beating yourself up afterwards because your wishful thinking led you to be unprepared.

Before a Wildfire Hits

These are all steps you should take NOW.  By the time a wildfire warning is in effect, you won’t have time to do any of them.

1. Sign Up for Alerts

Don’t rely on news or TV to keep you informed.  Instead, make sure you get alerted to wildfire threats immediately by:

  • Signing up for text or email alert systems. Just do an internet search for Your town, city, or county and the word alerts. Example: Here is how California residents can sign up for alerts.
  • Get an NOAA emergency radio with alerts. Here are some of the best emergency radios.

Don’t forget to consider how you will stay informed if the power goes out.  Have spare batteries, a solar or crank charger, and/or choose an emergency radio which can run on alternative power (such as a crank).

2. Stockpile Emergency Supplies at Home

Even if your region isn’t directly affected by the wildfire, you might lose power.  Tap water (if still available) might not be safe to drink.  For these reasons, you must be prepared to shelter in place.

At the very minimum it is recommended that you have a 3-day supply of food and water.  However, a 30-day supply is much smarter (for these reasons).

To get started, read:

3. Get Insurance in Order

One common fallacy that people have is, “I have insurance, so I don’t have to worry about disaster planning.”

But many natural disaster survivors will tell you how terrible the insurance process is.

Many discover that they were grossly under insured.  You may be required to do a home inventory of everything that was in your home.  When your entire home has been burnt down, that’s obviously very tricky – not to mention emotional!

To prepare:

  • Update your insurance policy. Be aware that many insurers are no longer willing to give wildfire insurance in high-risk areas (which is about half of California). If you are unable to renew or get a policy, read this fact sheet.
  • Get flood insurance. Deforestation from wildfires means an increased risk of flooding and mudslides. Make sure your insurance policy covers this too.
  • Do a home inventory. Here’s a guide on how to do an inventory for insurance purposes.
  • Make digital copies in the cloud: Your home inventory as well as any important receipts should be in digital format. Keep these stored in the cloud so they can’t be lost during a wildfire.

4. Be Prepared to Lose EVERYTHING

home destroyed by wildfire

This is where wishful thinking really gets in the way of wildfire preparedness.  As Tony Stoltzfus recounts of the moments before the Carr Fire forced him to evacuate,

“You look at the sky and you can’t see anything. You think: ‘Well, the firefighters are really good.’ You think: ‘I’m not going to take that because it will be disruptive to put it all back when we return.”

That sort of thinking led him to take his computers, documents, and some other items with monetary value – but nothing which was irreplaceable or held sentimental value.

Now he regrets not being able to take his family photos, journals, and handmade furniture – like the dining room table he used instead of an engagement ring to propose to his wife.

This is a common lament with wildfire victims. Risa Nye brought photo albums and her children’s baby books, but wasn’t aware of how much sentimental value other items had, such as boxes of letters from her grandfather.

They might just be “things” – but things have value. As PS Mag points out in their article about things lost in wildfires,

“Sentiment appears over and over in conversations about lost belongings. ‘Things are things,’ evacuees say, or ‘Everything can be replaced,’ or ‘It’s just a house, plaster and wood.’ Perhaps they say these phrases aloud so often because they are trying to convince themselves.”

How can you prepare to lose everything?

  • Make digital copies and put them in the cloud: Do this for photographs, letters, and other paper items.
  • Take photos of cherished belongings: For example, take photos of the embroidered tablecloth your grandmother made or memento’s from travels. Store these photos in the cloud. You probably won’t be taking these items with you when evacuating so they could be lost in a fire – but at least you’ll still have the pictures.
  • Consider your young children: I know that my daughter would be CRUSHED if she lost certain stuffed animals that she’s had since being a baby. Make a note of these items so you can grab them quickly when evacuating.
  • Keep important valuables packed and ready: When practical, keep valuables (including those which have sentimental value) packed together in a way which makes them easy to grab and go.

Remember, you may have less than 20 minutes to evacuate – and there might not be power or light. You simply won’t have time to sort through boxes of baby mementos, jewelry, quilts, and other items.  Everything must be ready to go!  Be prepared to lose anything which you did not pack ahead of time.

5. Pack a Go Bag

Wildfires can travel as fast as 10-20 miles per hour. (5)  If one is nearby, you must be ready to leave immediately.

You should have a go bag packed with all of these necessities needed to survive.  It could be weeks before you can return to your home.  You might not have a home to return to.

Pack:

  • Basic personal items: Such as clothing for 3-5 days, hygiene items, towels, baby wipes (great for when you can’t take a shower), and extra glasses or contact lenses/solution
  • Baby care items: Like formula, extra bottled water, bottles, diapers, wipes, and a baby carrier. More on prepping with children.
  • Communication devices: Your cell phone, chargers, laptop, emergency radio, and list of contacts.
  • Medications: Including allergy medications, inhalers, prescription meds, and copies of your prescriptions
  • Papers and documents: Such as your passports, IDs, credit cards, and birth certificates. See a list of emergency documents here. You should also take the step of putting these in digital format and storing them in the cloud.
  • Pets and their items: Keep pet carriers near the door and ready to go. Have food, bowls, leashes, and other items packed.  Remember that you will probably need proof of vaccinations in order for your pet to be accepted into a shelter.  Read this article about evacuating with pets.
  • Comfort items: Bringing a book or deck of cards is a good idea. It will take away some of the mental stress while you pass the time in your emergency shelter.
  • Emergency supplies: Some non-perishable foods, water, flashlights, a first aid kit, and map of the area.
  • Fire-specific items: Including an N95 mask, portable fire extinguisher, and fire blanket
  • Valuables: As talked about in above, have your most precious sentimental or valuable items packed and ready to go.

6. Make a Communication Plan

How would you get in contact with family members if you had to evacuate while someone wasn’t at home? You can’t rely on cell phones during emergencies, especially since coverage can go out and lines can be flooded.

For this reason, it is important to make an emergency communication plan. The plan should include a way to get in touch and a meeting point.

Read how to make an emergency communication plan here.

7. Make Evacuation Plan

Many people die during wildfires because they fail to evacuate on time. You may only have minutes to evacuate and your emotions will be running high.  These emotions can cloud your judgment – which is why you need to have a plan in place before you have to evacuate.

Plan:

  • Your escape route: You need at least two routes in different directions. Get a map and look at alternate roads in case one is not accessible due to the wildfire.
  • A vehicle: Keep your car tank at least half full with gas. Gas stations will not be open during a wildfire.  If you don’t have your own vehicle, then talk to your neighbors about being able to evacuate with them.  You’ll need to coordinate with multiple neighbors in case one isn’t home at the time.
  • Where will you go? Talk to friends and relatives about whether you can go to their homes during an evacuation. They should live sufficiently far away from you to be out of the danger zone.  Choose people in multiple directions so you have options.

WRITE YOUR PLAN DOWN.

In an actual emergency, priorities become muddled.  You might forget things that seem obvious – like to grab your Go Bag or take your pets.  Write everything down as a checklist to follow during evacuation.

Read more about evacuation plans here.

8. Run a Drill with Your Family

Drills are a form of “emergency conditioning.” Basically, they help you mentally familiarize yourself with the disaster. If the disaster really does occur, you will be more likely to react properly instead of freezing or making mistakes.

Make sure you are practicing your wildfire evacuation plan with your family as a drill.  You’ll also need to practice using the fire extinguisher in the drill.

Steps to Fireproof Your Home

home destroyed by wildfire

One of the things that amazes me about wildfires is that their destruction seems arbitrary.  Take a look at the image above – one home is completely razed to the ground.  The neighbors’ homes are unscathed.

As this Washington Post article points out, some homes stand amid a sea of ash. The reason largely has to do with the direction of the wind (wind sends sparks shooting in certain directions) and whether firefighters were able to make a stand.

There are also things that you can do to prevent your home from going up in a blaze – even if the homes around you are burning.

FireWise Action Plan

To learn how to fireproof your home, I suggest you check out the FireWise USA program. They have many resources about how you can reduce the risk to your home and community (including a free eCourse).

What’s particularly great about FireWise is that they have a state liaison program. Liaisons are appointed by the state forestry/fire agency.  They will perform assessments of your community and help your community make an action plan.  Find your FireWise State Liaison here.

Overview of Fireproofing Steps

I’m not going to pretend that I’m an expert in fireproofing homes.  There is a LOT that goes into fireproofing.  Some things are simple – like keeping your yard free of flammable debris and furniture.  Other steps are more complicated, like knowing which landscaping to use.  That’s why you should really contact the FireWise program.

Here’s an overview of some steps you can be expected to take.

In/On Your Home

  • Cover chimney and stove outlets with a small mesh screen. This will prevent embers from getting into your home.
  • Use non-combustible or fire-resistant materials for your roof and the exterior of your home (including decks and trim).
  • Treat combustible materials with fire-retardant chemicals which are recognized by an accredited laboratory.
  • Regularly clean gutters and roofs

30-Feet Around Your Home

  • Keep this area free of leaves, pine needles, dried branches, and other flammable debris
  • Have a sprinkler in an accessible location. It should be able to reach all areas of your property.
  • Select landscaping plants which contain fires instead of fueling them.
  • Store any flammable materials such as gasoline in safety cans away from your home

200-Feet Around Your Home

Ideally, an area of 200 feet around your home should be fireproof.  This might extend to your neighbors’ yards, which is why it is so important to get your entire community involved in wildfire preparedness.

What to Do When There’s a Wildfire Threat

smoke from wildfire

Remember that even the most levelheaded people can get emotional during disasters.  That’s why it is so important to make an evacuation plan before a wildfire hits.  WRITE DOWN YOUR PLAN so you follow the right steps and don’t forget anything important!

Here is what you need to do if there is a wildfire threat nearby or you can see a wildfire coming.

Wildfire Warnings

Just like with other natural disasters, wildfires have different levels of warnings.  Understanding them is important to you can be prepared to leave quickly.

  • Fire Weather Watch: A Watch alert means that the conditions could result in a wildfire within the next 12-48 hours. However, no wildfire is occurring yet during a Watch.  Take extra caution with BBQs, cigarettes, and anything else that could cause a wildfire.
  • Red Flag Warning: This means that there is either a fire occurring or that one will likely occur within the next 24 hours. Take extreme caution with any flames or sparks.
  • Extreme Fire Behavior: This alert means that a wildfire is occurring and could rage out of control. When this alert is issued, you should be ready to evacuate if necessary.

If a Wildfire Is Nearby

Your first priority should be evacuating.  Things can be replaced.  Lives cannot.  However, if you have time, you can follow these steps before evacuating:

  • Keep pets inside. You don’t want to be searching for them when it is time to evacuate!
  • Wear smart clothing. This is not the time to be walking around in flip-flops. You need clothing which is suitable for evacuation.
  • Get your car ready. It should be packed and facing out of the driveway so you can quickly drive away.
  • Turn off propane or natural gas.
  • Turn on all lights. This will help firefights see better.
  • Put a ladder to the roof on the front of your home. This will also assist firefighters.
  • Close all windows, doors, and fire screens (prevents drafts which will cause the fire to spread faster)
  • Cover vents, windows, and other openings with pre-cut pieces of plywood
  • Remove flammable curtains and drapes from windows.
  • Put sprinklers on the roof. Turn them on.
  • Use a hose to fill any pools, hot tubs, or large containers with water.
  • Disconnect automatic garage door openers so they can be opened by hand if necessary. Close the garage door.
  • Move flammable furniture to the center of your home, away from windows and sliding doors.
  • Place valuables that won’t be destroyed by water in your filled pool, hot tub, or pond.
  • Do not put livestock or animals in barns/pens/coops. If these structures catch fire, they will not be able to escape. It is safer to let them roam in pastures. You can also take animal evacuation steps like writing your name/number on animals with a livestock crayon.

When Evacuating a Wildfire

evacuating during a wildfire

If you’ve prepared in advance, you should be able to get out of danger quickly.

While evacuating, you’ll need to wear your N95 face mask to keep particles out of your lungs.  Have your emergency radio turned on so you know which routes are safest.

Important: Preparing your home for evacuation is a lot of work.  It is also very emotional.  But don’t succumb to “evacuation fatigue.”

This is the term that authorities are using for people who’ve had to evacuate their homes multiple times.  They worry that repeated evacuations might make people reluctant to leave again.

Remember that emotions and wishful thinking cause people to DIE during natural disasters.  It is better to evacuate early then put firefighters at risk when they come to rescue you.  And it is certainly better to evacuate “unnecessarily” than have your family plan your funeral.

If Trapped in Your Home during a Wildfire

Firefighters battling fire from Panorama brush fire
Firefighters battling fire from Panorama brush fire

We don’t hear too many stories of people who survived being trapped in their homes during a wildfire. The sad truth is that people who don’t evacuate on time are likely to die in the flames.  However, there are rare miracle stories.

Almost everyone who survived a wildfire did so by jumping into a pool or pond.

Daniel and Cindy Pomplun were sleeping when evacuation orders were issued (which emphasizes why you need an emergency radio with alerts).  By the time they realized they needed to leave, it was too late.

The couple stayed in their home for as long as possible.  When their garage caught fire and smoke filled the home, they ran into their pool.  They stayed in the water, watching their home burn to the ground, with wet towels wrapped around their heads.  During the worst of it, they had to completely submerge into the water and only come up for air.  Once the house was completely consumed, the fire moved on.

John and Jan Pascoe have a similar story of survival.  They made a dash for their neighbor’s pool and stayed there for 6 hours, asking themselves “How long does it take for a house to burn down?”

When the Camp Fire hit a community that was unable to evacuate in time, over a dozen people survived by jumping into a frigid lake.

Not everyone survived by jumping into water though.  A pediatrician and others trapped were able to survive by fighting the approaching fire with garden hoses.

What can we learn from this? If you are trapped in your home during a wildfire:

  • Call 911 and provide your location. But don’t count on being rescued. Take steps to save yourself.
  • Fill all tubs and sinks with water.
  • Stay in your home for as long as possible. Keep away from outside walls and windows.  Remove any flammable items from windows.
  • Keep doors, windows, and vents shut.
  • Run into a filled pool, hot tub, or pond. Wrap wet towels around you to protect against the heat while in the water.
  • If you are trapped in your car, park in an area clear of vegetation. Roll up your windows and close vents. Lie facedown and cover your body with a wool blanket if you have one. Do not use synthetics as these will melt and burn you.

If you prepare ahead of time and evacuate when there’s a threat, then hopefully you will never be trapped by a wildfire.  Don’t let wishful thinking get in the way – start making a wildfire preparation plan now!


Disclaimer: This website and the material covered is for informational purposes only. We take no responsibility for what you do with this knowledge. By taking and/or using any informational resources from this website you agree that you will use this information in a safe and legal manner, consistent with all applicable laws, safety rules, and good common sense. Full disclaimers here.

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