More and more people are making their homes in or near forests, rural areas or out-of-the-way mountain sites. There, homeowners enjoy the beauty of the environment but face the very real danger of a wildfire.
Every year across the United States, some homes survive and others do not after a major wildfire. Those that make it almost always do so because their owners had gotten ready for the possibility of fire. Fires cannot be escaped in wildland areas that are likely to have them. Said in another way - if it's predictable, it's preventable!
Wildfires often begin without being seen. These fires are usually triggered by lightning or accidents. They spread quickly, igniting brush, trees and homes. Lower your risk by getting ready 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 if a fire occurs in your area.
- To get ready, you should build an emergency kit.
- Make a family communications plan.
- Design and landscape your home with wildfire safety in mind. Select items and plants that can help contain fire rather than fuel it.
- Use fire-resistant or noncombustible materials on the roof and outside structure of the dwelling. You can also treat wood or flammable material used in roofs, siding, decking or trim with fire-retardant chemicals checked 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.
- Clean roof and gutters often.
- Check 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. Screen openings to floors, roof and attic.
- Install a dual-sensor smoke alarm on each level of your home, especially near bedrooms. Test it monthly and change the batteries at least once each year.
- Teach each family member how to use a fire extinguisher (ABC type). Show them where it's kept.
- Have 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.
- Think about putting in 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
- Find and keep an ample 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.
- Put in freeze-proof outside water outlets on at least two sides of the home and near other structures on the property. Put in extra outlets at least 50 feet from the home.
- Think about getting a portable gasoline powered pump in case electrical power is cut off.
Your best resource for proper planning is www.firewise.org, which has the best information used daily by residents, property owners, fire departments, community planners, builders, public policy officials, water authorities, architects and others to guarantee safety from fire. Firewise workshops are offered for free all across the nation. Anyone can get free Firewise materials.
Preparing Your Home for a Wildfire
It is recommended that you create a 30 to 100 foot safety zone around your home. Within this area, you can take steps to reduce potential exposure to flames and radiant heat. Homes built in pine forests should have a minimum safety zone of 100 feet. If your home sits on a steep slope, fixed protective measures may not be enough. Call your local fire department or forestry office for more information.
- Rake leaves, dead limbs and twigs. Clear all flammable vegetation.
- Remove leaves and rubbish from under structures.
- Thin a 15-foot space between tree crowns. Remove limbs within 15 feet of the ground.
- Get rid of dead branches that spread out over the roof.
- Cut back tree branches and shrubs within 15 feet of a stovepipe or chimney outlet.
- Ask the power company to clear branches from power lines.
- Remove vines from the walls of the home.
- Mow grass regularly.
- Clear a 10-foot area around propane tanks and the barbecue. Place a screen over the grill. Use nonflammable material with mesh no coarser than one-quarter inch.
- Regularly get rid of newspapers and trash at an approved site. Follow local burning rules.
- Place stove, fireplace and grill ashes in a metal bucket, soak in water for 2 days; then bury the cold ashes in mineral soil.
- Store gasoline, oily rags and other flammable materials in approved safety cans. Place cans in a safe location away from the base of buildings.
- Stack firewood at least 100 feet away and uphill from your home. Clear flammable material within 20 feet. Use only wood-burning devices checked by a nationally recognized laboratory, such as Underwriters Laboratories (UL).
- Check your homeowner's insurance policy. Prepare/update a list of your home's contents.
Practice Wildfire Safety
People start most wildfires. Find out how you can promote and practice wildfire safety.
- Contact your local fire department, health department or forestry office for information on fire laws.
- Make sure that fire vehicles can get to your home. Clearly mark all driveway entrances and display your name and address.
- Report dangerous conditions that could cause a wildfire.
- Teach children about fire safety. Keep matches out of their reach.
- Put up fire emergency telephone numbers.
- Make sure large fire vehicles can get to your property.
- Plan several escape routes away from your home – both by car and by foot.
- Talk to your neighbors about wildfire safety. Plan how the neighborhood could work together after a wildfire. Make a list of your neighbors' skills, such as medical or technical. Think about how you could help neighbors who have special needs such as elderly or disabled persons. Make plans to take care of children who may be on their own if parents can't get home.
Follow Local Burning Laws
- Before burning debris in a wooded area, make sure you notify local authorities and get a burning permit.
- Use an approved incinerator with a safety lid or covering with holes no larger than ¾ inch.
- Create at least a 10-foot clearing around the incinerator before burning debris.
- Have a fire extinguisher or garden hose on hand when burning debris.
During a Wildfire
If told to leave, do so instantly. 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 gotten 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 leave and have time to prepare your home, FEMA says you should do the things below.
- Arrange temporary housing at a friend or relative’s home outside the threatened area in case you need to leave.
- 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-flammable window coverings to lower radiant heat.
- Close all doors inside the house to stop drafts. Open the damper on your fireplace but close the fireplace screen.
- Turn 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.
- If you have gas-powered pumps for water, make sure they are fueled and ready.
- Place a ladder against the house in clear view.
- Cut off 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.
Surviving a Wildfire
Survival in a Vehicle
- This is dangerous and should only be done in an emergency. You can survive the firestorm if you stay in your car. It is much less dangerous than trying to run from a fire on foot.
- Roll up windows and close air vents. Drive slowly with headlights on. Watch for other vehicles and pedestrians. Do not drive through heavy smoke.
- If you have to stop, park away from the heaviest trees and brush. Turn headlights on and ignition off. Roll up windows and close air vents.
- Get on the floor and cover up with a blanket or coat.
- Stay in the vehicle until the main fire passes.
- Stay in the car. Do not run! Engine may stall and not restart. Air currents may rock the car. Some smoke and sparks may enter the vehicle. Temperature inside will increase. Metal gas tanks and containers rarely explode.
If You Are Trapped at Home
- If you do find yourself trapped by wildfire inside your home, stay inside and away from outside walls. Close doors, but leave them unlocked. Keep your entire family together and remain calm.
If Caught in the Open
- The best short-term shelter is in a thin fuel area. On a steep mountainside, the back side is safer. Stay away from canyons, natural "chimneys" and saddles.
- If a road is nearby, lie face down along the road cut or in the ditch on the uphill side. Cover yourself with anything that will shield you from the fire's heat.
- If hiking in the back country, seek a depression with sparse fuel. Clear fuel away from the area while the fire is coming. Then lie face down in the depression and cover yourself. Stay down until after the fire passes!
After a Wildfire
The tips below can help you if you find yourself in different situations after a fire.
- Go to a designated public shelter if you have been told to leave 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 lower the 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 many hours after the fire, keep a "fire watch." Re-check for smoke and sparks throughout the house.
- If you have left your home, 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 while you are gone.
- Use caution when entering burned areas as hazards may still exist, including hot spots, which can flare up without warning.
- If you feel heat or smell smoke when entering a damaged building, leave it instantly.
- If you have a safe or strong box, do not try to open it. It can hold intense heat for many hours. If the door is opened before the box has cooled, the contents could burst into flames.
- Stay away from 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.
- 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 lessen breathing in 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 gotten rid of properly to lessen any risk.
- Throw out any food that has been exposed to heat, smoke or soot.
- Do NOT use water that you think may be dirty 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 serious situations first.
Hazards After Wildfires: Flood 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 completely change the terrain and ground conditions. Normally, vegetation absorbs rainfall, reducing runoff. However, wildfires leave the ground charred, barren and unable to absorb water. This means there are good conditions for flash flooding and mudflow. Flood risk remains higher until vegetation comes back—up to five 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 bared ground, it can also pick up soil and sediment and carry it in a stream of floodwaters. These mudflows can cause a lot of damage.
If you need more information about any of these topics, the resources below can be helpful.
- Wildfire: Are You Prepared. L-203. Wildfire safety tips, preparedness and mitigation techniques.
More information on how to plan and get ready for a fire, and learn about available resources can be found at:
- 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 made in your area by your state and local government. In any emergency, always listen to the orders given by local emergency management officials.
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