A wildfire is an unplanned fire burning in a natural area such as a forest, shrubland, grassland, or prairie. Though it can happen anywhere, at any time, millions of homes throughout the United States live in high or extremely high-risk wildfire areas. Wildfire-prone states include California, Texas, Colorado, Arizona, Idaho, Washington, Oklahoma, Oregon, Utah, Montana, New Mexico, and Wyoming. Of lesser risk are Florida, Tennessee, Georgia, Kansas, and North Carolina. But the risk is there.
- 71,300 fires buring 6.9 million acres
Causes of Wildfires
between 2011 and 2020 - 22.6% were classified as lightning-caused.
is the more destructive source of wildfires, burning more acres.
between 2011 and 2020 - 87.4% were classified as human-caused.
by debris burning, unattended campfires, discarded cigarettes, sparks from equipment use and malfunctions, arced power lines, and intentional acts of arson.
Factors driving Wildfires
dry fuel like leaves, grass, branches, and other organic materials
heat is needed to ignite and burn
risk increases with little rain and high winds
Protect Your Home
Defense zone mitigation
Set up defense zones to limit the source of fuel on and around your home. Build defensible space between your home and its surrounding trees, shrubs, grass, or wildland. This space is needed to slow or stop the spread of wildfire and it helps protect your home from catching fire—either from embers, direct flame contact, or radiant heat. It also gives firefighters the space to work to defend your home. You do this by setting up 3 distinct defense zones around your home.
Zone 1: Ember-Resistant Zone (0-5 feet from the home)
This zone extends 5 feet from buildings, structures, decks, etc., and requires the most vigilant work to reduce wildfire hazards. It includes the area under and around all attached decks and requires the most stringent wildfire fuel reduction. The ember-resistant zone is designed to keep fire or embers from igniting materials that can spread the fire to your home.
- Use fire-resistant roofing materials.
- Use low-combustible materials for gates, walls, and landscaping.
- Place wire mesh around exterior attic vents, decks, and patios.
- Place smoke alarms near every bedroom, office, and in each living area of your house.
- Test smoke alarms monthly and change their batteries annually.
- Consider installing fire sprinklers.
- Purchase insurance coverage that is adequate to replace your property.
Zone 2: Lean, Clean and Green Zone - (5-30 feet from the home)
This zone is the area transitioning away from the home where fuel should be reduced. It extends 30 feet from buildings, structures, decks, etc., or to your property line, whichever is closer. Remove branches that hang over your roof and keep dead branches 10 feet away from your chimney.
- Remove all dead plants, grass, weeds, dry leaves, and pine needles from your yard, roof, and rain gutters.
- Hydrate and maintain yards.
- Cut down tree limbs that are 15 feet or closer to the ground.
- Remove any vines or vegetation growing on the side of your home.
- Use only non-combustible outdoor furniture.
Zone 3: Reduced Fuel Zone - (30 to 100 feet from the home)
This zone is the area farthest from the home. It extends from 30 feet to 100 feet from your home, other structures, decks, etc., or to your property line, whichever is closer.
- Create fuel breaks around your property such as pathways or driveways.
- Cut down tree limbs that are 8 feet or closer to the ground.
- Remove small trees and brush.
- Create horizontal and vertical spacing between plants. The amount of space will depend on how steep your property is and the size of your plants. If your lot is steep, use wider spacing between plants and between rows.
Help the fire department help you more easily by providing easy access to water on your property.
- Install enough garden hose to easily reach the perimeter of your home or any part of your property.
- Designate/install a water source such as a pond, lake, well, or swimming pool for access by the fire department should they need it.
Understand the Fire Alert System
The fire warning system consists of several alerts and warnings that are issued by The National Weather Service (NWS) to inform the public about potential or ongoing fire dangers.
Fire Weather Watch potentially dangerous fire weather conditions are possible over the next 12 to 72 hours.
Fire Weather/Red Flag Warning fire danger exists and weather patterns that support wildfires are either occurring or expected to occur within 24 hours. A Watch may be issued before a Warning, but a Warning may also be the initial notification.
Evacuation Notice/Order danger is imminent, local authorities may issue an evacuation notice to alert residents that a fire is nearby and it is important to leave the area. Evacuation orders vary by state and community and may range from voluntary to mandatory. When authorities issue a mandatory evacuation notice, leave the area immediately.
Make an Evacuation Plan
Living in a fire-prone area, you should always be ready to evacuate quickly. An evacuation plan is a well thought out list of things to get you out the door with the things you need and to do it quickly. If you put time into this important safety step, it will do the thinking for you when you need it most. Your pets should also have their own pet evacuation plan.
Where to find shelter
Your grab & go binder is a great place to store your evacuation plan which includes places that you and your pets can go, some places together, and others not. If you don’t have a place to go, you can do the following:
- Find open shelters by texting SHELTER and your ZIP-CODE to 43362 (4FEMA). Store this number in your phone.
- Find emergency shelters on the FEMA app. You can download the free app from your smartphone’s app store.
- Search online for shelters and disaster recovery centers.
- Contact local social services. In most parts of the U.S., you can dial 211 to connect with local social services and referrals for emergency housing.
- Check the American Red Cross website. They provide a map of open shelters.
- Visit a Disaster Recovery Center (DRC). To find a center near you, use the DRC Locator or text DRC and your ZIP code to 43362.
Have a Plan for Livestock
Keeping larger animals like livestock safe in a wildfire takes more extensive planning on your part.
Tips to keep them safe
- Just as you do for your own home, clear debris, and any combustible material away from living areas such as barns and other structures used by your livestock.
- Keep this clearing as far away as possible, should you ever need to leave without your livestock.
Create a disaster kit
- Include items such as food and water for three days, wire cutters, knives, shovels, water buckets, flashlights, hoof picks, leg wraps, first aid items, and any other items you think your livestock will need away from home.
- Keep copies of your animals’ vital records along with copies of your own records. Include registration papers, vaccination, and medical records, photographs of the animals, and your proof of ownership.
Create an evacuation plan
Have several evacuation options for your animals. Before a fire ever starts, make calls, and find out what owners of these locations have to say about the use of their grounds as shelter for your livestock should you ever be evacuated from your property. Options include:
- equestrian centers
- friend’s property
Once you sense danger may be on the way, get out instead of waiting for officials to sound the alarm. If you wait, you may not have the time.
When evacuation is not possible, designate a cleared area in case you have no choice but to leave your livestock. Leave sufficient hay or food for at least three days in addition to water. Power cuts may render automatic watering systems unusable.
Identify a location in your home that you can use to hunker down. Instead of using a hallway, can you identify a room in your home that can mostly be closed off from outside air and away from an outside wall? The latter may be hard to accomplish, just select the best location possible.
Gather and store the following items in your shelter for each family member. Note that some of these items may be redundant to items in your grab & go bags. Adjust as necessary but make sure your have the following items.
Shelter-in-place fire kit
- full body clothing*
- cotton or wool gloves
- N95 respirator**
- flashlight & batteries
- battery-powered radio
- NOAA Radio
- fire extinguisher
- fire tools
- bottled water
*This includes pants and long-sleeved shirts. **Your family should be educated first as masks can prove harmful if not used correctly. ***Sealant material options include expanding foam, fire-rated caulking, old rags, etc.
You don’t need to wait for a warning to be issued to leave early. If you own livestock, are in doubt, or feel unsafe, evacuating as early as possible is always your best bet for staying safe when wildfires rage anywhere near your home. Put your evacuation plan(s) into action and get out.
You may find that it is easier to move about with fewer people on the roads and can only benefit from the extra time this will give you, especially if you have big animals to transport. Things may get only more difficult if you wait.
Watch or Warning Issued
Evacuation Prep begins as soon as a wildfire watch or warning is issued. Use your time wisely and don’t wait for a warning to get things in motion. While keeping an eye on alerts and notifications, start moving through both your evacuation plan and things you can do to keep your home safer during a fire.
Home fire safety - exterior
- Shut off the house’s propane or natural gas from its source.
- Connect water hoses and keep them connected.
- Hose down your yard and roof.
- Move outdoor furniture, doormats, and potted plants in wooden basins inside, or move them as far away from your house as you can.
- Fill garbage cans, tubs, pools, and large containers with water as this will help firefighters if they end up on your property.
Home fire safety - interior
- Move inside furniture to the center of rooms.
- If possible, take down drapes and curtains.
- Close all vents, windows, garage doors, and pet doors.
- Turn on all lights on your property as this helps firefighters more easily see it through smoke.
- Fill sinks and bathtubs with cold water.
Evacuation Order Issued
When you receive an evacuation order, remain calm and leave immediately. While some fires allow advanced notice and time to get your home in good order, some fires move too fast for watches, warnings, or even orders to be issued. Evacuate if you see a fire coming your way, regardless of whether an order has been issued. But do so if you are reasonably sure you can do so safely. Otherwise, shelter-in-place (see below).
Evacuating by Car
Many fire fatalities occur when people are attempting to flee in their cars. Reasons for this include waiting too long to evacuate, thinking their car can outrun the fire, debris on the road, poor visibility, and high evacuee traffic.
- Turn your headlights and hazard lights on and drive slowly.
- Close or block air vents, roll up the windows, and use recirculated air from the air conditioner.
- Use dry material to cover your face and skin (wet material can create steam because of the heat that may surround you)
- Drive away from the fire and away from the direction it is moving.
- Take wide roads if feasible because narrow roads can easily become blocked.
If the fire is coming at you
- Park in an area where there are no objects such as trees and debris to feed flames. If possible, locate a solid object such as a concrete wall to act as a barrier between you and the flames.
- Get below the windows.
- Cover yourself with a jacket or blanket.
- Keep the engine running.
- Exit only after the wall of fire has passed. If you get out, you’ll never be able to stay ahead of the fire.
Evacuating by Foot
If you do not have a vehicle for evacuation, you’ll have to do your best on foot. Here are some important tips that could help you survive.
- Find a space with no vegetation and flammable material, and get as low as possible, like in a ditch. Lie with your face down, and cover your body with water, dirt, mud, or nonflammable fabrics. A wool blanket is more flame-resistant than synthetic.
- Your biggest risk often comes from smoke inhalation, not the flames themselves. It’s critical that you have a supply of clean air. Use a cloth to act as a filter around your mouth and remain calm.
Sometimes, evacuation isn’t safe or even possible. What does your family do when this happens?
Home fire safety steps
If given the time, follow the home fire safety steps listed above to protect your home. Followed correctly, these steps can help minimize fire damage to your home and, in this scenario, you and your family sheltering inside of it. Once completed, head for shelter. If you are not afforded the time, get to your shelter immediately.
- Take your family and pets to the area of your house previously chosen for this very purpose.
- Take with you your cell phone, the grab & go bags for each family member and pet, and your grab & go binder.
- Stored at this location should be your shelter-in-place fire kit containing full-body clothes, gloves, N95 respirators, and other supplies. Put these items on quickly.
- Seal all windows and doors with sealant.
- It’ll likely get very hot inside the house, but it’s even hotter outside. So stay inside and try to stay calm.
- Continue to monitor the fire on your cell phone or NOAA radio and stay put until the fire has passed by and the smoke has lifted.
After the fire has passed
- Listen closely to the radio and follow any instructions.
- Check all rooms inside, avoiding opening any doors that feel hot.
- Call 911 if you’re trapped but understand that it may be a while before responders can reach you.
- Check the exterior including the roof, below decks, and around fences, and put out any fires, sparks, or embers.
- Stay away from fragile trees and downed power lines.
Note: Not all homes are safe for using the above shelter-in-place protocol due to the material used on the home’s exterior and the home's environment. This is why home and property modifications made before any wildfire happens are key. If you live in a home where advanced changes or preparations can’t be made (perhaps you are a renter), make plans well in advance to evacuate to friends or neighbors whose properties are safer, at the very first hint of a local wildfire. Do not wait.
If you find damage to your property upon return, follow public health rules and wear safety equipment which could include gloves, long-sleeved shirts, long pants, shoes, socks, goggles, and an N95 respirator.
Dealing with ash
Take your hose and spray the debris and land around you to eliminate or at least reduce the unsafe dust particles. Avoid direct contact with ash, charred trees, smoldering debris, and live embers. Wash off ash that gets on your skin or in your eyes or mouth as soon as you can. Children, pregnant women, and people with asthma, and heart or lung conditions should not breathe in dust from ash.
The ground may contain heat pockets that can burn you or spark another fire. Watch for pits in the ground filled with ash as they may have hot embers underneath. Mark found pits for safety and warn your family and neighbors to keep clear.
Look for Hazards
Your town’s air quality may be affected for some time. There are things you can do to minimize its effect.
- Keep all windows and doors closed.
- Use a portable air cleaner to keep the air quality in your house as high as possible.
- Spend much of your time in a room or rooms where air from outside doesn’t filter in.
- Be extra careful with those who are elderly, pregnant, or young.
- Keep your pets inside as much as possible until the air improves.
- Don’t force dogs to keep up if you’re jogging or biking. They should go on short walks only for bathroom purposes.
- Make fresh water plentiful for your pets.
- Birds are susceptible to airborne particles. Keep them inside and monitor them.
Food and water
- Wildfires can make drinking water unsafe. Check with your local health department about drinking water safety.
- Throw out food that was exposed to heat, smoke, fumes, or chemicals. When in doubt, throw it out!
- Ask your healthcare provider or doctor about using refrigerated medicines.
Risk of flooding
- Mudflows and flash floods might be seen in your area soon after the fire and up to 5 years due to soil and vegetation damage.
Live with the mindset that this can happen and watch for alerts & notifications.
Be more fully prepared by having an emergency flood plan in place. This will allow you to evacuate more easily and with items you will be happy to have with you should you be alerted to flooding in your area.