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How to Survive a Wildfire

Like a wall of roaring flames, a wildfire can be a violent and fast moving death trap. Annually, forest fires account for billions of dollars in damages. Many people, especially those who underestimate the force and intensity of these fires, become trapped or tragic fatalities.

Understanding wildfires, as with any crisis, is vital to increasing survival. In February 2009, Australia experienced their most deadly wildfire episode. The “Black Saturday” fires left over 200 dead, many of them too charred to identify and thousands homeless, as 400 fires swept through the bush, devouring towns.

Most individuals had a plan that included fire safety. For many, it was simply- to evacuate and quickly. Others, faced with multiple fast moving infernos, little advance notice and fire blocked exit routes were trapped and became victims.

A few became survivors. Amidst the ash raining down and trees exploding from heat, they took quick, life saving action. A mother and her children crawled into the safety of a wombat’s burrow. Two men took refuge in a drainage pipe, rolling in water as flames approached. Another man, avoided death by jumping into his swimming pool, while fire engulfed the area, destroying his neighbor’s home.

The best and surest means to survive a wildfire is to escape well in advance. However, often that is not possible. Wildfire can jump, suddenly across streams and bare areas.

What you should know about wildfires:

·     Given wind and the right conditions, forest fires can move quicker than we can run. Gusty winds can propel a fire at amazing speeds. According to studies conducted after Black Saturday, the fire traveled at an average 5 miles per hour. In bursts it was capable of crossing a third of a mile (600 meters) in 30 seconds. Like fire ridden Australia, California suffers a similar event due to mountain winds that push fires with lightening speeds.

·     Ahead of the larger fire, there may be additional fires.

·     As in the case of the Black Saturday tragedy, these smaller pockets of fire cut off roadways by merging with the larger fire.

·     Out running or escaping by car isn’t always possible. Vehicles have been burnt to the frames as people tried to drive away and became trapped.

·     Digging a trench that fire can’t cross is also not advised. Large fires can and will jump these.

What can you do to escape?

  • Choose downhill, not uphill routes if possible. Fire moves faster uphill due to updrafts.
  • Select areas without fuel for fire- barren, plowed fields, riverbeds, ponds, rocky areas.
  • Stay away from dry, arid fuel potential, such as dead leaves, dry weedy fields, dead trees, etc. Survivors have described trees exploding from heat. In Australia, the fires were said to reach temperatures of as much as 1,200 degrees- enough to cause dry fuel to burst into flames, even before the fire reached the area.
  • Leafy trees burn more slowly than evergreen trees. Some trees and bushes, like eucalyptus, contain flammable oils that cause burning to intensify. Try to select a route that is less flammable, if possible. If you must choose a wooded area as your escape route, pick leafy trees over pines.
  • Where there is no hope of escape, seek shelter in the ground. Scary as it sounds to let the flames roar by you, sometimes out distancing a fire is impossible and this becomes a better live saving option.
  •  Find a cave, barren crevice, drainage pipe or an underground hole. Lay low and curled up. Cover any exposed skin (including face) to keep thermal burns at a minimum. This will also help reduce smoke inhalation. If you live in or are visiting a high wildfire threat area, consider a fire blanket for emergencies.  
  • Dig a trench to lie in. Cover your body with a foot of soil. This is dangerous as fire consumes oxygen and can suffocate you. Only do this as a last resort. However, some have survived using this dire tactic. Lay face down. Try to create a small pocket under your face to trap oxygen. Hold your breath and keep eyes closed when fire passes over you.
  • If you have time as you evacuate, choose cotton clothing and shed nylon apparel. Nylon has a very low melting point. If you are close to a fire or intense heat, nylon can melt onto your skin.
  • If you are near water (lake, river, swimming pool) submerge as much as possible. Try to avoid coming to the surface when fire passes, as the heat can sear your lungs.
  • After the fire passes, proceed upwind, against the direction the fire is moving and where fuel has been already consumed by the flames.
  • Seek emergency help as soon as possible. It’s likely you’ll have thermal burns that need to be treated or may be dehydrated, suffering from smoke inhalation or in shock.

Remember, the best way to survive this or any emergency is with preparation. Make a plan with your family that includes wildfire threats if you live in or are visiting an area with forest fire potential. Have an exit route that includes areas with little vegetation. If possible, select two different routes in case one is blocked by fire.

Invest in a heat resistant non-wool fire blanket to take with you when camping. Choose fire blankets tested to withstand high temperatures. Pack a first aid kit that contains pain meds and burn spray.  Always pay attention to dry conditions that may precede fires. When coupled with very arid, drought-like weather, lightening strikes are exceedingly dangerous and may prompt a sudden wildfire. Use caution with campfires. Obey laws prohibiting fire.

Know where large bodies of water are and how to get to them quickly. Observe trees and choose to camp in dry conditions near water or by deciduous (leafy) forests, away from pines. If a fire has been spotted, even many miles away- monitor events closely. Ash that collects on near surfaces is a sign to evacuate, as wind direction will soon bring the fire or burning embers to you.

There is no safety substitute for early evacuation. Be ready to leave promptly if authorities alert you to do so or if conditions appear dangerous. The best way to survive a wildfire is avoiding the hazard altogether.

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