More and more people are making their homes in woodland settings – in or near forests, rural areas, or remote mountain sites. There, homeowners enjoy the beauty of the environment but face the very real danger of wildfire.
Every year across our Nation, some homes survive – while many others do not – after a major wildfire.
Those that survive almost always do so because their owners had prepared for the eventuality of fire, which is an inescapable force of nature in fire-prone wild land areas. Said in another way – if it’s predictable, it’s preventable!
Wildfires often begin unnoticed. These fires are usually triggered by lightning or accidents. They spread quickly, igniting brush, trees, and homes. Reduce your risk by preparing now – before wildfire strikes. Meet with your family to decide what to do and where to go if wildfires threaten your area. Follow the steps listed below to protect your family, home, and property.
Before a Wildfire
The following are things you can do to protect yourself, your family and your property in the event of a fire.
- To begin preparing, you should build an emergency kit and make a family communications plan.
- Design and landscape your home with wildfire safety in mind. Select materials and plants that can help contain fire rather than fuel it.
- Use fire-resistant or non-combustible materials on the roof and exterior structure of the dwelling, or treat wood or combustible material used in roofs, siding, decking or trim with fire-retardant chemicals evaluated by a nationally recognized laboratory, such as Underwriters Laboratories (UL).
- Plant fire-resistant shrubs and trees. For example, hardwood trees are less flammable than pine, evergreen, eucalyptus or fir trees.
- Regularly clean roof and gutters.
- Inspect chimneys at least twice a year. Clean them at least once a year. Keep the dampers in good working order. Equip chimneys and stovepipes with a spark arrester that meets the requirements of National Fire Protection Association Standard 211. (Contact your local fire department for exact specifications.)
- Use 1/8-inch mesh screen beneath porches, decks, floor areas, and the home itself. Also, screen openings to floors, roof and attic.
- Install a dual-sensor smoke alarm on each level of your home, especially near bedrooms; test monthly and change the batteries at least once each year.
- Teach each family member how to use a fire extinguisher (ABC type) and show them where it’s kept.
- Keep handy household items that can be used as fire tools: a rake, axe, handsaw or chain saw, bucket and shovel.
- Keep a ladder that will reach the roof.
- Consider installing protective shutters or heavy fire-resistant drapes.
- Clear items that will burn from around the house, including wood piles, lawn furniture, barbecue grills, tarp coverings, etc. Move them outside of your defensible space.
Plan your water needs
- Identify and maintain an adequate outside water source such as a small pond, cistern, well, swimming pool, or hydrant.
- Have a garden hose that is long enough to reach any area of the home and other structures on the property.
- Install freeze-proof exterior water outlets on at least two sides of the home and near other structures on the property. Install additional outlets at least 50 feet from the home.
- Consider obtaining a portable gasoline powered pump in case electrical power is cut off.
Your best resource for proper planning is www.firewise.org which has outstanding information used daily by residents, property owners, fire departments, community planners, builders, public policy officials, water authorities, architects and others to assure safety from fire – it really works.
Firewise workshops are offered for free all across the nation in communities large and small and free Firewise materials can be obtained easily by anyone interested.
During a Wildfire
If advised to evacuate, do so immediately. Take your disaster supply kit, lock your home and choose a route away from the fire hazard. Watch for changes in the speed and direction of the fire and smoke. Tell someone when you left and where you are going.
If you see a wildfire and haven’t received evacuation orders yet, call 9-1-1. Don’t assume that someone else has already called. Describe the location of the fire, speak slowly and clearly, and answer any questions asked by the dispatcher.
If you are not ordered to evacuate, and have time to prepare your home, FEMA recommends you take the following actions:
Arrange temporary housing at a friend or relative’s home outside the threatened area in case you need to evacuate.
Wear protective clothing when outside – sturdy shoes, cotton or woolen clothes, long pants, a long-sleeved shirt, gloves and a handkerchief to protect your face.
Gather fire tools such as a rake, axe, handsaw or chainsaw, bucket and shovel.
Close outside attic, eaves and basement vents, windows, doors, pet doors, etc. Remove flammable drapes and curtains. Close all shutters, blinds or heavy non-combustible window coverings to reduce radiant heat.
Close all doors inside the house to prevent draft. Open the damper on your fireplace, but close the fireplace screen.
Shut off any natural gas, propane or fuel oil supplies at the source.
Connect garden hoses to outdoor water faucet and fill any pools, hot tubs, garbage cans, tubs or other large containers with water.
Place lawn sprinklers on the roof and near above-ground fuel tanks. Leave sprinklers on and dowsing these structures as long as possible. Be mindful of water use restrictions for areas affected by wildfires.
If you have gas-powered pumps for water, make sure they are fueled and ready.
Place a ladder against the house in clear view.
Disconnect any automatic garage door openers so that doors can still be opened by hand if the power goes out. Close all garage doors.
Place valuable papers, mementos and anything “you can’t live without” inside the car in the garage, ready for quick departure. Any pets still with you should also be put in the car.
Place valuables that will not be damaged by water in a pool or pond.
Move flammable furniture into the center of the residence away from the windows and sliding-glass doors.
Turn on outside lights and leave a light on in every room to make the house more visible in heavy smoke.
After a Wildfire
The following are guidelines for different circumstances in the period following a fire:
Go to a designated public shelter if you have been told to evacuate or you feel it is unsafe to remain in your home. Text SHELTER + your ZIP code to 43362 (4FEMA) to find the nearest shelter in your area (example: shelter 12345).
If you are with burn victims, or are a burn victim yourself, call 9-1-1 or seek help immediately; cool and cover burns to reduce chance of further injury or infection.
If you remained at home, check the roof immediately after the fire danger has passed. Put out any roof fires, sparks or embers. Check the attic for hidden burning sparks.
For several hours after the fire, maintain a “fire watch.” Re-check for smoke and sparks throughout the house.
If you have evacuated, do not enter your home until fire officials say it is safe.
If a building inspector has placed a color-coded sign on the home, do not enter it until you get more information, advice and instructions about what the sign means and whether it is safe to enter your home.
If you must leave your home because a building inspector says the building is unsafe, ask someone you trust to watch the property during your absence.
Use caution when entering burned areas as hazards may still exist, including hot spots, which can flare up without warning.
If you detect heat or smoke when entering a damaged building, evacuate immediately.
If you have a safe or strong box, do not try to open it. It can hold intense heat for several hours. If the door is opened before the box has cooled, the contents could burst into flames.
Avoid damaged or fallen power lines, poles and downed wires.
Watch for ash pits and mark them for safety—warn family and neighbors to keep clear of the pits also.
Watch animals closely and keep them under your direct control. Hidden embers and hot spots could burn your pets’ paws or hooves.
Follow public health guidance on safe cleanup of fire ash and safe use of masks.
Wet debris down to minimize breathing dust particles.
Wear leather gloves and heavy soled shoes to protect hands and feet.
Cleaning products, paint, batteries and damaged fuel containers need to be disposed of properly to avoid risk.
Discard any food that has been exposed to heat, smoke or soot.
Do NOT use water that you think may be contaminated to wash dishes, brush teeth, prepare food, wash hands, make ice or make baby formula.
Remain calm. Pace yourself. You may find yourself in the position of taking charge of other people. Listen carefully to what people are telling you, and deal patiently with urgent situations first.
Hazards after a wildfire: Floods and Landslides
You may be at an even greater risk of flooding due to recent wildfires that have burned across the region. Large-scale wildfires dramatically alter the terrain and ground conditions. Normally, vegetation absorbs rainfall, reducing runoff. However, wildfires leave the ground charred, barren, and unable to absorb water, creating conditions ripe for flash flooding and mudflow. Flood risk remains significantly higher until vegetation is restored—up to 5 years after a wildfire.
Flooding after fire is often more severe, as debris and ash left from the fire can form mudflows. As rainwater moves across charred and denuded ground, it can also pick up soil and sediment and carry it in a stream of floodwaters. These mudflows can cause significant damage.
If you require more information about any of these topics, the following resources may be helpful.
- Wildfires: Are You Prepared. L-203. Wildfire safety tips, preparedness and mitigation techniques.
Find additional information on how to plan and prepare for a fire and learn about available resources by visiting the following websites:
- Federal Emergency Management Agency
- NOAA Watch
- American Red Cross
- U.S. Fire Administration
- USDA Forest Service
- Firewise.org Sponsored the National Fire Protection Association
- The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC)
Listen to local officials
Learn about the emergency plans that have been established in your area by your state and local government. In any emergency, always listen to the instructions given by local emergency management officials.