More and more people are making their homes in woodland settings - in or near forests, rural areas, or remote mountain sites. There, homeowners enjoy the beauty of the environment but face the very real danger of wildfire.
Every year across our Nation, some homes survive - while many others do not - after a major wildfire. Those that survive almost always do so because their owners had prepared for the eventuality of fire, which is an inescapable force of nature in fire-prone wildland areas. Said in another way - if it's predictable, it's preventable!
Wildfires often begin unnoticed. They spread quickly, igniting brush, trees, and homes. Reduce your risk by preparing now - before wildfire strikes. Meet with your family to decide what to do and where to go if wildfires threaten your area. Follow the steps listed below to protect your family, home, and property.
Before a Wildfire
The following are things you can do to protect yourself, your family and your property in the event of a fire.
Ø To begin preparing, you should build an emergency kit and make a family reunification plan.
Ø Design and landscape your home with wildfire safety in mind. Select materials and plants that can help contain fire rather than fuel it.
Ø Use fire-resistant or noncombustible materials on the roof and exterior structure of the dwelling, or treat wood or combustible material used in roofs, siding, decking or trim with fire-retardant chemicals evaluated by a nationally recognized laboratory, such as Underwriters Laboratories (UL).
Ø Plant fire-resistant shrubs and trees. For example, hardwood trees are less flammable than pine, evergreen, eucalyptus or fir trees.
Ø Regularly clean roof and gutters.
Ø Inspect chimneys at least twice a year. Clean them at least once a year. Keep the dampers in good working order. Equip chimneys and stovepipes with a spark arrester that meets the requirements of National Fire Protection Association Standard 211. (Contact your local fire department for exact specifications.)
Ø Use 1/8-inch mesh screen beneath porches, decks, floor areas, and the home itself. Also, screen openings to floors, roof and attic. (During a wildfire, this screen material will help prevent flying embers from entering these areas)
Ø Install a dual-sensor smoke alarm on each level of your home, especially near bedrooms; test monthly and change the batteries at least once each year.
Ø Teach each family member how to use a fire extinguisher (ABC type) and show them where it's kept.
Ø Maintain a defensible space by clearing items that will burn from around the house, including wood piles, lawn furniture, barbecue grills, tarp coverings, etc. Move them outside of your defensible space.
Preparing Your Home for a Wildfire
Ø It is recommended that you create a 30 to 100 foot safety zone around your home. Within this area, you can take steps to reduce potential exposure to flames and radiant heat. Homes built in pine forests should have a minimum safety zone of 100 feet. If your home sits on a steep slope, standard protective measures may not suffice.
Ø Rake leaves, dead limbs and twigs. Clear all flammable vegetation.
Ø Remove leaves and rubbish from under structures.
Ø Thin a 15-foot space between tree crowns, and remove limbs within 15 feet of the ground.
Ø Remove dead branches that extend over the roof.
Ø Prune tree branches and shrubs within 15 feet of a stovepipe or chimney outlet.
Ø Ask the power company to clear branches from powerlines.
Ø Remove vines from the walls of the home.
Ø Mow grass regularly.
Ø Stack firewood away and uphill from your home. Clear combustible material within 20 feet of your home.
Ø Review your homeowner's insurance policy and also prepare/update a list of your home's contents.
Practice Wildfire Safety
Ø Make sure that fire vehicles can get to your home. Clearly mark all driveway entrances and display your address.
Ø Ensure adequate accessibility by large fire vehicles to your property.
Ø Report hazardous conditions that could cause a wildfire.
Ø Teach children about fire safety. Keep matches out of their reach.
Ø Post fire emergency telephone numbers.
Ø Plan several escape routes away from your home - by car and by foot.
Ø Talk to your neighbors about wildfire safety. Plan how the neighborhood could work together after a wildfire. Consider how you could help neighbors who have special needs such as elderly or disabled persons. Make plans to take care of children who may be on their own if parents can't get home.
During a Wildfire
Ø If advised to evacuate, do so immediately. Take your disaster supply kit, lock your home and choose a route away from the fire hazard. Watch for changes in the speed and direction of the fire and smoke. Tell someone when you left and where you are going.
Ø If you see a wildfire and haven't received evacuation orders yet, call 9-1-1. Don't assume that someone else has already called. Describe the location of the fire, speak slowly and clearly, and answer any questions asked by the dispatcher.
Ø If you are not ordered to evacuate, and have time to prepare your home, it is recommended to take the following actions:
· Arrange temporary housing at a friend or relative's home outside the threatened area in case you need to evacuate.
· Wear protective clothing when outside – sturdy shoes, cotton or woolen clothes, long pants, a long-sleeved shirt, gloves and a handkerchief to protect your face.
· Close outside attic, eaves and basement vents, windows, doors, pet doors, etc. Remove flammable drapes and curtains. Close all shutters, blinds or heavy non-combustible window coverings to reduce radiant heat.
· Close all doors inside the house to prevent draft. Open the damper on your fireplace, but close the fireplace screen.
· Place lawn sprinklers on the roof. Leave sprinklers on and dowsing these structures as long as possible.
· Place a ladder against the house in clear view.
· Disconnect any automatic garage door openers so that doors can still be opened by hand if the power goes out. Close all garage doors.
· Place valuable papers, mementos and anything "you can't live without" inside the car in the garage, ready for quick departure. Any pets still with you should also be put in the car.
· Move flammable furniture into the center of the residence away from the windows and sliding-glass doors.
· Turn on outside lights and leave a light on in every room to make the house more visible in heavy smoke.
After a Wildfire
The following are guidelines for different circumstances in the period following a fire:
Ø Go to a designated public shelter if you have been told to evacuate or you feel it is unsafe to remain in your home.
Ø If you are with burn victims, or are a burn victim yourself, call 9-1-1 or seek help immediately; cool and cover burns to reduce chance of further injury or infection.
Ø If you remained at home, check the roof immediately after the fire danger has passed. Put out any roof fires, sparks or embers. Check the attic for hidden burning sparks.
Ø For several hours after the fire, maintain a "fire watch." Re-check for smoke and sparks throughout the house.
Ø If you have evacuated, do not enter your home until local officials say it is safe.
Ø If a building inspector has placed a color-coded sign on the home, do not enter it until you get more information, advice and instructions about what the sign means and whether it is safe to enter your home.
Ø If you must leave your home because a building inspector says the building is unsafe, ask someone you trust to watch the property during your absence.
Ø Use caution when entering burned areas as hazards may still exist, including hot spots, which can flare up without warning.
Ø If you detect heat or smoke when entering a damaged building, evacuate immediately.
Ø If you have a safe or strong box, do not try to open it. It can hold intense heat for several hours. If the door is opened before the box has cooled, the contents could burst into flames.
Ø Avoid damaged or fallen power lines, poles and downed wires.
Ø Watch animals closely and keep them under your direct control. Hidden embers and hot spots could burn your pets' paws or hooves.
Ø Follow public health guidance on safe cleanup of fire ash and safe use of masks.
Ø Wet debris down to minimize breathing dust particles.
Ø Wear leather gloves and heavy soled shoes to protect hands and feet.
Ø Cleaning products, paint, batteries and damaged fuel containers need to be disposed of properly to avoid risk.
Ø Discard any food that has been exposed to heat, smoke or soot.
Ø Do NOT use water that you think may be contaminated to wash dishes, brush teeth, prepare food, wash hands, make ice or make baby formula.
Ø Remain calm. Pace yourself. You may find yourself in the position of taking charge of other people. Listen carefully to what people are telling you, and deal patiently with urgent situations first.
Hazards After Wildfires: Flood and Landslides
You may be at an even greater risk of flooding due to recent wildfires that have burned across the region. Large-scale wildfires dramatically alter the terrain and ground conditions. Normally, vegetation absorbs rainfall, reducing runoff. However, wildfires leave the ground charred, barren, and unable to absorb water, creating conditions ripe for flash flooding and mudflow. Flood risk remains significantly higher until vegetation is restored—up to 5 years after a wildfire.
Flooding after fire is often more severe, as debris and ash left from the fire can form mudflows. As rainwater moves across charred and denuded ground, it can also pick up soil and sediment and carry it in a stream of floodwaters. These mudflows can cause significant damage.