How To Prepare For a Wildfire (Fire Preparedness)

Knowing how to prepare for a wildfire, particularly during the months of June through August could be a life saver.

According to statistics published by the NIFC, more than 60,000 wildfires occur in the United States each year. 

In fact, at the time of writing there have been a reported 90 large fires that have burned 1,818,438 acres in 12 states, with more than 22,000 wildland firefighters and support personnel being assigned to combat the spread.

Wildfires are no joke, and in this article, we will teach you how to prepare for them. 

What is a wildfire?

How to prepare for a wildfire

A wildfire, also known as a bushfire, is an uncontrolled, unplanned fire that starts in both urban and rural areas. 

Fossil records indicate that wildfires began shortly after the appearance of terrestrial plants 420 million years ago.

In fact, Earth is the perfect location for wildfires to form, this is owed to its cover of carbon-rich vegetation, atmospheric oxygen, seasonally dry climates, and widespread lightning and volcanic ignitions.

Lastly, wildfires get hot, they get incredibly hot. 

Your average fire on the forest floor might have flames reaching 1 meter in height, these sorts of fires can reach temperatures of 800°C (1,472° F) or more.

How do you prepare for a wildfire?

There are countless homes throughout the United States, that live in woodland settings — in or near forests, rural areas or remote mountain sites. 

While these homes often get to experience the peaceful beauty that nature has to offer. They are in fact the most susceptible to the dangers posed from an out of control wildfire.

It comes as no surprise then that every year, some homes throughout the US survive, and others do not. 

The ones that survive, almost always do so because they are the ones who prepared for the inevitable wildfires that sweep the US each and every fire season. 

Most wildfires begin unnoticed, usually caused by a lightning strike or some sort of human induced accident. 

They will spread ferociously, quickly igniting surrounding twigs and bush. However, by preparing for a wildfire, you can drastically reduce the chances of your home falling victim to one. 

Wildfire preparedness checklist

  • Build yourself a disaster supply kit and have a family emergency plan in place.
  • If you plan on building your home in a wildfire prone area, design and landscape your home with wildfire safety in mind. Think of building materials that can help contain a potential wildfire, instead of fuel it.
  • Plants fire-resistant shrubs and trees around your home. Think hardwood, evergreen, eucalyptus, or fir trees.
  • Make sure to get your gutters and roof cleaned regularly. Leaf decay loves fuelling fires.
  • Inspect your chimney at least twice a year and get them cleaned at least once a year. 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)
  • Install 1/8-inch mesh screen beneath decks, porches, floor areas and the home itself. Also, screen openings to floors, roof and attic
  • Make sure to install a duel-sensor smoke alarm on each level of your house (especially near any bedrooms). Always test these devices monthly and get your batteries replaced once a year.
  • Each member of your family should be taught how to use a fire extinguisher (the ABC type). Additionally they should know where one is at all times.
  • In case a fire does break out, make sure you have stored handy fire tools such as a rake, axe, handsaw or chain saw, bucket and shovel in convenient locations.
  • Store a ladder that will allow you to reach the roof.
  • It may be worth installing protective shutters, or fire-resistant drapes over your window.
  • 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
  • Build and maintain an outside water source such a swimming pool, small pond or fire hydrant.
  • Make sure you have a garden hose that is long enough to reach all corners of your home.
  • Consider obtaining a portable solar powered pump in case electricity is cut off.

How do you survive a wildfire?

In 2020, 33 people were killed by the Californian wildfires. Contrary to what you may believe, the majority of wildfire deaths are caused by .smoke inhalation of the toxic gases.

Only 30% of deaths are caused by actual burns. 

With all this being said, we have compiled a list on how to survive a wildfire should you or your family ever find yourselves in one.

First and foremost, your main objective on how to survive a wildfire should be to avoid becoming trapped: 

  • Always try to put as much distance between you and the wildfire as possible
  • Remain upwind of the fire or perpendicular to the direction the fire is moving.
  • If possible try and climb to a high viewpoint to get a better view of the wildfires path. Alternatively, you can use your mobile phones satellite communication device to get this information. 

If you are not able to physically outrun/escape the wildfire, here are 5 options that will increase your chance of survival. 

1. Find yourself a safe spot

A safe spot equals an area that can simply not burn. This means it is an area completely free of flammable material which could act as fuel for the wildfire. 

Flammable material could include tall dried grass, trees, shrubs or chaparral.

Safe spots that you want to look out for are areas such as a rock slide, a green meadow, a lake or large rock outcrop. Essentially, the bigger your safe area - and less vegetation the better. For example, a meadow would be 10 times safer than a forest. 

2. Hunker down

If you see no spots available, or feel you won't get there in time, your best alternative may be to hunker down.

Now your objective is to look for something that can shield you from the intense heat. Look for objects such as a big tree, a large boulder, a downed log etc. get behind these objects, use them as your shield. 

Once you are behind your shield, find or make a small depression in the ground. Lie down face first covering your mouth and nose with a small piece of fabric. 

On the ground, there is a small pocket of air which help prevent you from inhaling too much smoke and hot air.

Lastly, you can cover yourself with dirt to help insulate you from the wildfires heat. 

3. Don't try to outrun a wildfire

If the wildfire is right on your six, and you see a safe spot 100 feet or less away from you, make a run for it. 

Do not try and outrun a wildfire over long distance, many firefighters have died trying to do this. 

Also, never run uphill to a safe spot unless it is 20 feet or less away. Wildfires move much faster uphill than across flat or downhill terrain, you wont be able to outrun it. 

4. Think of burning out a survival spot

If you find yourself surrounded by alot of tall dry grass, consider burning out a safe spot. Much of coastal Southern California looks like this in late summer and fall. 

Doing this will burn the vegetation in advance of the wildfire passing through.

Make sure you have a sufficient amount of time to do this, as creating and waiting for your fire to burn may take some time. However, it is one of your only options, go ahead and do it. 

Once you have created a burned out spot (make sure it is big enough) you want to lie down face first and follow the steps in point 2, now you wait for the wildfire to pass you. 

It is important to note that this tactic only works in certain areas. For example, it works best in areas with alot of tall dry grass, where there are few "shields" to shelter from the heat. 

However, do not attempt this tactic if you find yourself in a forest, it would take too long to create a burned out area. 

5. Run through the flames into the burned out area

At first, this may sound very much counter intuitive. But, if you are able to spot a burnt put area through the flames, it may make sense to quickly run through them to get to the burnt out area i.e. such as in a forest fire. 

Before running through the flames you want to protect your face/airway. Do this by wrapping a large piece of clothing around your mouth/face. 

The last thing you want to do is burn your throat by inhaling a large amount of superheated air. Take a deep breath and hold it while you run through the flames. 

Do not attempt this if the flames are more than three-to-five feet tall, or the fire front is more than five feet deep, as you are unlikely to make it through. 

What are the main causes of wildfire?

causes of wildfires

The three main elements needed in order for a wildfire to thrive are: heat, oxygen, and fuel. Without these three elements, a wildfire will cease to exist. 

  • Heat. There are many potential sources that can create heat. An unfinished cigarette, a lightning strike, sun shining through glass. 
  • Fuel. California is well known for its arid climate and unlimited amount of dry vegetation. All this provides copious amount of fuel for wildfires. 
  • Oxygen. In California, there are what’s known as the Diablo winds. these winds produce gusts averaging around 45-50 mph, with record gusts clocked at over 160 mph. It is these types of winds that provide incredible amounts of oxygen to uncontrolled fires. Have you ever made a fire and blew at the coals, remember what happens? Now imagine your breathe was a consistent 45 mph. 

    3 causes of Wildfires

    1. Unattended campfires

    Generally speaking, campfires are associated with good memories and story telling antics. However, they are also the leading cause of wildfires. 

    For example, the Ham Lake Fire of 2007 was caused by a single unattended campfire and devasted 75,000 acres and hundreds of properties.

    2. Electrical power

    Fallen powerlines are in fact the third most common cause of wildfires in California. You may not realize this, but in some cases it only takes a branch falling from a tree striking a powerline to cause sufficient sparks to create a wildfire. 

    Over the past 6 years, over 1,500 Californian wildfires were in fact caused by fallen power lines, including the deadliest fire in history—the Camp Fire, which destroyed over 18,000 structures and took 85 lives

    3. Fireworks

    The 4th of July means one thing for most people, fireworks. However, every year fireworks are the cause of more than 32,000 fires, destroy more than 3,000 structures and lead to around 10,000 emergency room visits.

    It is important that you know where you can shoot of your fireworks. In many areas it has been deemed illegal to do so, including on federal land.

    National Wildfire Preparedness Level

    wildfire preparedness

    "The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) is the nation’s leading support center for wildland fires and other emergency type situations.

    The partners at NIFC work together to compile information about the current wildfire situation and statistics that encompass lands managed by federal, state, local, tribal, and private agencies."

    National fire preparedness levels

    Level 1 - Minimal fire activity resulting in many available resources nationwide. 

    Level 2 - Larger wildland fires are burning throughout the country, requiring resources to be mobilized from different areas. 

    Level 3 - Ongoing wildfires is ongoing throughout about a quarter of the country. Requiring the NIFC to set priorities and allocate resources accordingly. 

    Level 4 - Much of the country is experience wildland fire activity, and areas are competing for fire fighting resources. More than half the nation wide fire fighting resources are committed.

    Level 5 - This is the highest nation wide preparedness level. At this level, almost all the nation wide fire fighting resources are committed due to the large amount of wildfire activity throughout the country.

    At the current time of writing, the national preparedness level in the US is level 5.