Every year, wildfires race throughout the western part of the country, causing property destruction and loss of life. So far, 21 people have died in the latest series of fires in Northern California with almost 500 still missing; 2000 buildings have been destroyed.
I’ve reported on these events and made recommendations to those living in areas at risk, but the topic was made personal to me in 2016 when my home in Gatlinburg, Tennessee barely avoided being burnt to the foundation by the whims of the winds.
100 other homes on the mountain weren’t so lucky. I’ve driven by areas months that look like a nuclear winter is in progress. The still-breathtaking views bear the scars of the conflagration and will for years to come. A total of over 2000 building were destroyed or damaged here, with 14 people killed and 134 injured.
(ASIDE: 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 was started in the National Park, it excluded state jurisdiction from prosecuting wrongdoers. Really? Who, then, does have jurisdiction? Smokey The Bear?)
As with the Tennessee wildfire, high winds are spreading flames throughout Northern California. Mandatory evacuations are being ordered in various areas and conditions are only worsening as time passes. The fire is traveling so fast that people, thinking their area was safe, woke up inhaling smoke and hitting the road in a panic. One couple escaped being burned by jumping into their pool.
Property vs. Personal Defense
What can you do in the face of an irresistible force like a wildfire? How can you protect your property (and yourself) from being devastated by fire?
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 principles for personal defense in the face of a wildfire are “get out of Dodge”, “hit the road, Jack”, and “skedaddle”.
But let’s talk about how you can prepare your property in advance 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. Pick up pruned branches and dispose of safely away from the building.
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.
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 firewise.org.
Of course, once you have created a defensible space (well before a fire hits the area), 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.
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).
If your routes of vehicular escape are blocked, you may have to leave by foot. If so, 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. 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 more severe 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.
No one is immune to the risk for wildfires, hurricanes, tornadoes, and other disasters. You might not experience a tsunami in Nebraska, but each area has its own issues. We must all be prepared for disasters if we’re going to be resilient in the face of adversity.
Joe Alton MD
Find out more about wildfire safety and much more with the Third Edition of the Survival Medicine Handbook: The Essential Guide for When Medical Help is Not on the Way, 2017 winner of the Book Excellence Award in the medical category.
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