Wildfires pose a significant risk to life and property. To protect yourself and your family from these disasters, you need to be prepared.
STEP 1: BE AWARE
What is a wildfire? The term wildfire refers to a large, unplanned blaze in a rural or forested area. These fires spread at an alarming rate due to the high volumes of combustible vegetation found in their path.
What causes wildfires? Some of the most common causes of wildfire include lightning, arson, discarded cigarettes, and spontaneous combustion.
When is wildfire season? Wildfires are most prevalent in the summer and fall. At these times, vegetation is driest, making it easier for fires to spread.
Geography plays a major role in where wildfires occur. Areas with large amounts of open land, plenty of vegetation, and a drier climate are most prone to wildfire. The states which saw the most fires in 2017 were:
- Texas – 9,827
- California – 9,560
- North Carolina – 5,125
- Georgia – 3,929
- Missouri – 3,398
The danger of fire is at its highest during prolonged periods of hot and dry weather.
STEP 2: BE PREPARED
Have clear procedures, plans, and protocol in place with your family and neighbors in the event of a fire.
Insurance: Talk to your insurance company if you are in an at-risk area. Check that your policy covers damage from wildfire, and if it does not, invest in a policy that does.
Plans: Have an evacuation plan in place for you, your family, and any pets or livestock. With wildfires, it is important to prepare multiple evacuation routes as the spread of fire can be unpredictable. Your plan should include:
- Contact information for:
- Family members
- Utility companies
- Medical care providers
- Any other relevant contact details (such as family friends)
- Important documents:
- Birth certificates
- Social security cards
- Insurance policies
- Photos of your property (for insurance purposes)
- Details of destination:
- Addresses of people you can stay with
- Location of local disaster center
- Hotels you may be able to stay at in case long-distance evacuation is necessary
- Maps marked with at least two evacuation routes
- Contact information of people with access to these properties
Before fire strikes, research any potential hazards in your area that could cause additional dangers if set alight. Look at building materials in local neighborhoods, and check if there are any factories or farms nearby. Factories may have large quantities of hazardous materials, and farms may have stockpiles of fertilizers and other potentially harmful chemicals. Be aware of such hazards exist and factor this information into your evacuation route.
Pack an evacuation kit: In the case of having to leave your home, make sure you are prepared to evacuate at short notice. Pack bags and have them stored in an easy-to-access location in your home. As fire approaches, consider putting these in your car, so you can make a quick departure in case of emergency.
Your evacuation kit should include items such as:
- N95 masks – N95 masks are respirators that fit closely to your face and will filter out airborne particles that may be harmful to you.
- Three days’ supply of clean, bottled water
- Three days’ supply of dry or long-life food supplies
- Changes of clothes
- Your evacuation/wildfire plan
- A portable radio
- Mobile phone
- First aid kit
- Any pet supplies and carriers
Protect your home: There are some simple steps you can take to offer your property the best chance of survival during a wildfire.
First, clear the area around your home of any debris that could fuel a fire, including wooden furniture, tree branches, and vegetation on the ground. This is known as creating a “defensible space” around your home. Next, make sure you have identified an emergency water supply close to your home, such as a swimming pool, pond, cistern, or well. Carrying out this simple work will help prevent a fire from reaching your home.
Stay informed: Listen to your local news, sign up for your community warning system and keep up to date with the Emergency Alert System (EAS) to know when you are in danger and need to evacuate.
STEP 3: KNOW THE DANGERS
Fire: The most obvious danger of wildfires is the flames themselves. If you have been told by your EAS that there is a wildfire in your area and it may affect your property, you should evacuate. If this is not possible or the fire is spreading too fast for you to leave before it reaches your property, move away from the open flames.
If you are able, cover your face with a protective layer to limit smoke inhalation. If there are no masks on hand, use a damp cloth. Keep low as you move to avoid heavy smoke and head away from the fire. If you can, move against the wind because this is likely to be the opposite direction of the fire.
If you must pass within a few meters of the fire, avoid walking on embers and consider dampening clothes to prevent flames from catching.
Smoke: Inhaling smoke of any kind is dangerous, and with the wide range of combustibles that wildfires burn, the smoke resulting from these materials can cause serious harm. Smoke from a wildfire can spread over large distances so you may be at risk before flames reach your area. Keep checking your EAS and local news for updates on when smoke may encroach on your home.
Even if the wildfire is not expected to reach your area and you aren’t ordered to evacuate, your air quality can still be compromised by the resulting smoke.
Carbon Monoxide and toxic particles found in smoke can irritate your eyes, nose, and throat, and may lead to nausea, light-headedness, chest pain and, in extreme cases, suffocation. If you are exposed for a prolonged period of time, toxic particles can also cause damage to your lungs. Try and limit smoke inhalation by staying inside with doors and windows closed, and wear N95 masks to filter out harmful contents of the smoke.
STEP 4: RETURNING HOME AFTER A FIRE
Wildfire damage can be drastic and will also typically involve smoke and water damage. You will need to be cautious when re-entering and assessing your property.
How to enter: Only enter a fire-damaged property when you have been told it is safe to do so by emergency services. When doing so, wear proper protective attire, including N95 masks, thick-soled shoes, and protective gloves. Hidden dangers are easily concealed by fire and smoke damage. Be sure to stay vigilant for broken floorboards, shattered glass, and other hazards. Turn off your utilities to ensure there is no risk of electric shock or gas leak. Keep electricity off until you are certain there are no exposed wires or damaged appliances that remain plugged in. If you smell gas, exit your property immediately and call your utility company and emergency personnel.
Estimating fire costs: Once you have gained access to your property and assessed the damage, contact your fire damage insurance providers. They will send a representative to estimate fire costs. Hold off on cleaning up until the representative has been on-site, and the insurance company has an accurate idea of the damage sustained. If you have a home inventory or pre-loss photos of your property, let the adjuster know. This documentation can often help with estimating and settling your claim.
STEP 5: SALVAGE
Always wear protective clothing when salvaging possessions after a fire.
Where damage has not been extensive, you may be able to do some of the salvage work yourself. Work to get items damaged by fire, smoke, or water out of the house and into airy spaces. This will help get rid of the smell of smoke damage. Keep in mind that fire, smoke, and water damage impact different materials in different ways. Before starting to salvage any possessions, it may be worth talking to your insurance company and/or contents specialists to ensure proper and careful handling of everything.
For any structural or property damage, speak to a professional property restoration service.