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You are here: Home > Emergency Preparedness > Articles About Emergencies > Disaster Preparedness and Survival Tips > How to Survive an Approaching Wildfire in Your Home

How to Survive an Approaching Wildfire in Your Home

There has been a recent shift in wildfire policies in the United States recently. Research has shown evacuations save lives and allows emergency workers the ability to concentrate on fighting the fires. In spite of this data, studies show up to an alarming 60 percent of homeowners would stay behind and fight fires produced by wildfires. 

That, according to Daniel Berlant of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection(Cal Fire),  is a dangerous practice, putting not only the lives of homeowners in jeopardy, but also rescue workers in grave risk.

There is no doubt that prompt evacuation is the best and only plan to avoid the dangers of a wildfire. As Berlant states, “Building a fire shelter is never meant to be a plan.” Neither is fighting a fire for untrained homeowners.

With this in mind, please be aware the other techniques listed in this article are only for advanced crisis situations –if you become trapped.

In addition, there are many preventative measures homeowners in fire zones can do to help prevent a wildfire or to minimize its impact. As with all emergencies, wildfire survival is based on prevention and knowledge.

Basic Information:

  • Most fires, even wildfires, are caused by man.  4 out of 5 are the direct result of human beings.
  • Lightning strikes are the second most common cause of forest fires. Hence, be wary of any storm front that produces lightening when in wildfire prone areas.
  • California has engineered a wildfire protection plan, “Ready, Set, Go”, advising citizens to prepare by applying fire resistant techniques to their property, gather emergency supplies, and then to evacuate once a wildfire threatens.  This plan is the works to be adopted by other states in 2010.
  • Warnings to evacuate vary greatly in the amount of time given to residents- as little as a few minutes to several hours.  Be vigilant to conditions during fire season and ready to leave quickly.
  • Wildfires are capable of great speeds. Propelled by wind currents and the right fuel, they have been known to cover a third of a mile in less than a half a minute.
  • Embers, which account for most property damage, can be sent ahead of a wildfire a quarter of a mile or more.
  • After a fire has burned through, embers still pose a significant fire risk to homeowners. Even hours later, they can start a fire. Usually they are trapped in outside structural material, but they can also travel into the home through openings in windows or doors.
  • External property damage is apparent, as flames lick outsides of buildings. However, the intense heat of wildfires can also cause combustion indoors- even when flames have not permeated the home.
  • Some wildfires exceed temperatures of 1,200 degrees. 
  • In some cases, because you can’t usually outrun a wildfire, taking shelter in a home is better than attempting to flee on foot.

 Potential Evacuation:

  • Follow your plan. Stay calm!
  • Use your checklist to make sure you have everything in your survival kit assembled.
  • Put survival kit items in vehicle.
  • Face vehicle toward road. Hang on to keys. Make sure cell phone is charged and with you.
  • Gather family and pets.
  • Move any flammables away from buildings (such as gas grills).  Close propane value tightly.
  • Shut off natural or LPG gas to the house. Turn off pilot light.
  • Connect garden hoses and fill buckets of water.
  • Keep the house well lit and the exit route doors unlocked and unblocked. 
  • Close windows and fireplace flue, turn air conditioning off. Plug up vents in attic. (This keeps airborne embers from entering).
  • Move flammable furniture away from windows and exterior walls and to the center of the rooms.
  • Take curtains off windows. Close metal blinds to keep heat out.
  • Wear long pants, closed toe, heavy soled shoes and long sleeves and eye protection. Cover your hair in a hat. Use a dry cloth to protect your face. (Wet fabric against skin can cause steam burns in high heat).
  • AVOID any synthetic clothing, such as nylon, which can melt in high temperatures to your skin.  Cotton clothing is best.
  • Listen to regular updates from authorities!
  • Stay watchful of the surroundings.

Evacuation:

  • If you are advised to evacuate, do so immediately.
  • Listen to routes suggested by officials.
  • If you leave prior to a mandatory evacuation, pick an exit route that takes you away from the fire and is free of falling debris (like trees) that can block your path.
  • Homes that are protected by people do stand a better chance of surviving. BUT don’t attempt fire fighting if ordered to evacuate or if conditions worsen rapidly before an evacuation is in effect.  Belongings can be replaced, people can’t.
  • Listen to community updates.

Emergency Techniques if You Get Trapped in Your Home:

  • Keep a level head.
  • Family members should stay together.
  • Call 911 immediately. Tell authorities where you are currently seeking refuge in your home, along with the address and your condition.
  • Stay with your family in one protected area, away from windows and outside walls.
  • If you know the direction the fire is coming from, move to the opposite part of the home, (but away from windows and outside walls.)
  • Immediately fill sinks, tubs and any containers with cold water. Keep a bucket to bail water nearby.
  • If the power goes out, the well pump may not work. If you can’t get to the generator or don’t have one- scoop water with small containers from the back and bowl of the toilets and fill a bucket. Take all the ice out of the freezer and put in containers to use as it melts. This won’t make up for a tub of water, but it will buy you time to douse small fires until help comes.
  • Keep flashlights with you.
  • Leave exterior doors unlocked, but closed. Keep lights on.
  • Close all windows and interior doors. This will help contain any fires, as well as keep the heat and smoke compartmentalized.
  • Stay away from windows and outside walls. Windows can shatter from heat.
  • Stay low if smoke fills the room. Keep your face covered.
  • Extinguish any small fires that appear with water, fire extinguishers or using a fire blanket.
  • If you have a roof sprinkler system, activate it.
  • It will become hot in the home, but the heat will only be more intense outdoors.
  • Keep exit routes clear.
  • Only leave your home if it catches on fire.
  • Stay inside until help comes or the fire passes.

After the fire has moved on, it’s vital to check the entire exterior, especially the roof. Look for burning embers or smoldering areas under decks, in attics and throughout yard. Have fire fighters assess your home’s safety.

Remember, if you’ve already cleared a 100 foot wide perimeter of defensible space, free of fuel for wildfires, your home (and you, if you’re trapped inside) won’t be as likely to sustain serious damages. Don’t turn your sprinkler system on when evacuating, as it can lower water pressure for fire fighters. However, if you are trapped in a life or death situation, use of these can save you.  While these tips will offer aid in dire emergencies, there is no substitute for prompt evacuation.  

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