Wildfires are uncontrolled blazes fueled by weather, wind, and dry underbrush that quickly and unpredictably consume everything in their paths. There are about 100,000 wildfires in the United States every year. The Thomas fire, the largest wildfire in California’s history, scorched through Southern California from December 4, 2017 to January 12, 2018. The deadly fire burned 281,893 acres, destroyed 1,063 structures, and claimed 2 lives. 20 additional people were killed in mudslides as a result of heavy rainfalls over the charred lands and numerous others were affected by the poor air quality from the heavy smoke and ash.
How can you help prevent this type of disaster from happening again, how can you be best prepared if a wildfire were to ignite near you, and what should you do if you are caught in the middle of one?
Below are recommendations based on multiple scientific sources, including the National Forest Service, the National Fire Projection Association, National Geographic, and peer-reviewed medical journals.
Nearly 9 out of 10 wildfires in the United States are caused by humans. Lightning and lava ignite the remaining 10%, but there is little we can do to prevent lightning strikes or volcanic eruptions. Man-made causes of wildfires include unattended campfires, cigarettes, fireworks, burning debris, sparks from equipment or vehicles, and arson. Here are a few rules to follow to avoid some of these wildfire triggers:
- Immediately alert 911, your local fire department, or the park service if you notice an unattended or out-of-control fire. Fires are much easier to contain when they are small.
- Ensure the safety of the area prior to starting a fire. Consider local regulations, nearby flammable objects, and weather conditions.
- Never leave a fire unattended. Completely extinguish the fire before sleeping or leaving the campsite.
- Take care when using and fueling lanterns, stoves, and heaters. Make sure these devices are cool before refueling. Avoid spilling flammable liquids and store fuel away from appliances.
- Do not discard cigarettes, matches, or smoking materials from moving vehicles or anywhere on park grounds. Be certain to completely extinguish cigarettes before disposing of them.
- Maintain your property. Clear dead vegetation from roofs, gutters, porches, decks, and within 10 feet of the house. Keep flammable material (wood piles, propane tanks) at least 30 feet from your house.
- Follow local ordinances when burning yard waste. Avoid backyard burning in windy conditions, and keep a shovel, water, and fire retardant nearby to keep fires in check. Remove all flammables from your yard prior to burning.
Proper planning and following some simple precautions can help you and your family stay safe during emergency events like wildfires. Here are a few points to consider so that you can be best prepared should a wildfire ignite near you:
- Know your wildfire risk. Keep informed of the fire weather conditions, changes, and forecasts and how they may affect the area where you are located.
- Plan an evacuation route. Know how to leave your immediate area or region and have a plan for where to go if you have to evacuate. Plan a few alternate routes and destinations so you have options.
- Develop a communication plan. Create a network or phone tree and determine who will help which family members, facilitate communication, take care of children, handle medications, etc. Don’t forget to include your pets in your plans!
- Prepare an evacuation checklist and emergency supplies. Consider putting together an emergency kit you can keep in your car that includes items like food, water, flashlight, hand radio, first aid kit, dust masks (N95 respirators), prescription medications, clothing, matches, etc.
Particular circumstances, advance planning, a person’s ability to avoid panic, and sheer luck determine the difference between fatal fires and near-fatal fires. Below are some important recommendations to follow if you are caught in a wildfire so that you are not depending on luck to survive:
- Follow the instructions provided by local officials. If advised to evacuate, do so immediately.
- Acknowledge the stress you are feeling. It is natural to be afraid when trapped by a fire, but if you let fear overwhelm you, your judgment will be seriously impaired and survival will become more a matter of chance than good decision-making. Be alert, keep calm, think clearly, and act decisively to avoid panic reactions.
- Wear protective clothing and footwear to shield yourself from flying sparks and ashes. The best clothes are bright, loose fitting, and made out of closely woven natural fibers.
- Prepare your house. Remove all combustibles, including firewood, yard waste, grills, and fuel cans from your yard. Close all windows, vents, and doors. Shut off natural gas, propane, or fuel oil supplies. Fill large vessels, including pools, hot tubs, garbage cans, and tubs with water to slow or discourage fires.
- Protect yourself against radiation and heatstroke. Many victims of wildfires actually die before the flames reach them due to radiant heat emitted by the flames. Use every means possible (lakes, streams, vehicles, buildings, boulders, rock outcrops, large downed logs) to protect yourself from radiation. Lie facedown on the ground and cover your entire body with wet clothing, a blanket, or soil. Stay low and covered until the fire passes. Protect your airways from heat by breathing air closest to the ground, through a moist cloth, if possible. Avoid wells and caves because oxygen may be used up quickly in these enclosed places. If able, drink small quantities of water at regular intervals.
- Enter the burned area. Do not delay if you are able to move through the flames into the burned area. Choose a place on the fire’s edge where flames are less than 1 meter deep and can be seen through clearly, cover exposed skin, take several breaths, then move through the flame front as quickly as possible.
Author: Jessica Walrath, MD
Wilderness Medicine Fellow, Yale School of Medicine
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Alexander ME, Mutch RW, Davis KM, Bucks CM. Wildland Fires: Dangers and Survival. In: Auerbach PS, Cushing TA, Harris NS. Auerbach’s Wilderness Medicine. 7th ed. Philadeplphia, PA. Elsevier Inc; 2017. 14:275-318.
Learn Wildfire Safety Tips [Internet]. National Geographic Society. Available from: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/natural-disasters/wildfire-safety-tips/
Prevention How-Tos [Internet]. The Ad Council; 2018. Available from: https://smokeybear.com/en/prevention-how-tos
Wildfire safety tips [Internet]. National Fire Protection Association. 2018. https://www.nfpa.org/Public-Education/By-topic/Wildfire/Wildfire-safety-tips