Important Steps for Survival
Fire poses a risk to all Americans, but for those in the path of wildfires, the risk is much greater. In 2017, there were 21,867 wildfires across the U.S. This resulted in 2,071,365 acres burned.1 This same year, California shattered wildfire records with 505,900 acres burned.2 These statistics represent a safety threat that gives little warning and moves quickly. In fact, wildfires can spread up to six-miles-per-hour in forests and up to 14-miles-per-hour in grasslands.3 Given this large span and short warning time, knowing how to stay safe in all situations is essential.
Staying Safe During a Wildfire
It’s important to avoid being caught off guard during wildfire season. Be prepared to evacuate when a wildfire occurs and protect yourself against flying embers. To protect yourself, wear long pants, long sleeve shirts, heavy boots, a cap, a dry bandana to cover your face, goggles or glasses and 100 percent cotton items. If someone gets burned during an evacuation, cover the wound to keep it from getting infected.4 Emergency kits should be prepared ahead of time and put in the evacuation vehicle. Items to include in the kits are:5
- A three-day supply of non-perishable food
- Three gallons of water per person
- A map with evacuation routes clearly marked
- Prescriptions and needed medications
- A change of clothes
- Eyeglasses or contact lenses
- Extra car keys
- Credit cards and cash
- A first aid kit
- A flashlight
- A battery powered radio with extra batteries
- Sanitation supplies
- Copies of important documents like birth certificates and passports
- Pet food and water
What to Do If You Are Trapped During a Wildfire
In the event that an evacuation is not issued but there are heavy smoke conditions, stay inside or seek a safer location. If for some reason, you do not leave your area and the fire has trapped you in your home or school building, do the following:6
- Call 9-1-1. Quickly provide them with your location and situation.
- Turn on all the lights. This allows firefighters to identify your building easier in smoky conditions.
- Close all doors, windows, vents and fire screens. Be sure to keep the doors unlocked. This allows firefighters to enter easily.
- Move all curtains away from the windows and sliding glass doors. Curtains are highly flammable. Removing them reduces fuel for the fire.
- Fill your sinks and tubs with cold water.
- Stay inside and away from outer walls and windows.
If you become trapped in your vehicle during a wildfire, certain measures should be taken. These include:7
- Call 9-1-1 and communicate your location
- Parking the vehicle away from vegetation that would fuel the fire.
- Close all windows and vents in the vehicle. This keeps smoke out.
- Use a wool blanket or jacket to cover yourself in the car.
- Lay down on the vehicle floor.
If you become trapped on foot, the following procedures should be taken:8
- Call 9-1-1. Tell officials your location and situation.
- Find an area without vegetation. Look for ditches or ground depressions.
- Cover your body and lay face down on the ground.
Safety After a Wildfire
The focus during a wildfire is usually on staying safe and surviving the fire. However, this can leave a moment of uncertainty regarding the next steps to take when the wildfire has passed. For those that evacuated, returning home is often their first priority. However, it is important to return home or to a school building only after authorities have communicated that it is safe. Once you arrive at the building, be sure to:9
- Maintain a “fire watch.” Check for smoke, sparks or hidden embers in the house or building. Repeat this process for several hours. Be sure to include the roof and attic in each search.
- Keep an eye out for hot spots, which can ignite trees without warning.
- Wear leather gloves and thick soled boots for protection.
- Look for damaged power poles and stay away from them. Also avoid damaged power lines and report any seen to 9-1-1 or the power company.
- Look for ash pits. These are holes in the ground created by burned tree roots, filled with hot ashes. Also, keep an eye out for burned trees, debris or live embers. If any of these are identified, mark them for safety and keep clear of them.
- Wet down roof and gutters to ensure that all sparks and embers are put out.
- Stay connected to alert systems, radio and other information sources. Consider following FEMA and the American Red Cross apps.
- Stay in contact with friends and family through text messaging and phone calls.
For repairing and clearing damages done to a property, certain cleaning measures should be taken. These include:10
- Wearing a NIOSH certified-respirator (dust mask) when moving debris.
- Wetting down any debris, to reduce dust.
- Throwing any food out that was exposed to heat, smoke or soot.
- Checking water for contaminates. Water that is contaminated should not be used for any purpose.
- Taking photos of the damage for possible insurance claims.
Wildfires can occur at any point in the year and impact thousands of lives. The key to survival and staying safe is knowing what to do in different situations. Wildfires can strike while you’re at home, driving in a car, outside or away from your family. Each situation requires different procedures. However, evacuating is generally the first step in ensuring safety. Emergency kits should be prepared ahead of time and everyone should know what to do if they are suddenly trapped by the fire. Keep in mind that the danger doesn’t stop once the fire is put out. Returning home can be more hazardous than you might realize. Special care should be taken when clearing any debris.
1 “National Preparedness Level 2,” National Interagency Fire Center
2 “The Wildfires in California Just Keep Shattering Records This Year,” CNN, December 26, 2017
3 “The Terrifying Physics of How Wildfires Spread So Fast,” Forbes, September 6, 2017
4 “Go! Evacuation Guide,” ReadyForWildfire.org
5 “Assemble an Emergency Supply Kit,” ReadyForWildfire.org
6 “How to Prepare for a Wildfire,” Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
7,8 “What to do If You Become Trapped,” ReadyForWildfire.org
9 “How to Prepare for a Wildfire,” Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
10 “Wildfires,” Ready.gov