Wildfires (also known as a brush fire, forest fire, desert fire, or vegetation fire) are uncontrolled fires in areas in which combustible vegetation can be found. Practicing good fire safety is paramount when wildfires may be imminent. These fires can be started by natural occurrences, such as lightning and volcanic eruptions, or by man-made sources, such as accidents, carelessness, military action, terrorist activity, or arson. Droughts, heat waves, and climate changes can impact the behavior of wildfires.
According to a recent study, wildfires, and related burns, kill 339,000 people worldwide every year. The majority of the recorded deaths are in Sub-Saharan Africa, followed by southeast Asia. The death toll is lower in the United States and Canada, but property damage is in the multiple billions annually. Millions of acres are consumed each year by wildfires.
The largest, though not deadliest, wildfire in American history was Great Fire of 1910. It was dubbed the Big Burn and approximately three million acres in Idaho, Montana, and Washington state. Eighty-seven individuals, mostly firefighters, lost their life in the event. The largest wildfire in North America was the 1950 Chinchaga fire in British Columbia and Alberta, which destroyed around 3.5 million acres.
While a fearsome force of nature, there are preparations that private citizens and home owners can take today to help mitigate against the ravages of wildfires. The following are some steps to take before and during a wildfire event.
Fire Safety – Preparing for a Wildfire
- Read up on the the dangers of wildfires and how to be prepared. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), state level organizations, the American Red Cross, and citizen-initiated groups all publish material on the topic.
- If you have a mobile device, consider installing a free, real time wildfires app such as that published by the American Red Cross.
- Practice good fire safety in general:
- Install smoke alarms in your home and business, if they are not already in place. Fully functional smoke alarms have been shown to decrease the chances of dying from a fire by fifty percent. Each level of a home or business should have a smoke alarm. Smoke alarms should be tested each month and the batteries changed once a year. After a smoke alarm has been in service for ten years, replace it with a new unit.
- Have fire extinguishers available in places where they are handy, especially in locations prone to fires such as the kitchen, laundry room, etc. Make sure they are checked regularly. In many communities, the fire department will do this for free.
- Be sure to have an escape route planned and discussed with your family. Fire safety practice runs are not a bad idea either.
- Escape ladders for upper story rooms are essential.
- Make sure all windows are able to open properly in the event of a fire.
- Insure all members of the family are familiar with the procedure to stay low to the floor when escaping a fire. Also, make sure everyone in the household is familiar with the Stop, drop, and roll procedure in the event their clothing is on fire.
- Reduce clutter, such as old papers, trash, periodicals, etc., as these are fire hazards and represent poor fire safety. This goes doubly so for flammable materials such as gasoline, kerosene, benzine, motor oil, etc.
- If you smoke, make sure to never do so near flammable materials and ensure that the cigarette or cigar is properly put out when finished. Dousing is the best method to extinguish such items, but deep ashtrays work as well. Never smoke in bed. Smoking related materials remain the leading cause of death by fire in the United States.
- Make sure that matches, lighters, candles, and other such items are out of the reach of children. Small children are curious about such articles and they may inadvertently start a fire.
- If within your budget, consider installing an automatic fire sprinkler system and/or install a home security system that monitors for fire.
- If there is any doubt as to the state of your electrical wiring, have the system inspected by a licensed electrician.
- In many communities, the fire department will do a free walk through and inspection of your home. If available, it is worth having the inspection completed.
- Make sure your home or business has the entrance marked with an easy-to-see sign so that emergency vehicles can locate you easily.
- Ensure that water sources, such as fire hydrants, swimming pools, etc., are accessible by the fire department.
- Ensure that your yard, garden, shrubs, and trees are kept well maintained. Remove debris, dead wood, leaves and other combustible material around at least a 30 foot radius around your home or business. Consider planting fire-resistant vegetation.
- Firewood should be stacked at a distance from your home. Thirty feet or more is best for maximum fire safety.
- Using fire resistant materials for roofing can reduce the risk to your home or business. The installation of fire-resistant drapes can add an additional protection.
- Cover exterior vents and eaves with a ¼ inch metal mesh screens to keep sparks out.
- Flammable materials, such as fuels, lubricants, grease, oil-based paint, solvents, etc., should be stored in metal containers and be located at least 30 feet away from structures and other wood material.
- Have tools on hand, such as shovels, rakes, axes, etc., to fight small fires until responders can arrive.
- If a wildfire is close, lawn sprinklers can be placed on the roof and used to douse the structure.
- Consider storing fire retardant gel to be applied in the event of a wildfire.
- If a wildfire is close, shut off gas sources, such as natural gas, propane, etc. Connect all garden hoses. If available, fill any contains (e.g., pools, jacuzzis, children’s pools, trash cans, etc.) with water.
- If you must evacuate, be prepared with the necessary supplies to do so. The American Red Cross has a checklist available here.
- Before leaving, close all doors inside the structure to prevent a draft.
- Review the fire safety resources below
- If an evacuation order is issued, do so immediately.
This has been a short, introductory guide on fire safety and things you can do to help protect yourself and your property from wildfire damage. Additional information is available in the sources listed below. If the reader wishes to discuss wildfire preparation, the Disaster.com forum is available here. Sign up is quick, easy, and completely free.
- Silverstein, A., & Silverstein, V. (2010). Wildfires: The Science Behind Raging Infernos. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow.
- Wildfire | U.S. Drought Portal. (n.d.). Retrieved April 13, 2015, from http://www.drought.gov/drought/content/products-current-drought-and-monitoring/wildfire
- Wildfire Prevention Strategies. (1998, March 1). Retrieved April 13, 2015, from http://www.nwcg.gov/pms/docs/wfprevnttrat.pdf
- Terrorist Interest in Using Fire as a Weapon. (2012, May 31). Retrieved April 13, 2015, from https://info.publicintelligence.net/DHS-TerroristFireWeapon.pdf
- Sheridan, K. (2012, February 19). Wildfires kill 339,000 people per year: Study. Retrieved April 13, 2015, from http://phys.org/news/2012-02-wildfires-people-year.html
- American Experience: The Big Burn. (n.d.). Retrieved April 13, 2015, from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/burn/
- Wildfires. (n.d.). Retrieved April 13, 2015, from http://www.iii.org/fact-statistic/wildfires
- Are you ready? An In-depth Guide to Citizen Preparedness (pp. 115-122, 123-125). (2002). Washington, D.C.: FEMA.
- Harrison, K. (2008). Wildfires. In Just in Case: How to Be Self-sufficient When the Unexpected Happens (pp. 124-126). North Adams, MA: Storey Pub.
- Linton, J. (2004). Wildfires: Issues and Consequences (pp. 43-45). New York, New York: Nova Science.
- Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). (n.d.). Retrieved April 13, 2015, from http://m.fema.gov/wildfires
- Wildfire Preparedness | How to Prepare for Wildfires | Red Cross. (n.d.). Retrieved April 13, 2015, from http://www.redcross.org/prepare/disaster/wildfire
- Causes of fire. (n.d.). Retrieved April 13, 2015, from http://www.nfpa.org/safety-information/for-consumers/causes
- Fire retardants that protect the home. (2007, November 25). Retrieved April 13, 2015, from http://www.latimes.com/business/realestate/la-re-fire25nov25-story.html#page=1
- Home Fire Safety, from http://www.redcross.org/prepare/disaster/home-fire