Wildfires are naturally occurring or man made events which can appear suddenly and do horrific damage to huge areas within hours. Anyone who has lived in California the last couple of years knows first-hand what I'm talking about.
If you live in an area where wildfires can occur you must be prepared ahead of time, because when they hit you would have to leave in a moments notice.
Learning how to prepare for a wildfire is especially important for those responsible for children, older adults, and people with heart or lung disease as they are especially susceptible to smoke inhalation complications.
What is a Wildfire?
A wildfire is an uncontrolled fire that can burn in forests and other systems like grasslands and savannas. In many cases they are actually beneficial to the ecosystem, unless of course humans live nearby.
Wildfires can actually burn both below and above the soil. Ground fires can ignite in plant roots and can smolder for a long time, and potentially become a surface fire.
Surface fires often start by burning the dead and dry vegetation that is lying or growing above the ground, like grasses or fallen leaves. Fires which reach the leaves and tree canopies are called Crown fires.
Typically it is lightning or human action which are what causes wildfires but it is the immediate weather conditions which determine how much a wildfire grows or how damaging it becomes.
High temperatures, strong winds and lack of rainfall are all positive indicators of increased fire risk.
Human habitations on tops of hills are particular susceptible, as fire travels more quickly uphill, leading to a much higher risk of fatalities and injuries.
The Camp Fire of 2018 in California destroyed the entire town of Paradise and 86 people died.
Fire Escape Plan
The first and most important preparation you can make to protect yourself and your family from wildfires is to know how you can get away from one should you need to.
Create an emergency evacuation plan ahead of time. Start by looking for your community’s evacuation plan and work of that to make yours.
Check your town or counties websites to see if they have one available, or try a web search for your counties EOC (Emergency Operations Center.)
Your wild fire plan should include:
- Predetermined meeting locations outside the hazard area. Have a local location and one further away should one be compromised.
- Have more than one escape route in case your primary route is no longer available.
- Practice! Make sure you test drive your plan at least once and see if any other ideas come out of it.
- Communication partners: designate one an out of area family member as a point of contact among your local family members, should you become separated and unable to communicate directly. Local networks could become overloaded.
- If you have large pets or livestock like horses or cattle, this will require a whole other set of considerations, think about them now.
Modern tech for the win, nowadays it's very easy to see where fires are, have been, and might be starting with online maps which are updated regularly.
Global Forest Watch has a very good interactive global wildfire map you should familiarize yourself with.
The US EPA keeps an air quality index here.
Before a wildfire disaster hits your area make sure you have the right types of supplies ahead of time in case you have to stay at home or evacuate:
- Purify air to prevent smoke or particulate inhalation in the home and outside
- Stock up on groceries that don't require refrigeration or long cook times
- Prepare an escape kit, like a Bug Out Bag or WUSH Bag should evacuation be required
You might not have to evacuate your home if a fire isn't threatening it, but wildfire smoke can travel for miles and be extremely disruptive and dangerous to people with respiratory conditions or children.
When a wildfire is nearby it is important to keep your exposure to smoke at a minimum. Wildfire smoke can damage and irritate your respiratory system along with your throat, nose, and eyes. Breathing and can become difficult and potentially fatal for people with asthma, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) or heart disease.
If you are staying home you will need to keep the air inside clean.
CA.gov has a list of products certified by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) to reduce particulates in the home.
We think the best air purifies for wildfire smoke are Mechanical Filters which use physical filtration elements like HEPA filters. Yes you need to replace them from time to time but we think they provide the best and most consistent results. They can be a little expensive however.
Typical Price: $99
We use the Blue Pure 411 in our home. We have 2 and they have worked great for us for several years. Easy to use, they look nice, and aren't crazy expensive.
It isn't a HEPA filter but it is on the CA.gov CARB list. In addition to these we use MERV 13 filters within our AC systems intakes.
In addition to filtration for the home you should have a wildfire smoke mask (or masks) that you can take with you should you need to leave or be exposed outside.
N95 Masks can filter the particulates out of the air, but will not filter our harmful gasses. Keep some in your wildfire emergency kit but don't depend on them. The best thing to do is to get inside of a structure with an HVAC system.
As mentioned earlier this is especially important if you or someone in your family has asthma, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) or heart disease.
Children are especially susceptible to complications due to smoke exposure as well, but there aren't many options available, since most products are designed for adults.
Mira Safety does have options for children, and our favorite is their CM-3M CBRN Child Escape Respirator / Infant Gas Mask with PAPR.
If you want to read more about respirators and gas masks, read our Ultimate Gas Mask Guide.
You will want to make sure that you have a good stockpile of groceries so you can avoid having to go out into contaminated air as much as possible. You also will want to reduce the amount of cooking you will be doing, so you aren't adding to the pollutants inside the home with smoke and fumes from the stove.
Having meals that only require being heated or reconstituted is a safer alternative, that way you are only warming things up or boiling water.
Typical Price: $40 1-person
Formally Wise foods, one of the most trusted names in preparedness meals. 1,813 calories per day - 5,440 total. Food is sealed in Metallyte pouches which are easy to pack and use.
These companies make meals that only require hot water to reconstitute and eat and many offer shelf live of 25 years or more:
- Valley Food
- Readywise Company
- Eden Valley Family Farms
- Emergency Essentials
- The Ready Store
- Augason Farms
In addition go to your local grocery and stock up on canned vegetables, soups and foods, and get canned fish and chicken as well.
To reiterate, the point here is to reduce the amount of cooking you do, so you aren't adding to the level of contaminants in your homes air supply.
This also means AVOID CANDLES. Use battery powered lighting sources should you lose power.
Part of your fire emergency plan should be preparing for power outages.
Prepare an Escape Kit
If the worst case should happen, and you are forced to evacuate your home make sure you have a survival kit ready to go as part of your wildfire preparedness plans. Around here we call them Bug Out Bags, but you can call if a Fire Emergency Kit if you want.
Each family member should have a kit, and you should plan on being away from home for several days, or even longer if your home is caught in the fire.
At the very least, make a WUSH Bag, which will help you recreate your life before the fire as best as is possible.
Maybe you won't be able to save all your physical possessions, but with a WUSH Bag prepared you will at least have your important documents and photos.
Part of your emergency action plan checklist should be protecting your home as best you can against encroaching fires, until such time as you might be forced to evacuate.
Depending on where your home is, and in what kind of a structure you live in will dictate how to protect your home from wildfires. If you live in a freestanding structure with a yard you should keep the landscaping tidy year round and large trees away from the house.
Here is a helpful diagram which provides you some idea of the steps you can take in advance