Estimated reading time: 17 minutes
Wildfires are emerging as a greater and greater threat not only to the wilderness areas, where they have historically originated, but to population centers as well.
Not only are wildfires becoming more common, they’re also getting bigger. In California, for example, 14 of the 20 largest wildfires on record happened in the last 15 years. In that same time period, over 89,000 structures have been lost to wildfires.
And since the droughts in the western United States, southern Europe, central Asia, South America, and many other places are expected to continue, the problem of wildfires is only going to get worse.
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There was a time when people living in remote areas were the only ones affected by the majority of wildfires. But as housing has expanded into exurbia and beyond, the susceptibility to a wildfire has increased. There has also been a history of poor land management practices adding fuel to the fires.
Complicating matters are the erratic weather patterns associated with climate change, from longer periods of drought to an increase in the severity and frequency of storms. Lightning can certainly be blamed for some wildfires, but according to U.S. Department of the Interior, 90% of wildland fires in the United States are caused by humans. Only 10% are caused by lightning or in some instances, lava.
The most common causes are unattended campfires, the burning of debris, carelessly discarded cigarettes, and intentional acts of arson. Downed power lines are another cause, and that gets back to climate change and the increase in severe weather.
When is Wildfire Season?
Historically, May through October have been the worst months for wildfires. As usual, there are exceptions, and exceptional drought or a location that is naturally combustible can spark a wildfire at any time of year. For the most part, it’s a six month season from late spring through to early fall.
Who’s Most at Risk?
That depends on where you live. Here’s a chart detailing the U.S. states at extreme to high risk from wildfires:
States at High to Extreme Wildfire Risk 2021
properties at risk
properties at risk
It may be easy to assume that you have nothing to worry about if you’re not living in one of those states, but with rare exceptions, most states have seen their share of wildfires. Take a look at the chart below to assess your level of risk.
Wildfires By State – 2021
|Number of Fires
|Number of Acres Burned
|Number of fires
|Number of acres burned
|District of Columbia
It’s tempting to get complacent if you live in one of those states that have a low risk for wildfires. I live in Illinois and there were only 29 fires in 2021 burning a little more than 200 acres. What’s to worry about? But a hard lesson I learned from a few years ago makes things a little more complicated.
It was 4 in morning in April and my wife and I woke up to a loud, insistent banging on our front door. I thought to myself, “Only a cop knocks like that.” I was right. I opened the door and the cop said, “You may have to evacuate.” That didn’t make sense to me and I asked him why.
He said, “Can’t you see the fire?”
I looked to where he had pointed and the sky was a bright red. We lived next to a forest preserve and the dry grasses, trees, and brush were burning across the horizon.
I thanked the cop and ran upstairs to wake the kids. We all got dressed, and that’s when I first noticed the number of fire risks we had created around our house.
By mid-morning, the fire in the forest preserve was out. I looked around my yard and could see the results of my lack of fire preparation.
- A cord of Birch logs that were stacked next to the house on the deck were thrown all over the back yard in our collective panic.
- Gas cans and propane tanks that were kept in a shed far from the house, but in the middle of a very flammable pine forest were lined up in the driveway where I thought they would be least likely to ignite.
- Every hose attached to the house was pulled across the front and backyard where I had doused the roof, the wooden sided back of the house, and the brush leading from the forest preserve right up to my deck.
Up until that point, it always seemed like we had nothing to fear, and gas cans in a remote shed seemed smart… assuming we were never threatened by a wildfire.
There are some excellent resources for wildfire safety, particularly the National Fire Prevention Association (NFPA). Another excellent source of information is Readyforwildfire.org. We’ll highlight some of their best advice, and it goes beyond raking the leaves.
Here’s what we’ll cover:
The degree to which you prepare should be proportional to the risk in your area. Then again, I thought it could never happen to us and it did, so at least consider some of the common sense tasks that would protect you and your family.
How to Make Your Home Wildfire-Safe
- Check the Roof. Burning embers flying through the air are the most direct and immediate threat to many homes. The materials that shingle your roof can prevent or enkindle a fire. The safest shingles are asphalt, clay, concrete, metal, or slate. The most flammable are wooden shakes, although there are fire-retardant sprays that can be applied but they require yearly applications.
- Check Eaves and Vents. Even is your roof is solid slate, a crack in an eave or an open vent can allow an ember to get inside. Attics can be a tinderbox. Check for openings or entry points for flying embers around your house.
- Clean Your Gutters. Leaves love to collect in gutters, and pine needles are worse. Add a few stray sticks and you’ve got tinder and kindling for flying embers. In fact, leaves and other dead vegetation can collect in numerous areas on your roof. Get on the roof and get rid of it.
- Who Let the Dogs Out? If you have a doggie door that swings freely, figure out a way to close it up for wildfire season. High winds sometimes fuel fires and are sometimes caused by fires and can easily blow open a free swinging doggie door.
- Walk the Perimeter. This one is so complicated, we’re going to give it its own section…
There are 3 areas to think about when defining the perimeter around your house. The idea is to create a defensible space that does not allow an advancing fire to find flammable opportunities that could lead to your home.
The First Area
This area is about 5 feet from your home. Take a look at what you have close to your home either next to or at least 5 feet distant and consider what you can do to minimize flammability.
- If firewood is stacked close or right next to your house. Move it. It’s more work to walk for it, but that’s what wheelbarrows and sleds are for. 30 feet is a safe distance. If you can’t move it that far, at least get it as far away as you can. Besides, fire season happens during warmer months.
- Do you really need all of that wood mulch? It looks nice around the house and it keeps the weeds down, but if you live in an area prone to wildfires, use gravel or stones to mulch your yard. Some mulch is highly flammable, and it makes no sense to re-roof your house if you surround the base of your foundation with kindling.
- Watch what you plant. Some plants are flammable and will burn intensely. Juniper and pines are particularly dangerous. Pines also carpet the ground with highly flammable needles. Don’t plant them and, if you must, cut them down.
- A wooden deck. This is where common sense comes into play. If you have a wooden deck and don’t live in a high risk area, there’s no reason to get rid of the deck. Just think twice about stacking any firewood on the deck or anything else flammable… just in case.
- Even a wooden fence can be a threat. Especially if it’s attached to the house. Anything flammable that can carry the flames to the house is worth thinking about. Separating fences attached to a home with a masonry or metal barrier is a common recommendation.
- About propane tanks. The NFPA recommend moving propane tanks at least 30 feet away from a house. That goes for any other flammable materials from building projects.
The Second Area
This area is 5 to 30 feet from your home. This is where you may have out-buildings like sheds, garages, or other structures used for storage. It’s an area that also includes trees, shrubs, and other plants.
- Don’t leave doors on outbuildings open. Keep them closed when not in use. And take a good look at its roof and what you may have stacked next to it or against it, especially if it’s wood construction.
- Prune any dead branches from trees and shrubs. It’s something you should do anyway, and dead branches are flammable. This is especially true for any evergreen.
- Plant trees and shrubs in well-spaced clusters. If for any reason a tree or shrub catches fire, proper spacing of at least 12 feet minimizes the possibility of it spreading easily.
- Remove any brush piles or dried or dead vegetation. Spring and fall bring their share of dead and dying plants, and yard work often results in piles of scrub waiting for disposal. Don’t wait.
- Clear vegetation under trees that could ignite the crown. These are sometimes referred to as “ladder fuels” allowing a surface fire to climb into the tree.
- Think about “fuel breaks.” A simple stone walk or gravel pathway can act as a fuel break. The same goes for patios, driveways, rock gardens, or any other landscaping that doesn’t use vegetation.
The Third Area
This area is 300 to 100 feet from your home, and many of the same recommendations apply.
- Trim the trees and shrubs.
- Don’t get complacent about stacked branches, brush, or leaf piles.
- Continue to plant your trees and shrubs in a well-spaced way, allowing at least 10 feet between crowns.
- Avoid planting flammable trees like evergreens and juniper.
An interesting fact about the perimeter of your home has to do with the safety of firemen. If a wildfire is threatening a community, the local fire departments will be out in full force. However, they abide by certain rules and while their priority is to save homes from fire, they will not risk their lives if a yard is in flames even if the house is still untouched.
Keeping the perimeter around your house clear of flammable materials will increase the odds that any fire crews will save your home rather than simply avoiding the flames in a backyard inferno.
- Make sure your street name and address are clearly marked. There are fire signs that many local fire departments sell at a reduced price. You can mount them at the entrance to your driveway if your address is hard to see. If you call 911 due to a threatening wildfire, the fire department can do very little if they can’t find you.
- Talk to your neighbors. You don’t have to be an alarmist, but a casual conversation about the steps you’re taking to protect your home from wildfire may be all it takes to get your neighbor to do the same. People who live in high risk wildfire areas actually have regular neighborhood meetings about how to fire-proof the neighborhood. All it takes is one complacent neighbor to put the whole neighborhood at risk.
Equipment Checklist for Wildfire Survival
This isn’t about putting out a wildfire yourself. It’s about the stuff you should have on hand if your home is at risk from wildfires. You also have to think about what you might need if you have to evacuate. Some of it is common sense, but that often doesn’t occur to us until something happens… like a wildfire.
- Fire extinguishers. Fires can start small, and if you have an area around or on your home that has sparked to flame from an ember, a fire extinguisher can put it out before it gets out of control.
- Burn kit. There are specialized first aid kits equipped to treat burns. If fire is your fear, it makes sense to have one.
- An axe
- A three-day supply of non-perishable food
- Three gallons of water per person
- A map with evacuation routes and alternate routes clearly marked
- Prescriptions and needed medications
- A change of clothes
- Eyeglasses or contact lenses
- Extra car keys
- Credit cards and cash
- A standard first aid kit
- A flashlight and headlamps
- A battery powered radio with extra batteries
- Sanitation supplies
- Copies of important documents like birth certificates, life insurance policies, and passports
- Pet food and water
What To Do if a Wildfire is Approaching
This is where things get complicated. Wildfires are unpredictable and can spread widely and rapidly. There are different things to do if you have to evacuate, stay put, or worse—find yourself trapped on the road while trying to escape.
It’s not like bugging out two days before the hurricane strikes. Wildfires happen fast and evacuation orders sometimes arrive suddenly as a wildfire shifts direction and speed. The result is that you may need to travel close to if not on roads directly through a spreading wildfire.
Here are some thoughts to ponder from Readyforwildfire.org:
In the event that an evacuation is not issued but there are heavy smoke conditions, stay inside or seek a safer location. If for some reason, you do not leave your area and the fire has trapped you in your home or school building, do the following:
- Call 9-1-1. Quickly provide them with your location and situation.
- Turn on all the lights. This allows firefighters to identify your building easier in smoky conditions.
- Close all doors, windows, vents, and fire screens. Be sure to keep the doors unlocked. This allows firefighters to enter easily.
- Move all curtains away from the windows and sliding glass doors. Curtains are highly flammable. Removing them reduces fuel for the fire.
- Fill your sinks and tubs with cold water.
- Stay inside and away from outer walls and windows.
If you become trapped in your vehicle during a wildfire, certain measures should be taken. These include:
- Call 9-1-1 and communicate your location.
- Park the vehicle away from vegetation that would fuel the fire.
- Close all windows and vents in the vehicle. This keeps smoke out.
- Use a wool blanket or jacket to cover yourself in the car.
- Lay down on the vehicle floor.
If you become trapped on foot, the following procedures should be taken:
- Call 9-1-1. Tell officials your location and situation.
- Find an area without vegetation. Look for ditches or ground depressions.
- Cover your body and lay face down on the ground.
What To Do Following a Wildfire
The focus during a wildfire is usually on staying safe and surviving the fire. However, this can leave a moment of uncertainty regarding the next steps to take when the wildfire has passed. Some may still be recovering from an evacuation.
Should you become separated from family members, use your communication plan. Letting family and friends know you are safe and well can bring them peace of mind. You can register yourself or search for loved ones at the Red Cross’s safeandwell.org.
If you are evacuated, return home only when officials say it is safe. If you cannot return home and have immediate housing needs, text SHELTER + your ZIP code to 43362 (4FEMA) to find the nearest shelter in your area (example: shelter 12345).
Stay alert and away from dangers like:
- Damaged roads or bridges.
- Broken or damaged power lines and gas lines.
- Broken glass, splintered wood and other sharp, dangerous objects.
- Gas fumes (open windows for ventilation, and wait to use lighters or matches).
- Flood residue contaminated with sewage or chemicals.
For those that evacuated, returning home is often their first priority. However, it is important to return home or to a school building only after authorities have communicated that it is safe. Once you arrive at the building, be sure to:
- Maintain a “fire watch.” Check for smoke, sparks or hidden embers in the house or building. Repeat this process for several hours. Be sure to include the roof and attic in each search.
- Keep an eye out for hot spots, which can ignite trees without warning.
- Wear leather gloves and thick-soled boots for protection.
- Look for damaged power poles and stay away from them. Also avoid damaged power lines and report any seen to 9-1-1 or the power company.
- Look for ash pits. These are holes in the ground created by burned tree roots, filled with hot ashes. Also, keep an eye out for burned trees, debris, or live embers. If any of these are identified, mark them for safety and keep clear of them.
- Wet down roof and gutters to ensure that all sparks and embers are put out.
- Stay connected to alert systems, radio and other information sources. Consider following FEMA and the American Red Cross apps.
- Stay in contact with friends and family through text messaging and phone calls.
For repairing and clearing damages done to a property, certain cleaning measures should be taken. These include:
- Wearing a NIOSH certified-respirator (dust mask) when moving debris.
- Wetting down any debris, to reduce dust.
- Throwing any food out that was exposed to heat, smoke, or soot.
- Checking water for contaminates. Water that is contaminated should not be used for any purpose.
- Taking photos of the damage for possible insurance claims.
- If it is safe to do so, protect your property from further damage by making small emergency repairs to your home before an insurance adjuster sees it. This could include boarding up windows, putting a tarp on the roof and salvaging undamaged items.
- If possible, keep damaged items or portions of these items until the claim adjuster has visited your home. Consider photographing or videotaping the damage to provide further documentation to support your claim.
FEMA may also provide assistance after some disasters — call 800-621-3362 or go to DisasterAssistance.gov for more information.
Does it Ever End?
Times are tough right now. We’re still reeling from a global pandemic, Russia is rattling the nuclear saber, droughts and flooding are occurring with greater frequency and the global economy seems to be teetering on the brink. Now we get to think about wildfires.
But in an effort to keep some semblance of sanity and normalcy in our daily lives the best solution is to be aware of the immediate threats surrounding us and to prepare for them. In that regard, wildfires are a real threat to many and as wildfire season approaches, it just makes sense to be ready.
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