By Jerry Ward
Wildfire! The word conjures up visions of Smokey the Bear, firefighters scrambling around the forest with chainsaws, specialized aircraft, huge plumes of flame, and the charred remains of mighty trees. We've all seen the aftermath of this destructive force of nature. Some of us have been involved first-hand, either battling a blaze or fleeing our homes as the fire nears.
During my time as a wildland firefighter for both the U.S. Forest Service and the North Carolina Forest Service, I had the opportunity to fight fire in nine states across our nation. One of the most important lessons I learned was that damage to life and personal property is almost always avoidable. For those living in areas where the threat of wildfire is a reality, there are some preparedness measures you can take to ensure the safety of your family and home. View our Wildfire Checklist.
The most effective way to prevent a wildfire from claiming your property is to create a perimeter around the structure that is void of burnables. This sphere should be a minimum of 150 feet from the nearest asset you wish to protect. It is known as “defensible space.” Defensible space can be achieved by thinning the wood line directly adjacent to the home, frequently mowing the lawn and trimming weeds, choosing fire-resistant plant species for landscaping, cutting and maintaining a simple firebreak around your property, installing an automatic lawn sprinkler system, storing firewood away from the house, and positioning propane tanks in the open, away from combustible materials. Basically, you assess the property for any avenue of approach that a fire can exploit.
Keep in mind that some fires have flame lengths in excess of 100 feet. I've personally witnessed a crown fire in a western forest where the flame lengths were well over 150 feet! Another benefit to having adequate defensible space is that firefighters are more apt to attempt to protect your home if there is a zone of safety in which to do so.
Fire-Resistant Construction Materials & Techniques
Another effective way to combat the threat of wildfire to your home is to choose architectural styles and construction materials that are flame resistant. Rather than using natural materials such as log and shake shingles, choose masonry siding and metal roofing instead. When designing the driveway and parking areas, allow room for larger vehicles such as fire engines and tankers. It's also a good idea to include a drive that loops back around to the main road so these vehicles have an easy egress route in the event of evacuation.
Enclose the eaves to prevent airborne embers from being sucked into the attic. Also enclose the underside of all buildings with fireproof skirting to prevent embers from landing under the home and kindling a blaze. Steel shutters over the windows will help prevent radiant heat from igniting items in the interior such as drapes, furniture, and artwork on the wall. Create and maintain an emergency firefighting kit in the form of hoses, various nozzles, gated shutoffs, sprinkler heads, and backup pumps to help in suppression efforts.
When the Fire Approaches
A little preparedness goes a long way in the face of a disaster as family members fall back on training and enact a well-rehearsed plan of action. Prior to the arrival of a flame front and evacuation of the home, close windows, turn on automatic sprinkler systems and deploy hoses hooked to sprinkler heads, close valves on gas lines, close all attic and foundation vents.
Be sure to move furniture away from exterior walls, remove drapes and blinds from windows, open all interior doors, leave a note on the front door and kitchen counter with your contact information for emergency personnel, and close all exterior doors but leave unlocked for firefighting crews to access the home if need be. If there are any vehicles that will be left at the home, leave them unlocked with the keys in the ignition. Now that the home is prepared, it's time to leave!
The decision to leave your home and everything in it is not easy to make. Don't wait until the flames are kissing the neighbors roof to pull the trigger. Leave when there is still time to do it without the emotional stress of panic. When you panic, you are sure to make mistakes! Leave in the largest vehicle you own as it may become home for a while. Get in the habit now of maintaining at least a half-full fuel tank at all times.
Homeowners should know of at least two ways to access and egress their homes by roadway. That way if one is blocked for some reason, there is a second option to get everyone to safety. Each family member should grab their pre-packed bug-out bag holding three ways to make fire, water containers, and a way to purify suspect water sources, a tent or tarp, sleeping bag and ground pad, flashlight, a minimum three-day supply of calorie-dense food, change of clothes, and any prescription medicines or specialized medical equipment.
Any kits for the kids should include comforting items like stuffed animals, games, and other familiar toys to help them deal with the emotional disturbance of leaving home. In addition to each bug-out bag, I recommend a comprehensive medical kit, a rifle and handgun with ammunition, cell phone with charger, $1,000 cash in various bills, camp stove with fuel, axe, folding saw, shovel, 500 feet of 550 paracord, several wool blankets, five gallons of water per person, toilet paper, hand sanitizer, large garbage bags, and spare batteries.
I also recommend keeping both digital and hard copies of all important documents: insurance policies, driver's licenses, passports, birth certificates, social security cards, property deeds and titles, and bank account information.
Once on the road, drive cautiously as there may be areas of thick smoke blocking visibility. Keep an eye out for vehicles, pedestrians, and fleeing wildlife. Head out of the area and to a safe location like a friend’s or family member's house, local hotel, or the town next door. The hardest part will be waiting for the all clear from emergency services. Then you can go back and assess the damage.
Your family and home can survive a wildland fire with a little foresight and planning. Like all disaster preparedness, knowledge and training go a long way to ensure the safety of the ones you love and the things you've worked so hard to achieve. The key is to prepare now instead of regret later.
Jerry Ward is the owner and chief instructor at Ozark Mountain Preparedness. He has extensive survival experience and has taught survival for 10 years to a wide range of clients, including U.S. and foreign military personnel. He is also an author, trapper, and certified Wilderness First Responder who has worked as a gunsmith, rock climbing guide, wildland fighter, and member of various Search And Rescue teams.