Fires need three things to burn: heat, fuel, and oxygen.
Drought conditions make for the perfect fire season environment because it’s hot, the shrubs and trees are dry (fuel source) and the high winds are stronger than usual (oxygen flow).
The risk of wildfires will be present year after year, so it should come as no surprise when your newsfeed is being flooded with alerts. Unfortunately, it’s a threat that you may have to face at one point or another (I’m talking to all my fellow Californians here!) so it’s best to become prepared sooner than later.
At the same time, I don’t want to discredit the tragedy that results from this type of disaster. I deeply sympathize with each person who has lost their home to a fire, or any natural disaster for that matter.
I was in Paradise, CA in December 2018 just after the Camp Fire had ripped through the town. The destruction was beyond anything I have ever experienced. It was truly devastating to sift through the ashes of what someone had previously called home. And yet, people were grateful to be alive and hopeful to rebuild their future.
My goal in this guide is to give you that same hope- not the hope that your home will stay intact (although I sure hope it does!) but the hope that you can survive it, for one, and the empowerment to rebuild your life because you were prepared.
Although we cannot predict future wildfires, we certainly should be prepared for them. In this guide you’ll gain some insight into how you can retrofit your home to make it less wildfire-friendly and more wildfire-resistant, as well as how to stay safe should you need to evacuate.
[This is a long article about becoming prepared for wildfires, so the links in the Table of Contents may help you to navigate through the page. If you don't have much time and want to dive right into the meat of this article, please click here.]
- More than 46 million homes and more than 70,000 communities are at risk of wildfires in the United States.
- Today, the fire season is 78 days longer than in the 1970s.
- Over the last 10 years, there was an average of 67,000 wildfires annually and approximately 7.0 million acres burned annually.
- The Camp Fire of 2018 was the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California History.
- Lightning strikes the earth 100,000 or more times each day. A 10 to 20% of these can result in a fire.
Wildfire terms you should know
Fire weather - Fire weather is the term used to highlight that the current weather conditions are highly favorable for a fire to start.
Fire weather watch - Weather forecasters use this term to inform the public that the weather conditions pose a high-risk for the development of a dangerous fire. These watches are issued 24 to 72 hours prior to an event so it should give you just enough time to gather your emergency kits and make evacuation arrangements if your area is in a high-risk zone.
Red Flag Warning: A red flag warning is issued by the weather forecasters to inform the public of an ongoing critical fire. This type of warning should be taken very seriously.
Spot fire - A spot fire is when flying embers or sparks from an already-existing fire cause a new fire to form. This is especially common when wind speeds are high.
Ground fire - This type of fire is most often caused by a lightning strike. It typically burns just below the ground and ignites the organic soil layer including roots, dead moss, and other materials. Ground fires can reach the surface and become surface fires.
Surface fire - These types of fires can be low or high intensity but they move slowly, typically through the forest, only burning whatever is on the surface of the ground: shrubs and trees.
Crown fire - A crown fire is a fast-moving fire, usually because it’s accompanied by high wind. Crown fires ignite the tops of trees and can be caused by surface fires. They have a higher heat intensity. You may also hear the term “running crown fire’ which refers to an even more dangerous version of a crown fire since they travel faster.
Test fire - On occasion you’ll see fire crews and personnel working on a controlled, or test, fire. Test fires are done to lower the possibility of that area becoming a high-risk fire zone later on. Test fires are contained so that they don’t spread beyond a pre-determined perimeter. They’re done on days where the fire risk is low so that they don’t spread, but on occasion, they can get out of control.
Fire intensity - This refers to the amount of heat that is released during a fire.
Containment - This is a percentage given to indicate how much of the fire is under control.
Current live map of wildfires
The Fire Information for Resource Management System has a live map on their website that shows the current fires and burned areas worldwide, as well as fires that have occurred in the last 48 hours, 72 hours, and 7 days.
Although much smaller, this map by NASA Earth Observations shows a satellite map of all current fires throughout the world. The data goes as far back as January of the current year.
This interactive map shows you all the current fires burning in the United States. As you click on them, you can find out their names, how many acres they burned so far, and their containment percentage.
Finally, the NOAA has a map of current fire points in all of North America and parts of Central America captured by satellite.
Just as important as it is to know where the fires are currently burning, is knowing the quality of the air. The particles released into the air after the mass-burning of materials from homes, forests, cars, etc is especially hazardous to our health. Purple Air has developed a map to help you identify the current air quality conditions of any place around the world. AirNow is a government site that provides similar information on fires and air quality. Their map is a little harder to use, in my opinion, but it’s a good resource to have as a backup.
What to expect during a wildfire
Wildfires are scary and dangerous. To put your mind at ease, we gathered a list of the most common wildfire questions and answered them for you here.
How to mitigate wildfires
We recommend you consider the following important steps to mitigate your wildfire risk.
- Never leave a flame unattended. This includes but is not limited to a candle, a cigarette butt, a stovetop, or the fire in the fireplace or grill. Keep fire extinguishers in accessible parts of the house (i.e. the kitchen, near the fireplace, etc).
- Strengthen your home with fire-resistant materials. The keyword here is fire-resistant. There’s no way to make your home 100% fire-proof. Install materials that are less likely to catch on fire and/or will prevent the spread of fire.
The University of California Cooperative Extension published this guide on their website that will help you retrofit your home for deterring fires. Once you’re on their page, you can get more information on roofing, vents, vegetation, deck, windows, eaves, and siding by clicking on any of those options on the left menu.
- Improve your landscaping and create a fire break that surrounds your home. As it has been said many times, you should create defensible space. What this means is that you don’t have flammable materials within 100 feet of your home.
Prune trees and remove flammable vegetation such as overhanging branches, dried leaves, pine needles, wood piles, etc. Combustible materials like propane tanks and flammable furniture should also be kept at a significant distance from the home.
Removing these flammable items provides you with a much better chance that your home will survive. There are several plants, like these ones, that are considered fire-resistant because of their low sap and high moisture content.
- Take recent photos of your home, including each of the rooms. This shows the insurance companies what you had and perhaps what you lost.
- Prepare your emergency kit. Don’t evacuate last minute without preparing well ahead of time. If you live in a fire-prone area, you should always be ready!
- Prepare a family communication and reunification plan. Have your children memorize the phone number of their primary caregivers in case you’re not together in an emergency situation. Identify a meeting place that is both within your neighborhood and outside your neighborhood.
- Develop a wildfire action plan. Determine two ways to evacuate your home. Involve your family members in evacuation drills a few times each year so they can respond calmly in the future.
Also, identify evacuation routes in your community. Consider that the best routes are likely to become congested so you may have to go through back streets and less trafficked roads.
- If you have children, contact their school to gain a better understanding of their emergency evacuation plan and procedures.
- Prepare a safe place for your pets to evacuate to. Most evacuation shelters do not accept pets, so make sure to make arrangements for them before an emergency occurs. Also, if you have farm animals that require special transportation, make sure to make arrangements for them as well.
Wildfire safety tips
Before a wildfire:
- Stay tuned to your local news media. Sign up for emergency alerts through the National Weather Service.
For the latest news and up-to-date information on wildfire activity and evacuation orders in your area, check your local media.
Oftentimes, local officials will drive around the neighborhoods notifying people about wildfire threats and evacuation orders.
- Gas up your car. You should not expect gas stations to be open during emergencies because they have to evacuate too.
- Prepare your car with all the wildfire preparedness kit items! Keep reading to get the list.
- Expect to evacuate at a moment’s notice. Have all your emergency supplies packed in your vehicle and determine a safe location to which you’ll be going. Don’t forget to keep your loved ones informed of your whereabouts.
- Place a ladder against your house. This helps firefighters gain quick access to your roof if they need to.
- Turn off the propane tanks and move BBQs and other appliances far from the home. Bring lawn furniture indoors.
- Connect garden hoses to the spigots on your front and back yard. This may help firefighters to hose down your house.
- Get in touch with your neighbors in case they need assistance evacuating.
- Take your pets with you! Also, make arrangements for any farm animals that require special transportation.
- Expect long-term power outages. For more information on power outages, visit this page.
During a wildfire:
- If under mandatory evacuation, evacuate immediately.
If under voluntary evacuation, do the following:
- Turn off the gas and the pilot lights.
- Turn on your patio lights so that firefighters have a better chance of seeing your home past the smoke.
- Never fly a drone during a fire. Emergency helicopters cannot fly when there are drones in the sky because of the high risk that a collision poses to the pilots.
After a wildfire:
These tips are assuming that your home did not experience any damage. If it did, you won’t be allowed to return until the city determines it’s safe to do so.
- Do not consume the tap water unless the city has determined that it’s safe to drink. In the meantime, use water purification tablets or a Lifestraw to ensure you’re drinking potable water.
- Beware of landslides! A rainstorm that follows a wildfire is a recipe for disaster. Since the soil is already saturated and no longer able to absorb water, it turns into clay-ish mud and may cause landslides, mudslides, and debris flow. Make sure to be prepared for a second evacuation in the event that a landslide threatens your community after a fire!
- Expect the power to be out for some time. In many cases, the power lines have been burnt or disconnected to prevent more fires due to equipment failure. Make sure you’re prepared to survive a long-term power outage.
- Do not go near downed power lines! Contact your local electric company to go inspect them.
- If your home suffered no damage, inspect the utilities and turn them back on. If you tuned off the gas, a professional is the only one who can turn it back on, so make sure to call the gas company for help.
- Contact your insurance company if your house suffered any damage. Also, remember to document and take photographs of any damage prior to doing cleanup.
Wildfire preparedness kit must-haves
- Water: Make sure to have enough water to survive the first 72 hours following a disaster. Evacuation centers may experience a delay in receiving supplies depending on the demand and the status of the fire.
Staying hydrated is vital, so remember to store enough water buckets, bottles, or portable tanks to provide at least 1 gallon of water per person per day.
- Food: Make sure to keep plenty of non-perishable snacks and freeze-dried meals for everyone in your household. If you go to an evacuation center, you will receive food at some point but it might not be immediate.
Have enough food to hold you over the first three days following an emergency. Consider ready-to-eat meals that can be prepared with just hot water.
- Cash: The amount of cash you take with you depends on how many people live in your household. Determine your typical daily spending habits and add $500 to that.
If there’s a power outage, you may have to resort to using cash because machines will be out of order. Don’t disregard your credit cards, since those may come in handy too.
- A complete first aid kit: Have enough supplies to treat at least minor wounds. Emergency personnel may not be readily available to assist you, so plan on treating your own injuries until you’re able to get help.
- Wet wipes: These are amazing for sanitation purposes. I like to keep a pouch of wipes in my car and in my bug-out kit because they come in handy more than you would expect.
- Breathing medication for at least 5 days: If you have asthma or any lung-related ailment, talk to your doctor about which medication is best for you in case a fire threatens your area. The air quality after a fire is especially dangerous for sensitive groups.
- A pack of N95 or P100 respirator masks and air purifiers: Expect the air quality to be horrible for the first weeks following a wildfire. Make sure to protect your lungs from the health effects of wildfire smoke, especially if your breathing is already compromised.
N95 masks protect you from the smoke but need to be replaced every few hours. A portable air cleaner is another good option.
- A complete emergency supply kit or bug-out bag: Your kit should contain the necessary supplies to keep you safe during the first 72 hours following an evacuation. Look here for some ideas on what items to include in your kit!
- Two or three changes of clothes: Keep a few sets of clothes, including jackets, long-sleeved shirts, socks, undergarments, long pants, and sturdy shoes.
- A whistle: This is needed to call out for help.
- A headlamp or flashlight: A headlamp is preferred because it leaves your hands free for other things. Remember to pack extra batteries!
- A camping tent: Some shelters may become full quickly during a mass evacuation. Other shelters might not accept your pets. Make sure to have a backup shelter, such as a tent, to protect you from the elements.
- Several blankets or sleeping bags: If your only evacuation option is to put up a tent somewhere, you’ll need several blankets or a sleeping bag for each person to keep you warm during the cool nights.
- Electronics: This includes but is not limited to personal computers, tablets, cell phones, etc.
- Chargers: You should carry a backup charger for each of your devices to keep them working and stay in touch with loved ones.
- Copies of important documents in a sealed waterproof container: Important documents that get burned in a fire are no good. Most fire-safes do not resist the intense heat of wildfires long enough to survive or keep your valuables intact. Make sure to take your documents folder with you during your evacuation.
- Irreplaceable items: If you have heirlooms, family photos, jewelry, or any other irreplaceable item, take them with you!
- Additional supplies to cover the basic needs of those under your care, including babies, children, elderly, disabled, and pets. Remember special dietary needs, pet food + extra water, and enough prescription medications to last a minimum of 7 days, etc.
Print the wildfire preparedness supplies checklist and safety tips below. Keep this information in your emergency kit so it's handy when you need it the most.
- Does the thought of leaving your house unattended make you nervous? Unfortunately, looters are very common during natural disasters and evacuations. But have no fear! This article will give you some amazing tips on how you can protect your home prior to an evacuation.
- We forget how important some documents are and many are virtually irreplaceable.
I experienced it first-hand in Paradise, as thousands of people began filing claims and paperwork through FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) and their insurance companies, but they couldn’t because they had no way to prove their identity.
Make sure you pack your most important documents so that the process of rebuilding your life becomes faster and easier. Find out here which irreplaceable documents you can’t afford to lose!
- If you become trapped near a wildfire, Cal Fire has some suggestions on how to stay safe. Find their recommendations here.
- Join the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT). They teach important principles of emergency preparedness, first aid, and the community's emergency response plan. The classes are taught by local authorities such as first responders and fire officials from the local fire department.
Watch this if you have a few minutes!
I recently came across a documentary called Return to Paradise: Life after the Camp Fire. If you have an hour to spare, please watch it. It brought me to tears- not only because of the devastation but because you get to see how people are rebuilding their lives a year later.
It’s not about having it all together again, but there’s so much progress that has been made thus far, that it’s truly inspiring to see. The residents of Paradise have such incredible resilience and I think this documentary highlights that.
Raise awareness on wildfire preparedness!
Do you or someone you know live in a wildfire-prone area?
ehem...California? Oregon? Washington?
If so, please share this resource with them! Spread the word to those who may also benefit from this guide!
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Wildland Fire — USDA
Wildfire Statistics — Congressional Research Service
NASA Covers Wildfires from Many Sources — NASA
The 10 deadliest wildfires in US history — Business Insider
11 Facts About Wildfires — Do Something