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[How-To] Survive a Wildfire: Fire Prep & Planning

It’s that time of year once again!

Wildfire season is upon the American west and some even pop up here and there on the East Coast.

Raging wildfires are a terrifying event, and if you live in an area where they occur, you need to know what to do when the wildfire comes knocking. 

Wildfire with plane
Never a great sight on a hot, sunny summer day.

Wildfires and fire science are fascinating, but we don’t have the time to dive into that.

What we are going to tackle is how to survive a future wildfire. 

RDJ Survive

Nature is made to burn.

Most people don’t realize that fire is part of the ecosystem. It’s almost like a hurricane or other event. 

Wildfires happen, no matter what. You can’t stop it.

All you can do is prepare for it.

Firefighters working on a preventative grass fire
Firefighters working on a preventative grass fire, which will use up potential fuel before a wildfire happens.

So, I’m going to talk to you about what to do before a wildfire happens and also what to do if you find yourself in the middle of one.

So read up! You might just save a life.

Ready? Let’s dive in!

Table of Contents

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Wildfires as a Threat

2018 was the worst wildfire season seen in decades.

There were over 58,000 wildfires that totaled over 8.8 million acres burned inside of those fires.

In total, 25,000 homes burned down. 

california wildfire
California has two seasons: fire season and not-as-fire-season.

While 2018 was a banner year for wildfires, the average years show us 64,000 fires annually, with 6.8 million acres burned.

As of October 1st, 2020, there have been roughly 44,000 fires and burning over 7.7 million acres

Now, if you’re an East Coast resident, you may be thinking, that ain’t my problem.

Well, more fires occur in the east than in the west. Most fires in the west tend to be bigger, and get more attention.

The Camp Fire 2018 (Picture: ABC7 San Francisco)
The Camp Fire in 2018 got tons of media coverage. It also contributed to 85 deaths, burned 150k+ acres, destroyed whole towns, and polluted the air for a decent chunk of the country. (Picture: ABC7 San Francisco)

So you still should listen up!

In May of 2020, a fire in the Florida panhandle destroyed over a thousand homes and evacuated thousands more.

Wildfire is always a threat and one that almost everyone should prepare for. 

Florida Panhandle Fire May 2020 (News Tribune)
Florida Panhandle Fire in May 2020 (Picture: News Tribune)

If you wait until a wildfire is already popping off, you’ve waited too long.

You need to prepare now, and we are going to help you with that. 

Pre-Planning Goes a Long Way

Leaving your home is hard, as testified by the number of people who die in their homes during all sorts of situations in which they could evacuate.

You can’t protect your home in the middle of a wildfire, but you can beforehand. 

silhouetted wildland firefighter
Haven’t had to evacuate? Thank a firefighter!

There are no guarantees, but there are steps you can take to keep your home safer from fire. These are called Firewise Principles

To follow these principles, you start at your home and work outwards.

The goal is to eliminate anything that could set ablaze and spread fire to your home.

Your home should have mesh protecting attic vents, as well as over the chimney, to prevent embers from entering. 

Firewise House
A Firewise House!

Your gutters and roof should be cleaned out of all dead leaves and flammable material as well.

Having a hundred feet of garden hose connected and ready is always wise.

If you have outdoor furniture, use a non-combustible material, like metal, over plastic, wood, or wick. 

Xeriscaping
Xeriscaping is popular in SoCal — and this trend provides a less-flammable buffer zone around your house!

Next, you want to create a 30-foot defensible area around your home. This involves basic yard work, like keeping the yard mowed, leaves, sticks, and small debris picked up.

You also need to remove any trees that are hovering over your roof. 

The trees in the yard are fine, but you want them to be scattered, so they are unlikely to pass fire from one tree to the other. You want them 10-feet apart at a minimum. 

Firewise Princple Tree Spacing
Firewise Principle: Tree Spacing (Picture: NFPA)

If you have flammable shrubs near your home, especially by windows, you want to keep them pruned and clean. 

You’ll want to space out any outbuildings, firewood piles, fuel tanks 30-feet from your home. 

Outside of 30-feet, you generally just want to keep the area maintained. Mow, trim trees and limbs, and keep things nice and clean.

Mowing the lawn
Yardwork can be fun when you know it’s protecting your home!

A big open field is prime time for a fire, especially when full of burnable materials. 

Preparation beats reaction, and planning is never a waste. 

For more info on how to protect your home, check out Firewise. They offer tons of free educational materials on their website to make your home more fire-resistant. 

Bugging Out

This is a mental prep step. If an evacuation order drops, you need to evacuate. It’s not a joke or a mild suggestion. 

When a man clad in yellow that’s filthy dirty knocks on your door and says it’s time to go, it’s time to go.

A Cal Fire firefighter monitors a burning home as the Camp Fire moves through the area on Nov. 9.
Guess who does not have time to babysit you and your house when you won’t leave? (Photo: Getty Images)

If you are stubborn and refuse to evacuate, make sure you shoot a next of kin your plan — location of dental records and last wishes. It will make someone else’s life easier after you waste yours. 

Those firefighters aren’t coming back to save you when things get rougher.

They would if they could. But the likelihood of them making it to you, or even being able to get to your home, is a million to one

Wildland firefighters
Firefighters will fight to their breaking point to protect your home. Help them by getting the heck out of their way!

This is where a good battery-powered AM/FM radio is a godsend.

The internet can get knocked out, as can cable TV, but a good radio allows you to up your situational awareness on a harder to lose system. 

Keeping your situational awareness high is the first step in surviving a wildfire. 

The next thing you can do is be prepared to leave. This means getting supplies ready ahead of time when possible. 

Bug out bags (2)
Welcome to the wonderful world of bug out bags!

Prior to an evacuation order, you want to pack supplies — water, nonperishable food, snacks, sleeping gear, toiletries, all the basics.

Pack ’em up and load your vehicle with them.

This can save you precious time if the evacuation order ever comes down.

Don't forget to pack the cat!
Don’t forget to pack the cat!

Once you’ve packed supplies, you can cast an eye towards packing valuables. 

Using the room left, you can pack your most valuable items.

As the sentimental type, I know what insurance will replace and what I can’t. 

Packed for evacuation (Reno Gazette Journal)
Here’s the reality of what packing for an evacuation looks like. If you can only take what you can carry to the car in one trip…what goes? (Picture: Reno Gazette Journal)

After all, family photos are almost impossible to replace, and Great Great Aunt Matilda’s needlepoint samplers are pretty special, too.

That said, don’t get caught up with valuable packing that you lose focus on supplies first.

Bug-Out Essentials

Let’s say the evacuation order comes down without a warning of any kind. You have to leave right now because when the fire crests that ridge, it’s coming down with fury. 

You gotta go now. 

Free Phos-Chek Delivery!
Free Phos-Chek Delivery!

This is another reason why you need to keep a bug-out bag on hand — grab the bag, grab the family, and fly! 

A bug-out bag is a backpack or tote that stays packed and ready at all times for an emergency evacuation.

These bags are invaluable when situations develop faster than expected. These grab and go bags should be packed to accommodate an entire family, and it may be more than one bag. 

Bug Out Bag
Ready to go when you are!

Each adult should have a bag packed for themselves, and depending on the kid’s age; they can handle their own bag. Even kids between 8 and 12 can carry a bag with clothes, toys, books, etc. 

If you need some help figuring out what to pack, we have a great BOB guide to help guide you. (As well as one for your family and for your pooch!).

But a basic breakdown of bug-out bag essentials looks like: 

  • Water (A good bit of it, and a means to collect and purify more water.)
  • A respirator or mask of some sort (Even a bandana you can wet will help in a pinch.)
  • Snacks (Dry food is fantastic. Trail Mix it up.) 
  • Seasonal appropriate clothes (If it’s cold, bring jackets; if it’s warm, t-shirts.) 
  • Fresh underwear (Trust me, your time at the Red Cross shelter will be so much better.)
  • A dependable flashlight (Nothing crazy like a high-powered Surefire, but a dependable, long battery life light.)
  • Chemlights (In thick smoke, carrying these makes you visible.)
  • Locks (To secure your goods in public shelters)
  • Toilet paper (Trust me here, again.) 
  • Toiletries (Toothbrushes, toothpaste, floss, soap, etc.)
  • Blankets (I like Woobie/Poncho liners
  • Simple first aid kit
  • Prescriptions (Grab the whole bottle. Save yourself the headache of replacing your meds and your house!) 
Urban Prep Tips Traffic
Don’t forget — the earlier you leave, the more time you have to deal with everyone else leaving, too!

Should I Bring My Guns When I Evacuate? 

Can you legally bring a gun? 

If so, then yes, you should. It’s like any other situation, and you shouldn’t be leaving home without your legally carried firearm. 

Otherwise, if you can pack up firearms to remove them from your home, do so safely and legally

Just a few cases we have lying around.

I’m a huge fan of soft and hard cases. They protect your gun and make things safer all around.

Having enough to evacuate your guns is a good idea. Not to mention, in some states, you legally need to transport your guns in some sort of case.

If you don’t take them, make sure you have a list of what’s in your safe with the serials.

You’ll want to make sure you know what was there and any paperwork involving melted guns is a lot easier when you know what the serial was, to begin with.

All that remains of what was in the safe after a house fire
All that remains of what was in the safe after a house fire..

What to Do If You Can’t Evacuate

So you didn’t make it out in time. Maybe you got caught while hiking, driving, or at home. 

That’s rough, admittedly, but it’s also a situation worth going over and mentally preparing for.

Wildfire near a lake
What to do when this is what’s between you and your route to safety?

If you can’t evacuate and get stuck, there are things you can do to survive.

If you are out for a hike or maybe you break down while evacuating, what do you do?

Well, first foremost, you need to try and find a structure to hide in. The structure should have a “Class A Roof.” 

Paradise home on fire (ABC)
Basically, you want to make sure that your roof won’t do this when you’re inside. (Picture: ABC)

A Class A roof is a non-combustible design and can be made from shingles, metal, clay, and basically anything, not-wood.

You also want to find a structure clear of vegetation. The general advice is 30-feet of space between vegetation and the building. 

Creating Defensible Space
Here’s a graphic about creating a defensible space around a home before a fire.

The best structure to stay in is one with double-pane glass windows, 1/8-inch screen over attic vents, and roofs and gutters clear of debris.

That’s a lot to ask and take in, but it’s worthwhile to know. 

Once inside the structure, there are steps you can take to make the building a bit safer.

Place wet towels under doors and window openings first. Next, find the fire extinguisher and carry that thing like a gun in a zombie invasion. 

Fire Extinguisher
Meet your new best friend.

Turn the water on and fill every bucket and container you can find with water.

Use Tupperware containers, mop buckets, empty soda bottles, and even fill any sinks and tubs with water. This will be your secondary source of fire fighting inside the building. 

You can use the water to put out any embers or small fires. 

putting out a fire
Once they start, even small fires are hard to stop.

As the fire approaches, the power will likely go out. If you can scrounge up some flashlights, do so.

Try to find a phone charger in the building and plug your phone in while you have power. A phone may not have service but can provide some other valuable functions. 

Take a look around…is there furniture made of highly burnable materials near the windows?

If so, move them as far as you can. Windows can break, embers can enter, and couches set ablaze, filling your structure with smoke. 

Simpsons on fire
Rearrange the furniture before this happens!

Shut off any and all fans. These can be attic fans, swamp coolers, whole-house fans, and even interior fans. These can draw smoke into the structure. 

Unlock any and all doors. This can make it easy to escape when necessary. 

Turn on any and all external sprinkler systems.

Swampfox Arrowhead 1-8x LPVO
Probably not the way to fight fire, but….good hustle.

If you have a combustible fence around your home that might connect to your home, open the gates to prevent the transmission of fire from the fence to your home. 

If time permits, move anything and everything combustible within 30-feet of your home. This includes kid’s toys, firewood, vehicles, and anything else that could blaze up and transmit fire to your house. 

Trapped in a Vehicle

Okay, you’re stuck in your vehicle—no structure in sight.

If the vehicle is operational, you want to drive somewhere clear of as much vegetation as possible. A Walmart parking lot would be perfect, but that might not be an option. 

An empty parking lot
An empty parking lot is perfect…if you can make it.

A dirt field is great and more achievable.

Park there, and turn on all lights. This will make you visible in smokey surroundings. 

Leave the car on, but shut off all fans and air conditions. Close all windows and doors.

Lay on the floor and wait until the fire front passes.

If you are in a nonnegative area, you are relatively safe from the fire, but you still want to avoid the heat and smoke that comes with it. 

Allyn Pierce's Tundra Camp Fire
Allyn Pierce road out the Camp fire in his truck and made it–but I wouldn’t test my luck if I could evacuate first.

Once the fire front passes, you still need to be cautious.

The fire front is the most dangerous portion of the fire, but not the only dangerous area. Watch for trees burned that can easily fall, lying pockets of fire or hot debris, and falling limbs. 

When the front has passed, you still want to move into an area that’s already been burned over.

Once an area has been burned, it’s not going to burn again, so it’s one of the safest places to be. 

Fire burned area
It’s ugly and ashy, but it’s safe!

Conclusion

Wildfire is fascinating, but also terrifying, unpredictable, and dangerous. These events move fast, so survival depends more on proper planning than brawn and gusto. 

Have a plan, evacuate when told to do so, and stay alive!

Firefighter and a grass fire
Firefighter and a grass fire

What’s your experience with wildfire? Do you have any questions? Hit me up in the comments below! Need more ideas on keeping your family safe from disaster? Check out how to Create a Family Emergency Plan to keep the fam safe before disaster strikes!

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