The good news is that deaths due to wildfires are relatively few, and tend to be weighted toward wildland firefighters doing their job, rather than ordinary people caught in a conflagration. The bad news is that if you’re not paying attention, not doing what you’re told, or haven’t prepared appropriately, fire can start fast and move quickly putting you and your property in danger.
As always, the first rule of surviving a fire is not to get caught in one, and especially not to start one (most fires are started by lightning, or humans).
As Smoky Bear has preached for decades, “Only you can prevent forest fires.” The best way to avoid the risk of injury or death that comes with wildfires is not to have wildfires, and a high percentage of fires are caused by humans. First, don’t be stupid. Don’t discard cigarette butts out of the car window. Secondly, don’t use fireworks where there is dry, natural fuel everywhere. There are some other common sense ways to prevent fires, including things you might not think about:
- Allow wood in a campfire to burn completely to ash, if possible.
- Pour lots of water on the fire. Drown ALL embers, not just the red ones. Pour until hissing sound stops.
- Remember if it’s too hot to touch, it’s too hot to leave.
- Mow your lawn before 10 a.m., and never when it’s windy or excessively dry. Metal lawnmower blades striking rocks can create sparks and start fires.
- When doing yardwork or work outdoors with mechanical equipment, keep a fire extinguisher and/or a water source handy.
- Be sure chains and other metal parts aren’t dragging from your vehicle – they throw sparks which start fires on the side of the road.
- Check your tire pressure. Driving on an exposed wheel rim can cause sparks.
- Don’t let your brake pads wear too thin; metal on metal makes sparks.
- Don’t burn debris in your yard when its windy or vegetation is very dry. Embers can travel up to 5 miles from their source.
- Keep burn piles small and manageable. Add additional debris as the fire burns down.
- Don’t dump hot ashes over decks, onto dry grass or leaves; they will start a fire. Instead, stir and drown the ashes and feel with the back of your hand that they are cool. Then put in a metal bucket.
- ALWAYS stay with your burn pile, fire pit, or campfire and have a water source nearby.
Evacuate when You’re Told To
“When you first get the notification to evacuate, do it,” stressed Einar Jensen, Risk Reduction Specialist for South Metro Fire Rescue Authority in Denver, Colorado. “Most civilians died because they waited too long before trying to leave.”
Jensen notes that people don’t understand how serious smoke and flames impinging on roads can be. “It has all the danger of a structure fire, without the structure,” he noted. If you’re driving on a road and it is being “burned over,” that heat gets into your car. “The plastics – and in my car that is pretty much every surface – start to melt and begin off-gassing or vaporizing,” he cautioned. “Now, you’re inhaling hot, toxic air. What does that do to your body? You asphyxiate, and die in your car. We don’t want you to die today, and if you go early, the roads are more clear for fire fighters to come in, do their jobs, and save your homes.”
He pointed out that there were significant casualties among those in cars in the 2003 San Diego wildfires, which killed 16, 10 of whom were in vehicles trying to outrun the fire; and the February 2009 Black Saturday bushfires in Australia, where 414 were injured and 173 died.
The other thing that happens is people stay to try and defend their homes and property. “It is very difficult for most people who have no wildland fire training and no wildland fire equipment to defend a home or property from a wildfire, so the best thing people can do is evacuate. No home or property is worth a human life,” said Jessica Gardetto, Deputy Chief, External Affairs, BLM National Fire and Aviation, National Interagency Fire Center.
If You’re Near a Fire
If you are near a fire, it’s important to note that even professional wildland fire fighters with specialized equipment can get into trouble, suffering injuries or worse. Even with Nomex pants and shirt, boots at least 12 inches tall, heavy leather gloves, a hardhat with face shield, safety glasses, and a fire shield, they are at risk.