Multi-year drought in much of the West has led to harsh summers recently. Hundred of thousands of acres have been lost each of the last several years to wildfires, and there appears to be no end in sight. This year, the Yosemite fire has taken up the most space on the news, but there are wildfires raging at one place or another all from Memorial day to Labor day.
What lessons are these fires teaching us? A simple one: You have the responsibility to not only defend your retreat from hordes of marauding zombies, but also natural disasters such as forest fires. Luckily, this involves 2 things that the preparedness community has in abundance: 1) the propensity to plan and 2) common sense.
The Importance of Vegetation Management
One important aspect of this is what we call “vegetation management”. You’ll want to direct fires AWAY from your house. There are several ways to do this: you’ll want to clean up dead wood lying on the ground close to your buildings and off the roofs. Keep woodpiles and other flammables away from structures. Also, you’ll have to remove some of the living vegetation from around your home. This is counter to some advice you’ll get regarding keeping your home invisible, and it means that you’d have to remove those thorny bushes you’ve planted under your windows for defense. This can be a tough decision, but you just might have to make a choice between fire protection and privacy.
Another factor to consider is the materials that your retreat is made of. How much fire resistance does your structure have? A wood frame home with wooden shingles will go up like a match in a wildfire. You should try to build as much flame resistance into your retreat as possible.
Defensible Space and Wildfires
For natural catastrophes, it’s important to consider the concept of “defensible space”. 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.
You’ll want to thin out those thick canopied trees near your house. Any nearby tree within 50 feet on flatland, or 200 feet if downhill from your retreat on top of the mountain, needs to be thinned, so that you’re pruning branches off below 10-12 feet high, and separating them by 10-20 feet. Also, eliminate all shrubs at the base of the trunks.
Other things you should do:
1)Clean up all dead wood in the area.
2)Stack firewood at least 20 feet from any building.
3)Keep gardening tools and other items stored away.
Of course, once you have created a defensible space, the natural inclination is to want to defend it, even against a forest fire. Unfortunately, you have to remember that you’ll be in the middle of a lot of heat and smoke. Unless you’re a 21 year old Navy Seal in full fire gear and mask, you’re probably not going to be able to function effectively. It stands to reason that most of us will not be up to the task. The safest recommendation, therefore, would be to hit the road if there’s a safe way out. It’s a personal decision, but make it a realistic decision. Your family’s lives depend on it.
If you’re leaving, have that bug-out bag already in the car, as well as any important papers you might need to keep and some cash. 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 established with your loved ones so that you can contact each other. Don’t forget to bring some eyewash; smoke is a major irritant to the eyes.
If there is a possibility that you might wind up in the middle of a fire, make sure you’re dressed in long pants and sleeves and heavy boots. A wool blanket is very helpful as an additional outside layer because wool is relatively fire-resistant. If you don’t have wool blankets, this is a good time to add some to your storage, or keep some in your car. If you’re in a building, stay on the side of the building farthest from the fire 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 that blanket, leaving only your eyes uncovered. 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 having trouble breathing because of the smoke, stay low, and CRAWL out of the building if you have to. There’s less smoke and heat the lower you go. Keep your face down towards the floor. This will protect your airway.
Protecting your airway is the most important thing you can do. Remember, you can recover from burns on your skin, but you much less likely to recover from burns in your lungs. For some more information about smoke inhalation, click this link to a short article: https://www.doomandbloom.net/smoke-inhalation/
Wildfires and other catastrophes, whether natural or man-made, can threaten your life and the lives of your loved ones. A little planning and some supplies will give you the best shot at getting through them in the best shape possible.
Joe Alton, M.D. aka Dr. Bones