It’s been a very busy year for firefighters, with heat waves, drought, and human malice or carelessness causing large areas to burn from Canada to California. You may have heard me say that you probably won’t be affected by a disaster today, tomorrow, or next week. Over a lifetime, however, the chances aren’t quite as small. Add in your children’s lifetimes, and their children’s, and the odds are greater still. I’ve personally been through hurricanes, tornadoes, civil unrest, and the Mariel Boatlift unscathed other than for some missing roof tiles and a conversion to positive for tuberculosis (thanks, Fidel). We were even stranded in Europe due to a volcanic eruption in Iceland.
And now wildfire. A particularly intense one recently struck a place I know and love: Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Home to the entrance of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I’ve had a vacation home there for 20 years and spend Spring and Fall there. I love hiking in the backcountry, and if I cannot say that I’ve walked the entire length of the Appalachian Trail, I can say I’ve walked its entire width.
With multiple fires spreading through the popular resort town, the mountain that my house is situated on lit up like a match. In the dry, windy conditions, hundreds of homes were burnt to the ground. As of this writing, I have not yet heard of the fate of the home in which I’ve accumulated 20 years of memories. The likelihood is that it no longer exists. Much more importantly, homes of many permanent residents have been destroyed, leaving them homeless; the businesses that employed those people were incinerated.
Putting my feelings aside for a moment, let’s talk about what you can 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 and 2) creating a “defensible space”. The main strategy for personal defense is “Get Out Of Dodge”.
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 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, 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.
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).
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. 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’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.
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.
As of this writing, I’m still waiting for public access to my part of the mountain in Gatlinburg to be reinstated. If my home survived, it could have been due to the principles I’ve followed above, but it could also be just the wind direction or some timely rain. I’d like to believe it’s the former, but, heck, I’ll take the latter.
Joe Alton, MD
Please take a moment to include firefighters, medical personnel, and the citizens of Gatlinburg in your prayers.