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Survival / October 1, 2017

How to not die in a wildfire

Written by: Brad Shannon

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).

Fire Prevention

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:

  1. Allow wood in a campfire to burn completely to ash, if possible.
  2. Pour lots of water on the fire. Drown ALL embers, not just the red ones. Pour until hissing sound stops.
  3. Remember if it’s too hot to touch, it’s too hot to leave.
  4. 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.
  5. When doing yardwork or work outdoors with mechanical equipment, keep a fire extinguisher and/or a water source handy.
  6. 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.
  7. Check your tire pressure. Driving on an exposed wheel rim can cause sparks.
  8. Don’t let your brake pads wear too thin; metal on metal makes sparks.
  9. 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.
  10. Keep burn piles small and manageable. Add additional debris as the fire burns down.
  11. 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.
  12. 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.

Image courtesy of the US National Parks Service

Even with fire shelters, firefighters are injured and die during burnover. Fire shelters provide protection primarily by reflecting radiant heat and trapping breathable air inside. The shelter is comprised of two layers. The outer layer is woven silica laminated to aluminum foil. The foil reflects radiant heat and the silica cloth slows the transfer of heat to the inside of the shelter. An inner layer is fiberglass laminated to aluminum foil. The inner layer of foil prevents heat from being re-radiated inside the shelter, and it prevents gases from entering the shelter. When the two layers of materials are sewn together, the air gap between them provides additional insulation.

Whether you live in or are visiting an area where fires can occur, let someone know where you are, Jensen stressed. “If you’re camping, or mountain biking, stay in touch so they don’t worry, or they know to alert authorities if you’re overdue.”

Once a fire is burning and established, the biggest risks are to firefighters, and that’s not always when they are on the front lines, noted Tina Boehle, Branch of Communication and Education, Division of Fire and Aviation for the National Park Service. Many firefighter deaths are due to auto accidents relate to fatigue, decreased visibility from smoke, poor road surfaces in mountainous areas, and other causes. Others are lost to aviation accidents related to getting to the fire, fighting it, or leaving after it is controlled. Death due to heart attack or other medical incident during the fire is a concern, as are falling trees, and the threat of “burnover,” where firefighters are caught and have to use their fire shelters to protect themselves when the fire burns past/over/through the area they are in.

Visiting Wildfire Territory

Along with letting someone know your travel plans, think about your wardrobe. While firefighters have PPE, or personal protective equipment, you should think about wearing natural fibers, because synthetics melt in the heat.

When you are in wildfire territory and a fire threatens or is active, Boehle said, it pays to think like a firefighter. Situational awareness is always good. “Where are your escape routes? Where are your safe zones? What is the weather like? Which way is the wind blowing? Can you get to a large meadow where there is moisture, or a large rocky area or screes slope? Is there a stream bed? If your best option at the side of a road, and, given traffic and reduced visibility, how risky is that?”

Fire behavior can be unpredictable, depending on wind, temperature, humidity, terrain, fuel supply, and other factors. Fires burn up a slope as much as 16 times faster as it moves on flat ground.

Living in Wildfire Territory

It’s not the fire burning through your land that is the danger, it’s embers, in some cases from fires miles away, that become airborne, land in a bad spot on your deck or roof, and start the fire that destroys your home.

Fire mitigation on your property is your responsibility, Jensen notes, adding “It’s hard to comprehend why it is so difficult to get people to protect their investment. If you perform mitigation around your home, and make it as resistant to fire as possible, you not only help protect your investment, fire fighters don’t have to spend resources saving your house. They can focus on stopping the fire and helping those who could not evacuate due to age or disability.”

Just the same, notes Kristin Garrison, Colorado State Forest Service (CSFS), Assistant Division Supervisor/Fire Fuels Management Forest Management Division, it is important to work together as a community, across boundaries. “One or two homeowners mitigating is not effective. Fire does not respect property lines,” she noted. Make your land and your community Fire Adapted or Firewise.

Remove anything flammable from around your home – vegetation, firewood, propane tanks, fallen leaves, twigs, and branches, advised Boehle. Here are steps to take before a wildfire hits as part of a fire adapted community:

  1. Remove flammable objects (lawn mowers, oil or gas cans, propane tanks, wood piles, lawn furniture) at least 30 feet away from the home.
  2. Make sure roofs, gutters, decks, and patios are cleared of leaves, pine needles or other flammables.
  3. Remove flammable mulch and vegetation 10 feet from around the home and replace with rock or gravel.
  4. Remove tree or shrub branches that overhand the structure.
  5. Keep lawns watered and mowed.
  6. Trim tree limbs 10 feet from the ground (cut away so-called ladder fuels).
  7. Screen vents and under decks with metal screen no larger than 1/8th  inch to retard ember intrusion.
  8. Use flame resistant building materials (remove wood shake roofs and siding as soon as possible).
  9. Find two ways out of your neighborhood in case of evacuation.
  10. Get your neighbors to reduce risk by the 9 method listed above.
  11. Be ready to evacuate and leave when instructed to do so.

Before a fire threatens, Jensen recommends creating a family communications plan. “Designate a family member of close friend who is in a different zip code as your emergency contact, then call them, inform them of the situation, and have everyone else who is concerned about you call THEM, not you.” he advised. “If wildfire threatens your area, you will be busy. You won’t have time to take calls from everyone you know checking up on you and asking when you are leaving, and if you don’t pick up, they’ll be more worried.”

Especially in rural areas, Jensen stressed, if you own livestock, don’t open gates or cut fences and let them loose. “Evacuate with them, if you can, or keep them in the trimmed down pasture, or the dirt areas around stables. If you let them out, they may end up on the roads, with decreased visibility due to smoke. That becomes roadkill potential, and I don’t want to see livestock killed, but I also don’t want to have to deal with damaged fire trucks and injured or dead fire fighters if one of our trucks hits a horse, cow or alpaca. Dead firemen can’t fight fires and save your home.”

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about the author

Brad Shannon

Brad Shannon is a cyclist, runner, triathlete; soccer coach, player and referee; gear / gadget lover; and storyteller. He’s a fan of dogs and the weather and craft beer scene in northern Colorado. His current favorite item is his 3D-printed Inconel bottle opener.

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