By Gordon Williams
The warning from Hilary Franz, Washington’s Commissioner of Public Lands, could hardly be more blunt: The state’s wildfire season is starting earlier and lasting longer and there are more fires now west of the Cascades.
So how do you defend your home and family from the worsening threat of wildfire? How can you stay safe before, during and after a wildfire? First of all:
- Pay attention to Red Flag Warnings for your area from the National Weather Service. A Red Flag warning means conditions are ideal for the start and rapid spread of a wildfire.
- Keep up-to-date on where fires burning at the Department of Natural Resources wildfire website at dnr.wa.gov/wildfires.
Next, reduce your fire risk by surrounding your home with a “defensible space.” That is an area around your home cleared of anything that might burn–from dead vegetation to shrubs that might catch fire. For example, you might replace potentially flammable shrubs with an irrigated flower bed. The space should go out at least 30 feet from each side of the house. The steeper the slope of your land and the more you are surrounded by trees and shrubs, as opposed to grassland, the farther out from the house the defensible space should extend.
The advice on defensible space-and lots more–comes from a Living With Fire–A Guide for the Homeowner. You’ll find that online at the DNR wildfire site, under Wildfire Preparedness.
You will learn, for instance, what “ladder fuel” is and why it is dangerous. It is vegetation close together and at graduated heights, like rungs on a ladder. Fire can spread up the “ladder” from ground level to tree branches. The result is a crown fire that can spread quickly from tree to tree. You reduce the danger by culling out vegetation growing next to the tree and opening a wide space between the top of shrubs and the lowest tree branches.
Keep woodpiles and propane tanks at least 30 feet from your house. Clear dead leaves from the roof and gutters. Remove any branches within 15 feet of your chimney and cover the chimney opening with non-flammable mesh. That will keep hot embers from coming down the chimney.
It makes sense that you can get a lot of wildfire preparedness information from the American Red Cross, since the Red Cross is often on scene to provide assistance at wildfires. Check out the Red Cross Emergency application, available free at both the Apple store and Google Play. The app covers a wide range of emergencies from earthquakes to tornadoes to wildfires.
As for wildfires, the Red Cross app offers advice about what to do before, during and after a fire.
As fire approaches your home, be ready to evacuate at a moments notice. Hose down the roof and set sprinklers as far from the house as you can, to keep vegetation from burning. Listen to local radio and TV stations for updated emergency information including the safest routes for escaping from danger. Identify nearby sites providing shelter and know how to get there
Keep close watch on the progress of the fire. Wildfires can change speed and direction in a hurry. You can get up-to-date information on wildfires by following the #WaWILDFIRE hashtag on Twitter. The Department of Natural Resources provides wildfire updates on Twitter at @waDNR_fire. If you don’t use Twitter, text 40404 to get tweets delivered to your phone.
Position your car so you can drive away quickly threat. Keep it outside the garage if you have power door openers. Fire can knock out electric service and your car could be trapped inside the garage if you can’t get the power doors open. Keep all pets in one room so you can collect them quickly if you must evacuate. Use the recycle or recirculate mode on home and car air conditioners to keep smoke and ash out.
Don’t delay your evacuation because you don’t have a specific shelter to head to. Wildfires have been known to arrive before evacuation routes and shelters were set up. Leave as soon as you begin to feel anxious and drive away from the fire scene. Once you are safe, check the resources listed above to learn where shelters have been established.
If you are trapped by fire, says the Red Cross Emergency app, crouch in a pool or a pond. If there is no water, find a cleared area or a bed of rocks. Lie flat, face down and cover your body with soil. Breathe air close to the ground to avoid drawing in smoke or fire. Don’t cover your mouth with anything wet, since moist air causes more damage than dry air at the same temperature.
When you do return home after a fire, watch out for downed power lines. Wet down debris to avoid breathing in ash or dust. Keep animals under control. Hidden embers or hot spots can burn your pets’ paws or hooves.
It’s not likely we’ll ever be able to eliminate wildfires. In fact, the Washington wildfire season begins earlier and lasts longer than it used to and more parts of the state are now at risk. Still, if you plan ahead and take some precautions you can still keep you and your family safe.
For more advice from the American Red Cross on Wildfire Safety, please click here to visit our WEBSITE
(Note: This is the second of three articles dealing with the worsening danger of wildfires. A third article on how you can prevent wildfires will appear shortly.)