It’s been a very busy year for firefighters, with heat waves, drought, and human carelessness causing large areas to burn from Canada to California.
A particularly intense wildfire is raging 60 miles from Los Angeles, spreading from 6 to 30,000 acres in 24 hours. 82,000 residents have been evacuated and a number of buildings have been destroyed. At the present time, the fire is considered out of control. It’s just one of several in a state that usually has its worst months for wildfires in October.
Many people are concerned about disasters that threaten their way of life, and wildfires should be high on the list in many areas. But how can you protect your property (and yourself) from being devastated by fire? Two main principles are 1) vegetation management and 2) creating a “defensible space”.
An important factor in wildfire preparedness is what we call “vegetation management”. With vegetation management, the key is to direct fires away from your house. There are several ways to accomplish this, all of which require vigilance and regular maintenance.
You’ll want to clean up dead wood and leaf piles lying within 30 feet of your building structure. Pay special attention to clearing off the roof and gutters. Although you may have spent time and money putting lush landscaping around your home, you may have to choose between attractive, yet flammable plants and fire protection.
You’ll want to thin out those thick canopied trees near your house, making sure that no two canopies touch each other. Any trees within 50 feet on flatland, or 200 feet if downhill from your retreat need to be thinned, so that you’re pruning branches off below 10-12 feet high, and separating them by 10-20 feet. No tree should overhang the roof. Also, eliminate all shrubs at the base of the trunks.
Lawns and gardens should be well-hydrated; collect lawn cuttings and other debris that could be used as fuel by the fire. If water is limited, keep dry lawns cut back as much as possible (or remove them).
From a wildfire perspective, a defensible space is an area around a structure where wood and vegetation are treated, cleared, or reduced to slow the spread of flames towards a structure. Having a defensible space will also provide room to work for those fighting the fire.
The amount of defensible space you’ll need depends on whether you’re on flat land or on a steep slope. Flatland fires spread more slowly than a fire on a slope (hot air and flames rise). A fire on a steep slope with wind blowing uphill spreads fast and produces “spot fires”. These are small fires that ignite vegetation ahead of the main burn, due to small bits of burning debris in the air.
Woodpiles and other flammables should be located at least 20-30 feet away from structures. Gardening tools should be kept in sheds, and those sheds should be at a distance from the home. Concrete walkways and perimeter walls may serve to impede the progress of the fire.
Attic and other vents should be covered with screen mesh to prevent small embers from entering the structure. Additional strategies for the home can be found at firewise.org.
ESCAPING A WILDFIRE
Of course, once you have created a defensible space, the natural inclination is to want to, well, defend it. Unfortunately, you have to remember that you’ll be in the middle of a lot of heat and smoke. Therefore, you’re probably not going to be able to function effectively unless you’re an Olympic athlete. It stands to reason that most of us will not be up to the task.
The safest recommendation, therefore, would be to get out of Dodge if there’s a safe way to leave. It’s a personal decision but realize that your family’s lives may depend on it. If you’re leaving, have a bag already packed with food, water, extra clothes, batteries, flashlights, and more. Don’t forget to bring your cell phone, any important papers you might need, and some cash.
As an added precaution, make sure you shut off any air conditioning system that draws air into the house from outside. Turn off all your appliances, close all your windows and lock all your doors. Like any other emergency, you should have some form of communication system established with your loved ones in case you’re not together.
Medical kits should contain masks, eye and hand protection, burn ointment (aloe vera is a natural alternative) and non-stick dressings. Specialized burn dressings are available that incorporate both. Gauze rolls and medical tape can be used for additional coverage. Round out your kit with scissors, cold packs, and some eyewash (smoke is a major irritant to the eyes).
TRAPPED IN A WILDFIRE
If your routes of escape are blocked, make sure you’re dressed in long pants, sleeves, and heavy boots. A wool blanket is very helpful as an additional outside layer because wool is relatively fire-resistant.
If you’re inside a building, stay on the side farthest from the fire and with the least number of windows (windows transfer heat to the inside). Stay there unless you have to leave due to smoke or the building catching fire.
If that’s the case and you have to leave, wrap yourself in the blanket, leaving only your eyes uncovered. Some people think it’s a good idea to wet the blanket first, but don’t; wet materials transfer heat much faster than dry materials and will cause more severe burns.
If you’re having trouble breathing because of the smoke, stay low, and crawl out of the building. There’s less smoke and heat the lower you go. Keep your face down towards the floor. This will help protect your airway, which is very important. You can recover from burns on your skin, but not from major burns in your lungs.
Wildfires and other catastrophes, whether natural or man-made, can threaten your life and the lives of your loved ones. Planning before the event will give you the best shot at surviving in the best shape possible.
Joe Alton, MD
Find out more about wildfire, flood, and other natural disaster preparedness topics in the brand new 700 page “Third Edition of the Survival Medicine Handbook: The Essential Guide for When Medical Help is Not on the Way“.