Late Season Wildfires

Share Button

(Note: The U.S. isn’t the only country to suffer from wildfire damage. Australians have had to fight a major wildfire which has destroyed 2500 buildings and 24 people as of Jan. 4, 2020)

Every year, wildfires race throughout the western part of the country, causing property destruction and loss of life. Not everyone has been touched by this type of disaster, but it is personal to me: In 2016 my home in Gatlinburg, Tennessee barely avoided being burnt to the foundation by the whims of the winds.

100 other homes on the mountain were not so lucky. 14 people did not survive the conflagration; more than a hundred were injured. Three years later, the skeletons of trees killed by the fire stand as stark reminders of the nature’s fury (and man’s carelessness).

Gatlingburg fire mementos 2016

 (As with many other wildfires, this one was caused by humans. Two teenagers were initially arrested for aggravated arson but charges were later dropped. Apparently, if the fire is started in the National Park, it excludes state jurisdiction from prosecuting wrongdoers. Yet, the Park Service has no organized system to prosecute offenders. It makes you wonder: Who does have jurisdiction? Smokey The Bear?)

At the time of this writing, 2 million Californians are without power and 180,000 were required to evacuate, including notables like basketball’s Lebron James and former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Both Southern and Northern California are being threatened by continually growing fires. At least one fire is reported to be under less control today than it was yesterday.

What can you do in the face of an irresistible force like a wildfire? How can you protect your property (and yourself) from falling victim to the flames?


California wildfires

What can you do in the face of an irresistible force like a wildfire? How can you protect your property (and yourself) from falling victim to the flames?

Two main principles for property defense are

1) vegetation management

2) creating a “defensible space”

It should be noted that property defense is not the same as personal defense. The main principle for personal defense is, put simply, to “get out of Dodge”.

But let’s talk about how you can prepare your property to have a shot at surviving a wildfire. The first principle of 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: Do you want attractive, flammable plants next to your structure or do you want 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. Of course, preparedness folk don’t have that much use for lawns, anyway; better to use the land for vegetable and herb gardens.

The second principle of property wildfire protection is “the defensible space”. 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.

spot fires

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. That’s why the area of vegetation management is larger, as mentioned above, if downhill of your home.

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 be helpful in impeding the progress of the fire.

Attic and other vents should be covered with screening to prevent small embers from entering the structure. Additional strategies for the home can be found at


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, it wise to follow the principles of personal defense for wildfires and get out of Dodge if there’s a safe way to leave. Your family’s lives may depend on it. If you’re hitting the road, 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. Texts require less bandwidth than voice calls.

Keep track of road closures and be sure to have more than one route planned out in case you have to evacuate. If winds are calm, the smoke will rise straight up. This is the best-case scenario. If the winds are strong, the fire will travel quickly and produce spot fires ahead of the main blaze. It will tend to go uphill, so stay downhill (if possible) and upwind; stay on dirt roads, rocky outcroppings or streambeds with little or no vegetation. These may serve as natural firebreaks..


Medical kits in wildfire-prone areas should contain masks, eye and hand protection, burn ointment (aloe vera is a natural alternative) and non-stick dressings. Specialized burn dressings like Xeroform 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).

Improvisations for burn dressings include taking sterile gauze in pads or rolls and impregnating it with petroleum jelly. Alternatively, the hemostatic dressing known as Celox, when moistened, turns in a slimy gel bandage that provides protection for burn injuries.


The best way to get away fast is via a pre-planned route in a vehicle. Unfortunately, your routes of vehicular escape may be blocked. You may have to leave by foot. If so, make sure you’re dressed in long pants, sleeves, and heavy boots.

Don’t be so sure, however, that you can outrun a wildfire. The flames may travel as fast as 20 miles per hour in drought conditions and be sped even further by spot fires. If the fire passes you, it’s just common sense to stay out of its projected path. If you can’t escape its edge, you may have to run through it into areas that have already been consumed (black areas). They may be the safest place left.

A wool blanket is very helpful as an additional outside layer because wool is relatively fire-resistant. Some people think it’s a good idea to wet the blanket first: Don’t. Wet materials transfer heat much faster than dry materials and will cause severe scald burns.

If you must stay inside a building, retreat to 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, wrap yourself in the blanket, leaving only your eyes uncovered.

You may have trouble breathing because of the smoke. In that instance, 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.

If surrounded by fire with no possible escape route, some have suggested digging a “foxhole” below ground level. This will place you lower than where the thickest concentration of smoke will be.

A wildfire in your neighborhood is a major bump in the road. Don’t let it be the END of the road for you and your family. Plan and prepare for the worst, and hope for the best.

Joe Alton MD

Dr. Alton

Don’t forget to check out the wide variety of kits and individual supplies at Nurse Amy’s entire line at Plus, be sure to get copies of Dr. and Ms. Alton’s books for your survival library. You’ll be glad you did.

Hey, don’t forget to check out our entire line of quality medical kits and individual supplies at Also, our Book Excellence Award-winning 700-page SURVIVAL MEDICINE HANDBOOK: THE ESSENTIAL GUIDE FOR WHEN HELP IS NOT ON THE WAY is now available in black and white on Amazon and in color and color spiral-bound versions at

Share Button
Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Chemical Warfare vs. Biological Warfare
Survival Medicine Hour #370: Amebiasis, Nail Bed Injuries, Altitude Sickness