At its peak, California’s 2018 Camp Fire burned the equivalent of 60 football fields’ worth of land per minute. Eighty-five lives were lost, 13,972 homes and 528 businesses were destroyed, and the fire cost an estimated $16.5 billion, making it the world’s costliest natural disaster on record. It was just one of many wildfires that struck California alone in 2018.
Unfortunately, 2020 is shaping up to be just as devastating. On September 22, 2020, The Sacramento Bee reported that 5 of the 6 largest fires in California’s history were started in the previous 6 weeks. Photos published in Scientific American show an eerie, orange-tinged landscape stretching from California to Washington state.
During wildfire season, many people find themselves in the middle of a terrifying emergency: A wildfire is approaching with deadly speed, and they have no disaster plan in place or emergency kit to grab. According to a survey conducted by YouGov, 41% of Americans admit they are not prepared for a natural disaster.
There are over 40,000 wildfires each year across the U.S. It’s essential to prepare now so that you, your family, and your home have a better chance of surviving if you find yourselves in the path of a wildfire.
What Causes Wildfires?
Wildfires can ignite from natural sources, such as lightning or heat from the sun, but most are caused by people. According to a 2017 report in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 84% of all wildfires in the United States are started by humans.
Wildfires can be started by:
- Campfires that are not completely extinguished
- A burning cigarette
- A spark from a train wheel
- Spilled fuel, such as gasoline
- Car crashes
- Debris getting into a hot engine
- Malfunctioning or downed power lines
Heat, humidity, and wind affect the behavior and severity of a wildfire. When air temperatures are high, humidity is low, and conditions are windy, wildfires spread quickly and become more widespread and severe.
Slopes also influence the speed of a wildfire. Rob Gazzard, technical advisor to the Forestry Commission, told the BBC in 2017 that a 10% grade can double the speed of a wildfire, while a 20% grade can quadruple its speed. Wildfires spread quickly in mountainous terrain because as the fire climbs a mountain, the heat rises and preheats the fuel above it.
Why Wildfires Are Getting Worse
Wildfires are more severe than they used to be. The graph below, compiled by the Insurance Information Institute, shows the increasing frequency of wildfires.
NPR reports that today’s megafires are creating their own weather systems, which makes them even more complex and unpredictable. Paradoxically, fire suppression is also to blame for the increasing severity of wildfires.
Centuries ago, lightning was the cause of most wildfires, which burned freely until they were naturally extinguished by rain or lack of fuel. These wildfires were an important part of the ecosystem; they burned trees and underbrush, which led to a renewal of wildlands.
However, over the past 100 years, wildfires in the West have been suppressed, at first to protect logging interests and then to protect homes and businesses. Over the past two decades, more people have been building and moving into high-fire risk areas out West, so firefighters must be more diligent to put out wildfires as fast as possible. As NPR reports, all of this fire suppression has led to an unnatural buildup of underbrush, dead limbs, and dead trees. Today, when a fire ignites, it has plenty of brush to use for fuel.
Climate change also plays a role in today’s wildfires. As the U.S. experiences longer droughts and more days when temperatures climb over 100 degrees, these extreme weather conditions create a perfect environment for wildfires.
This is especially true in California. Cal Fire states that the wildfire season is starting earlier and ending later than in previous years due to warmer spring and summer temperatures, reduced snowpack, and earlier snowmelt. They estimate the wildfire season has lengthened by 75 days in the Sierra Mountains due to these factors.
What to Expect for the 2020 Fire Season
The National Interagency Fire Center’s< outlook for the 2020 wildfire season states that most western regions will experience above-normal significant large fire potential during September. As cold frosts begin to manifest later in the month, there could be a slight break in fire risk, but large fire risk is expected to increase from October through December due to drier-than-average conditions and an increase in Foehn Wind events. Much of the southern U.S. is also at elevated wildfire risk due to drought.
A September 2020 report compiled by Congressional Research Service reports that as of September 1, 2020, there have been nearly 40,000 wildfires in the United States, with 4.0 million acres burned so far.
Areas Most Prone to Wildfires
Although California is frequently in the news for its wildfires, many other states are at high risk. According to a 2020 Verisk Wildfire Risk Analysis, the top 10 states at high to extreme risk of wildfire are:
Although these 10 states are most at risk, wildfires can occur anywhere. For example, in 2016, wildfires raged through the Southeast, burning 90,000 acres in Western North Carolina, Eastern Tennessee, and Northern Georgia. Fourteen people lost their lives, and more than 400 homes and buildings were destroyed.
Almost every state, including Hawaii, has wildfires each year. It’s essential that you and your family are prepared to act if one threatens your area.
How to Protect Your Home From Wildfires
Embers and small flames are the biggest threats to homes, according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). Embers are burning pieces of wood and vegetation that can travel up to 5 miles ahead of an approaching wildfire.
When these embers land on a roof covered in dry leaves or a bush next to a building, they can ignite and quickly destroy a home or business, dramatically increasing the size and velocity of the wildfire.
Fortunately, there are plenty of steps you can take to help your home survive a wildfire.
Understand Home Ignition Zones
The NFPA advises that homeowners should pay attention to three home ignition “zones.”
1. Immediate Zone
The Immediate Zone consists of the home itself, as well as an area of up to 5 feet around the structure. This is the zone you should focus on first as it’s the most vulnerable to flying embers and sparks.
- Make Sure Your Roof and Gutters Are Clear of Dead Leaves and Twigs. This is an important fall maintenance chore, but you should check year-round if your area is at risk of wildfires. The same goes for your deck, patio, driveway, and sidewalk.
- Repair Your Roof and Replace Any Loose or Missing Shingles. This will help prevent flying embers from igniting your home.
- Consider Fire-Resistant Roofing Materials. If you plan to replace your roof, consider materials that are rated highly for fire resistance. PBS’s “This Old House” has a list of fire-resistant roofing and siding materials.
- Install Metal Sheeting Around Vets. Install metal sheeting around any roof or attic vents to help reduce embers. You can also install this sheeting under decks.
- Remove All Flammable Materials Near Exterior Walls. That includes mulch, flammable plants, leaves and pine needles, firewood, and anything else that might catch fire, such as cloth or wooden lawn furniture.
- Move Your Propane Grill Away From Your Home. Ideally, a propane grill should be 15 feet or more away from the side of your home.
2. Intermediate Zone
The Intermediate Zone is the area 5 feet to 30 feet from the furthest exterior point of your home. Landscaping and creating natural fire breaks in this area can help further protect your home from wildfire.
- Clear brush and vegetation away from propane tanks.
- Create natural fire breaks around your home using stone or concrete walkways and fire-resistant patios or decks.
- Keep trees trimmed about 6 to 10 feet from the ground. Shorter trees should be trimmed to no more than one-third of their overall height.
- Remove all branches within 10 feet of your home’s roof, chimney, and exterior walls.
- Keep your lawn mowed to a height of 4 inches.
- Space trees so that there is at least 18 feet between treetops. If your home or yard is on a slope, this space should be four times the trees’ maximum height.
- Plant flowers, shrubs, and other vegetation in small clumps rather than continuous lines.
Another way to help protect your home is to use fire-resistant plants and materials in your landscaping. For example, use rocks to cover bare beds instead of wooden mulch. If you live in a dry area and want to use wood mulch to retain moisture, make sure you cover it with a thick layer of rock to help prevent ignition during a wildfire.
It’s also important to use plants that are known to be fire-resistant. Some of these plants include:
- Red monkey flower
- California red fuschia
- California lilac
- Society garlic
- Ornamental strawberry
- Yellow ice plant
- California redbud
- Lemonade berry
Several tree species are also known to be more resistant to fires. These include:
- Coast live oak
- Flowering horse chestnut
- Japanese elm
- American mountain ash
- Southern magnolia
- Ponderosa pine
Not all of these plants and trees will grow everywhere. Check with a local nursery or your county’s Cooperative Extension Service office to learn which species thrive best in your area.
Which Plants to Avoid
You should avoid planting some plants in your yard due to their flammability. These plants are known to have high oil or resin content that can quickly ignite. They create a lot of potential fuel, such as dead leaves and twigs, and their leaves are low-moisture.
Plants to avoid include:
- Algerian ivy
- Burning bush (dittany)
- Japanese honeysuckle
- Maiden grass
- Pampas grass
Trees to avoid include:
- Cypress (all varieties)
- Douglas fir
- Eastern red cedar
3. Extended Zone
The Extended Zone ranges from 30 feet to 200 feet from your home. You can make your home safer in this zone by doing the following:
- Remove all ground litter and debris.
- Make sure that trees 30 to 60 feet from your home have at least 12 feet between canopy tops. Trees within 60 to 100 feet of your home should have at least 6 feet between canopy tops
- Remove all small conifers growing between mature trees. The high amount of resin in these trees can ignite older ones.
- Remove any trees or vegetation growing near outbuildings or sheds.
Review Your Home Insurance Coverage
Another important part of preparing for a wildfire is making sure your homeowners insurance will cover all your assets if they’re destroyed. Not all insurance companies sell policies that cover wildfires. In some parts of the country where wildfires are common, you may need to purchase an additional policy. If you’re not certain what your policy covers, call your insurance agent. This might also be the perfect time to shop around to make sure you’re receiving the best rates.
Pro tip: Use PolicyGenius, and you will receive a handful of quotes in just minutes.
Most policies include some or all of the following:
- Dwelling Coverage. This covers your home and anything attached to it, such as a garage.
- Personal Property Coverage. This covers all of the personal possessions inside your home. However, there are limits to this coverage; check your policy for details.
- Additional Living Expenses Coverage. This covers your living expenses, such as rent or hotel costs, while your home is being repaired or rebuilt.
- Landscaping Coverage. Some policies partially cover costs to landscape your yard after a wildfire.
If you do any home improvements, especially projects that increase your home’s value, call your insurance company and let them know so that your investment is covered.
You should also conduct a home inventory and document all your belongings so that you can prove what needs to be replaced if everything is destroyed. You can do this by going through your home and video recording most or all of your possessions. Put the video on a portable hard drive or USB stick and keep it in a safe deposit box or fireproof safe.
Protecting Your Home If a Wildfire Is Approaching
If your area is experiencing a wildfire, Cal Fire recommends several steps to take if you have time before you evacuate your home. Even if no evacuation order is issued, these steps will help protect your home if the fire changes direction unexpectedly.
- Gather all flammable objects, such as lawn furniture and toys, and put them inside your home, garage, or shed.
- Turn off all propane tanks and move them far away from your home.
- Connect garden hoses to outside spigots so that firefighters can use them to extinguish a fire. Fill buckets with water and place them around your home.
- Leave lights on so your home is visible to firefighters at night or through smoke.
- Put your emergency supply kit in your vehicle (learn how to assemble one below).
- Back your car into the driveway and leave all doors unlocked so you can evacuate quickly if needed. Carry your keys with you at all times.
- Place a ladder outside your home, visible from the driveway, so that firefighters can easily access your roof.
- Shut all windows and doors but leave them unlocked.
- Remove flammable window coverings such as blinds and curtains. Close metal shutters.
- Shut off gas at the meter, extinguish all pilot lights, and shut off the air conditioning. Make sure everyone in your family knows where shutoff valves are located and how to turn them off.
- Seal attic and ground vents with plywood or commercial seals.
- Move flammable furniture to the center of the room away from doors or windows.
- Research several possible evacuation routes and highlight them on physical maps. Check with your local city or township; many cities in fire-prone areas have evacuation plans in place and offer advice on the safest routes. However, even an established safe route can quickly become dangerous during a wildfire, so keep a local map in your car at all times.
Keep Pets Close
When wildfires are burning in your area, keep your pets indoors as much as possible. When they need to relieve themselves, put them on a leash or keep them in a fenced area. Keeping them confined means you can find them quickly if you have to evacuate.
How to Protect Your Family From Wildfires
In addition to preparing your home, there are many things you can do to help your family stay safe during a wildfire.
Make a Wildfire Emergency Kit
Every family should have a 72-hour emergency kit. If you don’t have one, then putting one together should be a top priority. An emergency kit can give you and your family the tools and supplies you need to weather most natural disasters, including floods, tornadoes, and hurricanes.
Your emergency kit should contain the following items:
- Flashlights or light sticks
- A water filter
- A three-day supply of food and water
- A hand-crank radio
- A first aid kit
- A wrench or pliers to turn off utilities in your home
- Local maps
- Moist towelettes and garbage bags for sanitation
- A change of clothes for each member of your family
- An extra supply of necessary medications
- Infant supplies if needed, such as formula, diapers, wipes, and several changes of clothes
- Feminine hygiene supplies
In addition to these items, wildfires require that you have a few extra emergency supplies at home and in your vehicle to help your family stay safe:
You should have one fire blanket for each member of your family. A fire blanket is specially formulated to withstand the high temperatures of a fire. You can use it to smother a fire or wrap your body in it if a wildfire is approaching.
Keep fire blankets in your car’s emergency supply kit as well as your home’s emergency kit. That means a family of four should have a total of eight blankets: four at home and four in the car.
An all-in-one wildfire emergency kit includes a variety of fire survival supplies, including fire blankets, burn gel and other burn treatments, a first aid kit, heat-resistant gloves, and light sticks. Keep in mind that while buying an all-in-one kit is convenient, it often costs less to assemble a kit on your own.
Some kits might also come with a portable fire extinguisher. These are ideal for keeping in your car because they’re so small and powerful. While they won’t be much help in a large wildfire, they might buy you time to escape in some situations.
If your home has two or more stories, then a fire ladder is a must. Fire ladders attach to windows, giving you and your family an easy and safe way to exit your home if it’s on fire. Make sure you measure the distance from your second story to the ground so that you purchase the correct size.
Consider keeping two fire ladders upstairs, stored in separate rooms, in case one room is inaccessible during a fire. If you have a third story, it should have a fire ladder too.
Bandanas or Masks
Toxic smoke inhalation causes more fire-related deaths than fires themselves. So you need to have some kind of face covering for each member of your family.
Smoke Detectors & Fire Extinguishers
Make sure that your home has plenty of working smoke detectors. Always check the batteries when the seasons change.
Your home should also have several fire extinguishers, one on every level of your home, including the basement. Always keep a fire extinguisher in the kitchen, as well as the master bedroom in case you have to grab it in the night.
Create an Evacuation Plan
Imagine a wildfire has started unexpectedly near your home. One of your children is a few blocks away on a playdate with a friend. Another child is at soccer practice in a field just outside your neighborhood. Your spouse is out running errands, and you’re at home.
How will you make sure everyone in your family is safe? What will you do if cell phone lines become jammed because everyone in your area is calling friends and family at the same time?
It’s critical to make evacuation and communication plans now so you know the answer to these questions when a wildfire strikes.
Select a Meetup Location
Pick one location where everyone in your family should go in the event of a natural disaster such as a wildfire. This location should be in a safe zone, such as a nearby school or police station, that might not be at risk for a wildfire.
Also, choose a backup location in case your primary meeting location is in the wildfire zone.
Once you choose your locations, identify two separate ways to get each one of them. Practice these routes so that everyone knows how to get to each location on foot.
Create a Communications Plan
A family communication plan identifies how you will connect with family members when direct cell phone communication is impossible.
The first step is to designate an out-of-area family member for everyone to check in with. Advise your family to try voice calls first. If the call won’t go through, use text messaging or social networks. According to Nextgov, people who text have an 800-to-1 better chance of getting their message through than those who call because texting requires so little data. Social networks can also be a good way to let family members know you’re OK.
Download this free Family Communication Plan worksheet from Cal Fire to create a plan for your own family.
What to Do If You’re Trapped In or Near a Wildfire
Wildfires can move with terrifying speed. When an evacuation is ordered, you might not have enough time to pack a suitcase. And if you’re out walking, you might not be able to get away fast enough.
In a forest setting, wildfires can spread at a speed of 6 miles per hour; in grasslands, they can travel up to 14 miles per hour. If the fire is on a slope, the speed can double or quadruple, depending on the steepness of the terrain.
To put this in perspective, the fastest runner on the planet, Usain Bolt, can sprint almost 28 miles per hour for 100 yards. Most of us can’t get anywhere close to that. Adults ages 18 to 34, in good health and physical condition, run an average of 8.4 miles per hour.
In some scenarios, you might be able to outrun a forest fire. However, you can’t predict where a fire will spread. Many people have lost their lives trying to escape a fire because it changed direction and quickly surrounded them. Even hopping into your car is no guarantee you’ll outrun a wildfire.
So what should you do if you find yourself in or near a wildfire?
If You’re In a Vehicle
If you’re in your vehicle and cannot escape:
- Stay calm
- Try to park your car in an area clear of brush or other vegetation
- Close all windows and vents
- Cover yourself with a wool blanket, fire blanket, or jacket
- Lie on the floor of your vehicle
- Call 911
National Geographic advises that you can also head to a nearby pond or river. If none is available, then head for a ditch or depression and cover yourself with soil. Try to breathe in the air that’s closest to the ground as it contains the least smoke. Use a wet cloth or bandana to cover your mouth and nose to further reduce smoke inhalation.
If You’re On Foot
If you’re out walking or hiking and find yourself in or near a wildfire:
- Stay calm
- Head to an area that’s clear of trees, brush, and other vegetation (in a ditch or depression at flat ground level if possible)
- Lie face-down and cover your body
- Call 911
If You’re At Home
If a wildfire is threatening your home and you cannot escape:
- Stay calm and keep your family together
- Call 911 and tell authorities where you are
- Fill sinks and tubs with cold water. You can use it to douse your clothing if your home catches fire, as well as to put out small flames that spread inside
- Keep doors and windows closed but unlocked
- Stay inside your home
- Stay away from outside walls and windows
Each year, nearly every state in the nation experiences wildfires. That means that most of us are at risk at least on some level. It’s essential to take steps to protect your home and family now before you find yourselves in a life-threatening situation.
Making your home safe from wildfire is all about prevention, and most of it doesn’t cost anything. However, it’s smart to invest in an emergency kit for your family and fire blankets for your home and car to provide some protection in case the worst happens.
Have you ever experienced a wildfire? What tips can you share to help others stay safe?