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Everyone has heard the saying, “Only you can prevent wildfires,” but it’s only partly true. Many wildfires are started by lightning, poor forest management, poor maintenance of electrical power transfer systems, and building in areas where fires can occur from buildup of undergrowth. Deliberate criminal arson and carelessness are also ways that these horrific disasters occur.
Wildfires are an international issue. As of this writing, extensive wildfires are happening in the Western USA, Israel, Europe, and Russia. Weather patterns have been changing. July was the hottest month ever recorded. The Western United States has been in a serious drought for years now, and water supplies are dwindling.
Snowcaps have also been limited, and the wildfire season is in full force and expected to last until the first snows in November. Last year saw devastating fires in South America, especially in Bolivia and Australia. The debut of VLAT’s (Very Large Air Tankers), converted Jumbo Jets, DC 10’s and Boeing 747’s, and the addition of helicopters has enabled fire fighters to drop heavier loads onto the blazes.
The news media is filled with nightmare images of towering flames, homes and businesses in ruins, “firenadoes”, and flames jumping interstate highways. If you found yourself caught in one of these dangerous situations, could you survive? And how would you avoid it or escape it?
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The best way to survive a wildfire is to not get caught, and the best defense is knowledge and preparation. Wildfires are no respecters of persons. Small cabin or million dollar mansion, a wildfire will burn it down just the same.
Once a wildfire starts, it can be spread by winds and available fuel. Wind-driven flames produce hellish firestorms, and the fuel comes from the expansion of building into former open space, leaving behind scrub brush, dry grass, and other fuels. Putting electric lines through forested areas with up to three feet of uncleaned undergrowth was a major factor in recent California fires along with delayed maintenance and repair of wires, cables, and transformers.
What If You’re Traveling?
If you plan on traveling, check to see if any active wildfires are at your destination or along your route. Alter your route if it leads to or through areas where active fires are present. And if you’re going through an area with a history of wildfires or potential for them by means of plentiful fuel (undergrowth, old timber, etc.), be very cautious and aware of all alternate routes.
In addition, be sure to travel with emergency kits that contain water, food bars, current maps, and everyone in sturdy boots and safe clothing. Trousers, pants, and long-sleeved jackets should be packed. First aid kits are an absolute necessity.
What If You’re Trapped?
Because wildfires have many causes and wind and combustible fuels can be plentiful, you may find yourself trapped. You can survive if you take precautions and act quickly, calmly, and confidently.
- Avoid driving into a fire; wildfires do jump lanes.
- If you are able get off the road into a safe place, park away from heavy trees and undergrowth, and brush.
- Close all windows, vents, and air conditioner/heater systems.
Get everyone on the floor and get covered with a blanket or coat (soaked in water if possible). Cover mouth and nose with those facemasks or another cloth covering.
Stay inside and covered until the fire danger has passed. The air will still be smoke filled. Wildfires will smolder and can still spread and restart with wind.
When it is safe, inspect the car for any soldering materials and seek help to see if there has been damage to fuel lines, brake cables, etc.
Living In The Wildfire Danger Zone
In recent years, there has been a large movement to rural areas by city dwellers. Fearful of crime and civil unrest, many are seeking to live in previously remote areas. There are numerous real estate companies offering “off the grid” properties to jaded urbanites.
Several states have seen dramatic increases in population and increased building of subdivisions and leisure resorts. Unfortunately, many older communities lack the public services that newcomers expect. Fire and rescue are often by volunteers and equipment may be older, broadband is often unavailable. Urban refugees are often in for a culture shock when integrating into a rural environment, and many of them do not understand or appreciate the danger of wildfires.
If you live in an area where wildfires are likely to happen or have happened, there are preventative measures that can be undertaken to secure the property, limit damage, and make a safe escape if necessary.
Have a plan of action.
Know what your community’s resources are. What are escape routes, and what requirements or recommendations do local first responders have?
Plan of action should include:
- Escape routes or on-hand resources to fight the fire.
- The residence and other structures can be fire-proofed with fire resistant siding and shingles.
- Roof sprinkler systems to wet down the roof and deter sparks, cinders, and debris are available.
- If you cannot leave, close all windows and shut down any air circulation systems. Put wet towels under door openings and windows. Stay inside until the danger has passed. Be watchful and have extinguishers handy.
- Do regular inspections and upkeep of lawn sprinklers.
- Have a clear zone around structures free of combustible materials.
- Consider duplication of important documents or family memories (photos, movies, etc. can be digitized and made available on USB drives or the Cloud). Speed and weight are factors in what to take and pack. Remember lives come before property.
- Construct a pond for water storage or, if you have a swimming pool, trim trees nearby. Fire tanker hellos do use swimming pools and accessible water sources and can fill and refill their dump buckets easily if they can get close enough to draw water. Have a security fence around the pond or pool for safety.
- Have a heavy duty hose and nozzle to wet down the area. Regular garden hoses cannot stand stress and can be easily damaged by everyday use.
- Backpack pumps are available at big box stores. These can be refilled and carried to wherever they’re needed.
- Dependable fire extinguishers for home and vehicles are a necessity.
- Keep your vehicles gas tanks full and park them at a distance from all structures.
- If you have pets, keep a kennel ready along with food, water, and other supplies you need to move them.
- If you have livestock, be ready to open gates and let them free so they can seek safety. Have recent photos and be ready to mark your phone number on a visible place for later return. Have bolt cutters and markers available to let the livestock seek safety and be retrieved later. Some communities where there was sufficient warning have evacuated horses and cattle to fairgrounds and race tracks out of the fire’s path. Join local Facebook or Twitter groups to communicate.
- Keep access roads to your property clear and ready for fire engines. Have the address visible and readable.
If a Wildfire Has Begun in Your Area
Wildfires are “wild” and frightening, and first responders risk their lives to save people from them. Winds can spread flames and quickly jump roads. Putting first responders at risk because you think you can protect your property is unnecessary and unethical. If evacuations are ordered, comply and follow the above steps. Give copies of your evacuation plan to first responders, friends, and relatives to avoid confusion.
The recent “Paradise Fire” in California has many lessons for everyone. The town had altered its main street to provide increased parking, and this constricted the main evacuation route. Being proactive in planning is important for all the community and public officials.
Fireproofing the Homestead
- Clear brush and trim nearby trees
- Store flammable materials safely
- Park vehicles at a safe distance
- Access ways for firefighting evacuation
- Get some heavy duty hoses and nozzles
- Get some heavy duty gloves
- Don’t forget to have plenty of face masks
- Make sure you have fire extinguishers
- Have plenty of tools on hand, including a bolt cutter
- Livestock if let loose: telephone number on flanks, photos.
- Pets and livestock need to be protected, not abandoned.
You can survive a wildfire. Have a plan of action and review it regularly. Communicate and stay informed.
Wildfires are a fact of life and as remote areas see building and settlement, the danger to lives and property will increase. Be ready to act and act decisively.
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