Staying Safe in a Threatening Wildfire Season

July 25, 2018. Redding, California. Wildfires. Photo by Kris Warner/American Red Cross

By Gordon Williams

The images on television are horrific — pictures of wildfires burning out of control in California, Oregon and Eastern Washington. Since wildfire season is likely to last until the soaking rains of autumn, it’s essential you know how to stay safe when fires are burning close to you.

Fortunately, there is lots of material on what to do before, during and after a wildfire. Do a search for “wildfire safety” and you will find stay-safe advice from the American Red Cross, the Department of Homeland Security and the National Fire Protection Association.

Since September is National Preparedness Month — with the emphasis on preparing for disaster — it’s the perfect time for refreshing your wildfire defense plans. 

To begin with, stay alert to any wildfire danger in your area. Since fires can break out anywhere, at any time, you should know of dangerous conditions near you. Your local weather forecast will include any red flag warnings — dry, windy conditions that indicate a high fire risk.

A good all-purpose site is the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center, which is made up of all the agencies — federal, state and local — that monitor wildfire conditions in the Northwest. The site lists which locations are under red flag warnings. It updates all current fires in the region and discusses regional fire conditions. 

If your community or county has a wildfire warning system, sign up for it. Think about all the places where you might find shelter in case of fire. That might be a Red Cross or government shelter or the home of a friend or relative who lives away from the fire danger. You can find the location of Red Cross shelters here. Test-drive several ways of leaving your neighborhood, since a fast-spreading fire could block roads.

Next, you should know what to do when there is fire nearby that puts you and your home at risk.  

Remove dead leaves, pine needles and other flammable debris from your roof and gutters. Flying embers from a distant fire could ignite the debris and set your home ablaze. Move anything flammable — garden debris, trash, firewood, building materials such as paint — at least thirty feet from your home. Have hoses long enough to reach every part of your property. 

Wildfire smoke can be toxic. Have emergency supplies on hand, including N95 respirator masks, to protect the family from smoke. Have a room that can be closed off from outside air. Use a portable air cleaner to keep indoor pollution down. Get inside at the first signs that smoke is causing you breathing problems. When you are inside, don’t burn candles or use the stove — to keep from adding pollutants to the air.

Assemble all the medications family members need in case you must evacuate in a hurry. Put all important documents in a place that is safe and fireproof. Check your emergency kit and replenish any items missing or in short supply. 

Make sure your planning includes caring for pets in a fire. Covid19 protocols mean that not every shelter will be able to accommodate pets. When fire threatens, keep all pets in carriers or one location so you don’t need to search for them if you are ordered to get out.  

Wildfires can move fast, so you may have to leave your home whether you want to or not. Listen to local radio and TV stations for the latest emergency information, including any evacuation orders and recommended evacuation routes. Be prepared to evacuate at a moment’s notice. Back your car into the garage or park it outside in the direction of the evacuation route.  

If you find yourself trapped and unable to evacuate, call 9-1-1 for assistance — but realize that rescue crews may not be able to reach you. Turn on all lights so rescuers can see your house. Make sure your house number is visible from the street, so responders know how to find you.

The Red Cross offers specific advice on how to protect yourself if fire catches you outside. If you can’t outrun the fire, crouch in a pond or swimming pool. If there is no water, head for a clearing or a rocky area, lie face down flat on the ground and cover yourself with soil. Breathe the air close to the ground to avoid scorching your lungs. Heat rises, so temperatures will be higher a few feet up. Don’t put anything wet over your nose and mouth. Moist air can do more damage to your lungs than dry air. 

Don’t return home after a fire until authorities tell you it is safe to return. Once you do return, don’t drink or prepare food with water that might be contaminated. Dispose of any food exposed to heat or smoke. Check the roof for lingering embers that could flare up again. Watch out for and avoid downed power lines. Look for trees that might be left unstable by the fire. Be careful of stepping on hot ash or smoldering debris. Keep pets away from ground that may be too hot for them to walk on. 

Wet down debris to minimize breathing in particles from the fire. Wear a respirator when you are outside to keep dangerous particles from your lungs. Finally, photograph all fire damage to your property. It will help when you file a claim with your insurance company.

Find more Red Cross resources about wildfire safety here. Make and plan and be prepared this wildfire season.

American Red Cross Northwest Region

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