Disaster Preparedness Guide: Wildfires

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There were 71,499 wildfires in the U.S. in 2017. On average, it takes two to four years for areas devastated by wildfires to begin to support new life again.

Wildfire preparedness guide

Wildfires can occur anytime and anywhere. Not only do they wreak havoc on homes and personal property, but they can also destroy hundreds of acres of forest and animal habitats. Most wildfires can be prevented by following safe practices when working with fire, but not everyone does this. That's why it's important to be prepared.

The best time to prepare is now, before a wildfire even begins. We put together this short guide to help you better understand the dangers of wildfires and the actions you should take to stay safe before, during, and after a wildfire.

Facts about wildfires

Approximately 90% of all wildfires are started by humans.

Each year, 4 to 5 million acres of U.S. woodlands burn in wildfires.

Wildfires can move at speeds of up to 14 miles per hour.

Wildfires are more common during long periods of dry weather or drought conditions.

A wildfire can occur in any of the 50 states. However, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming are the worst-hit states.

Wildfires can spread more rapidly in communities where the homes are situated close together.

Megafires -- wildfires that burn more than 100,000 acres -- are becoming increasingly common. It is estimated that more than 10 megafires occur annually. In 1995, less than one megafire occurred annually.
 

What to do before a wildfire occurs

Plan your evacuation routes. If you need to evacuate due to a wildfire, you should have a plan for where you will wait out the disaster and how you will get there. It's a good idea to have more than one route planned in case your original route is blocked by fire.
Learn basic fire safety. Every member of your household should understand how to properly use a fire extinguisher. They should also know how to start, control, and put out a fire safely -- such as a campfire, a barbecue grill fire, even a candle flame -- to prevent the outbreak of wildfires.
Gather emergency supplies. You should have an emergency kit packed with at least three days' worth of food and water for your entire family. Extra clothing, medications, and important documents (like insurance policies) should be included in the kit. It's also a good idea to add N95 respirator masks to your kit in case the air quality is poor during the wildfire.
Clear debris around your home. Remove anything flammable within 30 feet of your home. This includes combustible vegetation. Doing so will help reduce the risk of your home catching fire during a wildfire.
 

What to do when a wildfire occurs

If a wildfire is heading your way, here are the most important things you should do.

Close all windows, doors, and vents. This will help reduce the amount of smoke and radiant heat inside your home.

Move flammable items to the interior of your home. Anything combustible that's placed near windows could go up in flames as the fire draws closer.

Shut off the gas. This will help prevent explosions if the fire comes near your home.

Follow instructions from local authorities. If you are told to evacuate, you should do so immediately.

Use respirator masks. N95 respirator masks can help keep you from breathing in toxic particles or chemicals that may be in the smoky air around a wildfire.

Call 911 if you are trapped. Wait for the authorities to come rescue you. Turn on all house lights, inside and out, to make it easier for firefighters to spot your home through the smoke.
 

What to do after a wildfire occurs

It's important not to let your guard down as soon as the wildfire is over.

Wait to return until it is safe. Keep an eye on your local news and weather reports, and wait until authorities say that it's safe to return home.
Watch out for hot spots. Stay away from any smouldering debris. Don't enter any buildings that are still burning or smouldering, as they could collapse or trigger another fire. Alert the authorities to any pockets of fire you come across as well.
Wear a mask while cleaning. It's also a good idea to wet down debris before cleaning it up. This will help minimize the number of dangerous airborne particles that get into your lungs.
Only drink water that you know is safe. The water lines may have been contaminated, so you should stick to bottled water until the authorities have said that your water is safe again.
Document any property damage. Submit photographs to your insurance company as soon as possible so they can get to work on your claim.
Consider purchasing a flood insurance policy. Flood risks are significantly higher after a wildfire until the vegetation grows back. Floods are not covered under a traditional insurance policy, so it's wise to consider purchasing this extra coverage.
 

Tips

Don't drive through heavy smoke if you can avoid it. Heavy smoke makes it difficult to see and drive. The low visibility could cause you to have an accident.

Don't make phone calls unless it's an emergency. Phone lines may be down or busy, and they should be kept clear so authorities can deal with real emergencies. Limit your communications to text messages and social media.

Don't spend too much time outdoors. It's safer to stay inside where there is less smoke and heat to contend with.

Don't delay when ordered to evacuate. Wildfires can move fast. If you don't leave when you should, you could end up trapped in the middle of the fire.
 

FAQ

Q. What's so dangerous about wildfire smoke?

A. Wildfire smoke can irritate your eyes and lungs. It often contains carbon monoxide and other chemicals that make it difficult to breathe and exacerbate existing health conditions like asthma.

Q. What can I do to prevent my home from burning in a wildfire?

A. Keep all flammable items at least 30 feet from your home -- a distance of 100 feet is even better. When building or remodeling your home, be sure to use fire-resistant building materials. You can also install fire sprinklers or fireproof shutters to help keep fire out of your home.

Q. How do I prevent wildfire smoke from getting into my home?

A. If you have central air conditioning, you should set it to recirculate the air so it isn't pulling in smoke from outdoors. If you don't have central air, you may want to consider getting a portable air purifier that you can set up in a designated room in your home. You should also keep your windows, doors, and vents shut until the danger passes.

 

Kailey is a writer for BestReviews. BestReviews is a product review company with a singular mission: to help simplify your purchasing decisions and save you time and money. BestReviews never accepts free products from manufacturers and purchases every product it reviews with its own funds.

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