Science

How to Protect Yourself When a Wildfire Approaches

In the wake of California’s devastating fires, it’s worth taking some time to make a plan.

An aerial view of a shopping center destroyed by the Camp Fire
An aerial view of a shopping center destroyed by the Camp Fire taken on Thursday in Paradise, California.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

This story was originally published by High Country News and has been republished here with permission from Climate Desk.

On Nov. 8, the Camp Fire, which started that morning in rural Butte County, California, about 90 miles north of Sacramento, exploded. Within hours, it engulfed the small town of Paradise. As flames spread, harried evacuations choked busy streets with traffic, trapping people in their cars and homes. As of Wednesday, the official death count is 48 people, but with about 200 missing, that number is expected to rise.

The Camp Fire, which broke out on the same day as the massive fires in Southern California that have claimed two lives, is the latest disaster to test the preparedness of communities living on the edge of forests and shrubland. As climate change worsens drought conditions and ongoing fire suppression leaves behind fire-prone forests and chaparral, the threats to communities are only getting worse.

Communities are increasingly grappling with how to keep residents safe and get ready for fire season. While there are not always ways to prevent tragedies like the Camp Fire, preparation is essential. Here are five steps to take to protect yourself during a wildfire.

Determine if You Live In a Fire-Prone Area

The areas where communities meet forests and shrubland are known as the wildland-urban interface, often called by the acronym WUI. These areas are at higher risk of wildfire because there is an increased likelihood of human-ignited fires. They are also harder to defend because controlled burns are unpopular near human settlement, and protecting homes and lives is more difficult there than in uninhabited areas, like remote commercial timberlands and national forests.

Even as the risk of extreme wildfires rises, more people are choosing to live in harm’s way. The number of homes across the country built in WUI areas increased by 41 percent between 1990 and 2010, according to U.S. Forest Service research headed by the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s SILVIS Lab. While living away from bustling cities and closer to undeveloped landscapes has an appeal for many homeowners, it carries an inherent set of risks.

Are you unsure if you live in a WUI area? Click here for a map and use the search box in the right-hand corner to look up your address and see WUI areas near you.

Get Ready Before the Fire Hits

Fire preparation falls into two broad categories: long-term planning and short-term response.

In areas prone to wildfire, long-term preparation is about reducing the likelihood a fire will consume your house and making sure you know what to do when a fire is coming. One of the most important steps any homeowner can do to protect herself from wildfires is creating defensible space around her home. Clearing brush and flammable materials and designing landscapes that are less fire-prone saves houses and aids firefighters in structure protection. A good primer on the basics of defensible space can be found here.

Know Your Plan for Getting Out

Short-term fire preparation involves making a plan for evacuating your home and communicating that plan within your family and throughout your neighborhood. In October 2017, Melissa Lely was on her Sonoma County farm when the Nuns Fire, one of more than a dozen to engulf California’s wine country last year, broke out. “It was the scariest night of our lives,” she said. “We didn’t have an evacuation plan.”

Now, Lely and her husband have a plan for evacuating themselves and their farm animals, and have rebuilt their farm with a focus on defensible space and fire preparation.

Fires often move faster than emergency services can be dispatched, which means “you, your family and your neighbors are your own rescuers,” said Michele Steinberg, the division director for wildfire at the National Fire Protection Association. Steinberg recommends having a written plan for evacuating during a fire and preparing supplies when hazardous-fire weather conditions, like high winds and low humidity, are predicted. One of the most important ways to prepare for a fire is knowing the evacuation routes out of your community. “People don’t realize how little time they have,” she said.
“Being prepared buys you time.”

As You Evacuate, Think of the First Responders

As fires near and evacuation warnings are put in place, there are a few last-minute steps that help firefighters and reduce the likelihood your house will burn down. If you have time, turn off any gas lines to the house, move flammable materials like patio-furniture cushions and propane tanks inside the house, and close all windows and doors to reduce the chance that embers ignite and burn your house. Also, attaching and leaving out any outdoor hoses you have can aid firefighters in structure protection. But these measures come with an important caveat: If it is time to evacuate, leaving should be your first priority, Steinberg said. And when you leave, stick with your family or group.

Prepare to Be Cut Off

Two modern essentials that are some of the first to go when fires break out are cellphone service and electricity. Losing either or both poses challenges that require planning ahead.

Losing cell service often means losing GPS and the maps applications many of us use for driving directions. Designating and practicing evacuation routes before an emergency strikes can help reduce reliance on cellphones in an emergency situation.

Electrical lines pose a great fire risk and are often taken out of service during fires and extreme fire weather. One of the most serious problems posed by power outages are automatic garage doors, said Steinberg. If you store your car in a garage that relies solely on an electric motor, it is best to keep a vehicle outside during times of high fire risk.