Fanned by powerful winds, the blazing inferno rages out of control. Hundreds of acres in the once-pristine forest have been charred, and there is no end in sight, the flames relentlessly leap from tree to tree, sending billowing smoke into the night air. The severity of a wildfire is amplified by drought and high wind. Trapped within the reach of the flames, the survivor must keep his head straight when deciding how to act as temperatures and stress levels rise. Wildfires pose an enormous danger to land, property and life, and you need a plan for survival.
Fire warnings usually accompany weather updates on the morning news and large fire danger warning signs stand outside the entrance to most high traffic parks. Recognizing the threat before it becomes one gives you time to run mental “what if” scenarios. This process will also help you prepare your home in advance. Home preparation includes keeping grass watered, clearing land around your property of dead growth and keeping sufficient lengths of garden hose handy. Those wishing to take preparedness to the next level may opt to have their own water supply and fuel-powered pumps to get to remote places.
“RUNNING BLINDLY FROM A WILDFIRE COULD GET YOU KILLED.”
Being familiar with possible scenarios and solutions speeds up your response time. If you are advised to evacuate an area, don’t hesitate. If you must evacuate your home, and have a timeframe to safeguard your home before you leave, remove combustible materials from near the base of any structure and close all your windows and doors to reduce airflow. Make certain to pack important documents that cannot be replaced or have them stored elsewhere in a safe location. Maps should already be staged in every vehicle as backups to GPS units. At zero hour, don’t wait behind. Keep moving and get out of the path of the fire.
Should you be on vacation or traveling through a rural area on business, listen to the advice of authorities. Don’t rely on the advice of locals as they may have emotions driving their actions rather than reason. Drive with your lights on and avoid traveling in unknown areas through heavy smoke as driving off road can happen in reduced visibility. If possible, travel with a small emergency crank radio if you are in the backcountry. Ask park rangers which AM station park notices are sent out through and check it frequently.
MOVEMENT AND TERRAIN
While the best defense against a wildfire is simply running away, there is nothing simple about it. Running blindly from a wildfire could get you killed. Having an understanding of terrain and the ability to read topographical features will improve your chances of survival. Running down into a steep ravine will limit your escape path if the walls are too steep to climb back out. Descending down a ridgeline might be the better option if the flames aren’t too high as it offers a clearer lay of the land. The best option may be traversing and slowly descending just below the ridgeline should the heat be too great on top and a ravine too far below. Running toward a water feature such as a lake or river can save you as can running toward a commercial area with large parking lots with nothing combustible around to burn.
Always consider where you are moving to when escaping fire. Think of where you are running to instead of simply what you are running from. This location should be coordinated and understood by all of those in your party/neighborhood. If the original rally point in a safe location is compromised (overcrowded, unavailable, unsafe), there should always be an option B and even C. Communication while moving is also important. CB radios will function better than cell phones for instant delayfree communication.
In most scenarios, moving to a lower elevation is part of the correct response, but in certain circumstances, climbing in elevation may be safer. Understanding terrain helped stranded hikers in Yosemite Valley in September 2014. Rather than riding out the flames in the valley, the hikers made their way to the top of Half Dome, a large granite rock formation where helicopter rescue was possible.
PROTECTION FROM HEAT/FLAMES
The typical human response to feeling heat is to turn away or throw up an arm or two to shield from the heat. Placing an object between you and flames is an effective way of blocking the heat but make sure to be selective in what you use. On a large scale, understanding forest composition will help you gain time in your evacuation. Softwood trees such as hemlock, pine and spruce will burn much faster than hardwoods like maple, beech and oak. Hardwood trees are not fireproof, just fire-resistant. Movement through hardwood trees will provide better protection from heat and flames than a softwood forest where fire can spread more rapidly.
Your vehicle may offer temporary protection. However, vehicles burn and once they are on fire they burn dangerously. Gas tanks rarely explode, but it is possible. If sheltering in your vehicle, park far from heavy brush, roll up your windows, and close any and all vents. Should a clear opening present itself and vehicle travel is no longer an option, do not be afraid to abandon a vehicle if a road becomes impassable and you must continue on foot. If you must abandon your vehicle along a road, make sure to pull as far off the road as possible for fire response and emergency vehicles to come through. Take only the essentials for travel and continue moving away quickly and methodically.
REMOVING FLAMMABLE MATERIAL
As previously stated, removing flammable material is part of the process of controlling the burn around your property/area. Tools that help with this process include chainsaws, brush rakes, McLeod tools, Pulaskis, and shovels. Having these tools available and knowing where they are will improve your chances of responding in time to make a difference.
Removing flammable material pertains to you as well. Many outdoor garments are made with synthetic fabrics for wicking. These fabrics will melt under extreme heat and can cause extremely painful, dangerous and potentially deadly burns. Even if a layer of flame-retardant clothing is worn as an outer garment, a wicking or insulative layer can melt between the outer garment and the skin. With enough heat any fabric will burn. However, wool, leather and non-waxed canvas are better options than any synthetic with the exception of Nomex. A good option is to soak wool blankets and wear them over the head and shoulders like a poncho.
“LUCK IS NOT A PLAN AND YOU ONLY HAVE ONE CHANCE TO SURVIVE.”
Leather gloves will help protect your hands from hot surfaces. Assuming you must move through a previously burnt area, you do not want to burn your hands on residual embers or hot surfaces. Also, heavy rubbersoled boots are a better choice for overland travel than lightweight sneakers with outsoles composed primarily of shock-absorbing foam.
It seems counterintuitive to set a fire to protect against a fire, but this is what smokejumpers and wildfire specialists sometimes do. Deliberately burning fuel sources an approaching wildfire will consume limits its strength and ability to spread. Rather than having the entire force of the wildfire behind the flames, smaller more manageable fires can be set to pre-burn areas with better control over the situation. A controlled burn (the keyword is controlled) is not simply lighting any available fuel on fire. Heavy uprooting, raking and digging are done prior to staging the burn. This is done to make the fire more manageable once it is lit. The biggest hazard is letting this fire grow out of control to stop, which is why in the vast majority of cases those who are properly trained are the only people who should attempt this action.
WHEN ALL ELSE FAILS
Assuming you have no viable evacuation route to safety, you must locate the lowest point with as little vegetation as possible around you. Since heat rises, this should be where the lowest temperature will be found. With any luck, this low point may be a creek or small trickle of water. If so, test the water to make sure it isn’t scalding hot, cover as much of your body in it and keep your head down. If you are carrying water, cover your clothes in it and stay low to the ground breathing through a dampened cloth or your shirt collar. Smoke inhalation can kill you just as can exposure to flames. One word of warning with wet clothes though, in some fires, they have caused steam burns. Protect your eyes from airborne embers and your skin by repeated cooling with creek water or rolling side to side to pick up any moisture or coolness from the ground.
The emotional connection to vehicle, home and land can preoccupy the mind but the ultimate goal is survival. Fire destroys violently but humans can always rebuild. Even the worst wildfire to date of publication near San Diego in 2003 eventually was controlled, but not before burning over 270,000 acres, 2,200 homes and claiming 15 lives. The death toll would have been much higher without the heroic work of rescue personnel and quick thinking residents. Survivors of this wildfire and others have cited luck and chance as reasons for their survival. Luck is not a plan and you only have one chance to survive. Make your own luck through careful planning, practice and preparation.
What do wildland firefighters use for fire protection when they have nowhere to run? The answer is a fire shelter. Local, state and federal firefighting agencies are carrying these shelters and understand their value in lifesaving. Made from a combination of aluminum foil and silica weave, a fire shelter can be deployed in a matter of seconds and offers the final line of defense should a fire overtake a wildland firefighter. Used directly against the ground in an area as free of combustible material as possible, all the firefighter has to do is hold onto the internal handles, breathe shallow breaths to protect from hot air and smoke and simply wait until the fire passes. This is easier said than done given the intense pressure put on the individual. In the best circumstances, the shelter will protect from passing flames, embers and heat. In the worst circumstances, like those surrounding the deaths of 19 of the best firefighters, the Hotshot crew from Arizona in 2013, the shelters can’t overcome the heat and the occupant perishes. These shelters are available for private purchase for around $400 but are meant for use by professionals only and should not be considered a contingency plan if other options are present.
Hot air rises along with hot air flames, embers and ash and strong winds have the potential to carry embers over great distances, causing spot fires. Although the best defense against a wildfire is putting space between you and the fire, nature doesn’t always help. Understanding the prevailing wind where you are will help you estimate the safest route for evacuation. This should be determined long before the fire threat exists. If you normally reside in a high fire risk area, evacuation through this route should be rehearsed regularly.
Fire can travel up and downhill, as well as over flat terrain, although fire travels fastest uphill. For every 10 degrees of slope increase, fire will double its speed and for every 10 degrees of decreasing slope it will halve its speed. This point is easily conveyed with a burning match. Held horizontally, the match will burn at a set speed but with the match head angled down, it will burn much faster.
Fire also has the potential to travel underground in root systems. These fires can smolder underground until they reach a spot where they are exposed to the air and reignite. Fire can “jump” or skip over lines of protection. This potential does not bode well for the outdoorsman as it adds to the unpredictability of wildfire. If all that is left is the inevitability of wildfire, the logical approach is to take steps to improve chances of survival when it happens.
Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the September 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide.