The American West is again the scene of wildfires this year, as heat waves and low humidity levels allow 77 separate wildfires in 14 states to blaze out of control. Evacuations are in effect as forest land burns, temperatures soar, and winds reach sixty miles per hour. With plumes of smoke visible from space, extreme weather in California created 2500 lightning strikes and even a rare “fire tornado”. With over 650,000 acres in flames, none of the larger fires was more than 5 percent contained at the time of this writing.
WAIT, A FIRE WHAT?
Fire tornados occur when extremely hot air blows through the fire at a certain angle, producing a spinning momentum that then sucks up embers and debris. The explosive storms can be seen when extreme heat and plant moisture are released in the face of high winds. The hotter the fire, the faster the air rises and the tighter it twists until it looks like a tornado.
Wildfires and record heat waves have spurred some drastic measures. California’s state government instituted rolling blackouts. Rolling blackouts are a drastic measure used by an electric utility company to avoid a total collapse of the power system. The manager of much of the state’s electric grid called on utilities to cut power to hundreds of thousands of customers. Even in areas not at risk for blackouts, high heat advisories, at present, affect more than 45 million citizens.
AN ANNUAL EVENT
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 us: In 2016 our 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. Several years later, the skeletons of trees killed by the fire stand as stark reminders of the nature’s fury (and man’s carelessness).
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?
The main principle for property defense revolves around creating a cleared space by managing vegetation and other flammable materials. In addition to decreasing the chance of your residence catching fire, it gives more space for firefighters to work.
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. 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. A distance of 18 feet between treetops is recommended.
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.
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.
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). If winds are calm, the smoke will rise straight up.
A fire on a steep slope with wind blowing uphill spreads quickly and produces “spot fires” ahead of the main blaze. 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 must be larger downhill from your home.
The fire will tend to go uphill, so stay downhill and upwind on dirt roads and use rocky outcroppings or streambeds with little or no vegetation. These may serve as natural firebreaks.
GETTING OUT OF DODGE
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’s wise to follow the principles of personal safety for wildfires and get out of Dodge if there’s a safe way to leave. When 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. Keep track of road closures and be sure to have more than one route planned out in case you have to evacuate.
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 SUPPLIES TO GET THROUGH A WILDFIRE
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. If possible, leave word about your evacuation with someone outside the disaster zone if case you need rescue.
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
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