Wildfires: Here's How You Can Prepare

Many homeowners face the risk of wildfires, which are usually triggered by lightning or accidents. They spread quickly, igniting brush, trees and homes. Some homes survive, but unfortunately, many others do not. Those that survive almost always do so because their owners had prepared for fire. Reduce your risk by preparing now to protect your family, home and property.

Preparing Your Home for a Wildfire

The following are things you can do to protect yourself, your family and your property in the event of a fire:

  • Design and landscape your home with wildfire safety in mind. Select materials and plants that can help contain fire rather than fuel it:

  • Use fire-resistant or noncombustible materials on the roof and exterior structure of your house, or treat wood or combustible material used in roofs, siding, decking or trim with fire-retardant chemicals evaluated by a nationally recognized laboratory, such as Underwriters Laboratories (UL).

  • Plant fire-resistant shrubs and trees. For example, hardwood trees are less flammable than pine, evergreen, eucalyptus or fir trees.

  • Regularly clean your roof and gutters; remove any debris that could catch fire.

  • Inspect your chimneys at least twice a year, and clean them at least once a year. Keep the dampers in good working order. Equip chimneys and stovepipes with a spark arrester that meets the requirements of National Fire Protection Association Standard 211. Contact your local fire department for exact specifications.

  • Install 1/8-inch mesh screen beneath porches, decks, floor areas and the home itself to prevent debris and combustible materials from accumulating. You should also cover openings to floors, roof and attic with mesh screens to prevent sparks and embers from entering your home.

  • Install a dual-sensor smoke alarm on each level of your home, especially near bedrooms; test it every month and change the batteries at least once each year.

  • Teach your family members how to use a fire extinguisher (ABC type), and show them where it's kept.

  • Keep household items available that can be used as fire tools, such as rake, axe, handsaw or chain saw, bucket and shovel.

  • Keep a ladder that will reach the roof in case a family member ends up on the roof of a burning house.

  • Consider installing protective shutters or heavy fire-resistant drapes.

  • Move flammable items away from the house and outside of your defensible space, including woodpiles, lawn furniture, barbecue grills and tarp coverings.

Plan Your Water Needs

Make sure that you have easy and reliable access to water:

  • Identify and maintain an adequate outside water source, such as a small pond, cistern, well, swimming pool or hydrant.

  • Have a garden hose that is long enough to reach any area of the home and other structures on the property.

  • Install freeze-proof exterior water outlets on at least two sides of the home and near other structures on the property. Install additional outlets at least 50 feet from the home.

  • Consider obtaining a portable gasoline-powered pump in case electrical power is cut off.

It is recommended that you create a 30- to 100-foot safety zone around your home. Within this area, you can take steps to reduce potential exposure to flames and radiant heat. Homes built in pine forests should have a minimum safety zone of 100 feet. If your home sits on a steep slope, standard protective measures may not be enough. Contact your local fire department or forestry office for additional information. Here are some tips to create a safety-zone:

  • Rake leaves, dead limbs and twigs. Clear all flammable vegetation. Remove leaves and rubbish from under structures.

  • Thin a 15-foot space between tree crowns, and remove limbs within 15 feet of the ground.

  • Remove dead branches that extend over the roof.

  • Prune tree branches and shrubs within 15 feet of a stovepipe or chimney outlet.

  • Ask the power company to clear branches from power lines.

  • Remove vines from the walls of the home.

  • Mow grass regularly.

  • Clear a 10-foot area around propane tanks and the barbecue. Use a screen made of nonflammable material with mesh no coarser than 1/4 inch.

  • Regularly dispose of newspapers and rubbish at an approved site. Follow local burning regulations.

  • Place stove, fireplace and grill ashes in a metal bucket and soak them in water for two days, then bury the cold ashes in mineral soil.

  • Store gasoline, oily rags and other flammable materials in approved safety cans. Place the cans in a safe location away from the base of buildings.

  • Stack firewood at least 100 feet away and uphill from your home. Clear combustible material within 20 feet of a woodpile. Use only wood-burning devices evaluated by a nationally recognized laboratory, such as Underwriters Laboratories (UL).

  • Review your homeowner's insurance policy and prepare or update a list of your home's contents.

Practice Wildfire Safety

Most wildfires are started by people. Here’s how you can promote and practice wildfire safety:

  • Contact your local fire department, health department or forestry office for information on fire laws.

  • Make sure that fire vehicles can get to your home. Clearly mark all driveway entrances and display your name and address.

  • Report hazardous conditions that could cause a wildfire.

  • Teach children about fire safety. Keep matches out of their reach.

  • Post fire emergency telephone numbers.

  • Ensure large fire vehicles have adequate access to your property.

  • Plan several escape routes away from your home, both by car and by foot.

  • Talk to your neighbors about wildfire safety. Plan how the neighborhood could work together to clean up after a wildfire. Make a list of your neighbors' skills, such as medical or technical. Consider how you could help neighbors who have special needs, such as elderly or disabled persons. Make plans to take care of children who may be on their own if parents can't get home.

Your best resource for proper planning is www.firewise.org, which has outstanding information used every day by residents, property owners, fire departments, community planners, builders, public policy officials, water authorities, architects and others to ensure safety from fire. Firewise workshops are offered for free across the nation in large and small communities. Free Firewise materials can be obtained by anyone interested.

During a Wildfire

If you are advised to evacuate, do so immediately. Take your disaster supply kit, lock your home and choose a route away from the fire hazard. Watch for changes in the speed and direction of the fire and smoke. Tell someone when you left and where you are going.

If you see a wildfire and haven't received evacuation orders yet, call 911. Don't assume that someone else has already called. Describe the location of the fire, speak slowly and clearly and answer any questions the dispatcher asks.

If you are not ordered to evacuate, and have time to prepare your home, FEMA recommends that you take the following actions:

  • Arrange temporary housing at a friend or relative’s home outside the threatened area in case you need to evacuate.

  • Wear protective clothing when outside, such as sturdy shoes, cotton or woolen clothes, long pants, a long-sleeved shirt, gloves and a handkerchief to protect your face.

  • Gather fire tools such as a rake, axe, handsaw or chainsaw, bucket and shovel.

  • Close outside attic, eaves and basement vents, windows, doors and other openings. Remove flammable drapes and curtains. Close all shutters, blinds or heavy non-combustible window coverings to reduce radiant heat.

  • Close all doors inside the house to prevent drafts. Open the damper on your fireplace, but close the fireplace screen.

  • Shut off any natural gas, propane or fuel oil supplies at the source.

  • Connect garden hoses to outdoor water faucets and fill any pools, hot tubs, garbage cans, tubs or other large containers with water.

  • Place lawn sprinklers on the roof and near aboveground fuel tanks. Leave sprinklers on and dowse these structures as long as possible.

  • If you have gas-powered pumps for water, make sure they are fueled and ready.

  • Place a ladder in clear view against the house.

  • Disconnect any automatic garage door openers so that doors can still be opened by hand if the power goes out. Close all garage doors.

  • Place valuable papers, mementos and anything "you can't live without" inside the car in the garage, ready for quick departure. Any pets still with you should also be put in the car.

  • Place valuables that will not be damaged by water in a pool or pond.

  • Move flammable furniture into the center of the home away from the windows and sliding glass doors.

  • Turn on outside lights and leave a light on in every room to make the house more visible in heavy smoke.

Survival in a Vehicle

This is dangerous and should only be done in an emergency, but you can survive a fire if you stay in your car. It is much less dangerous than trying to run from a fire on foot:

  • Roll up the windows and close the air vents. Drive slowly with your headlights on. Watch for other vehicles and pedestrians. Do not drive through heavy smoke.

  • If you have to stop, park away from the heaviest trees and brush. Turn your headlights on and ignition off. Make sure your windows are rolled up and your air vents are closed.

  • Get on the floor and cover up with a blanket or coat.

  • Stay in the car until the main fire passes. Do not run!

  • Remember that your engine may stall and not restart, air currents may rock the car, some smoke and sparks may enter the vehicle and the temperature inside will increase. Keep in mind that metal gas tanks and containers rarely explode.

If You Are Trapped at Home

If you find yourself trapped inside your home, stay inside and away from outside walls. Close the doors, but leave them unlocked. Keep your entire family together and remain calm.

If Caught in the Open

  • The best temporary shelter is in a sparse area with few trees or other things that burn easily. On a steep mountainside, the back side is safer. Avoid canyons and natural "chimneys.”