Among all fires and incendiary disasters, wildfires are potentially the most deadly. A house fire is localized and so is a building fire. Although flames may occasionally jump to another structure, the wildfire by its definition is a wild moving mass of flame that may be unpredictable. You cannot outrun a wildfire.
Your only hope is early warning. Prior planning and study are vital as well. Wildfires are fast moving—much faster than you might think.
They destroy millions of acres of timber and create many millions of dollars in damage every year. The fatalities are usually among those who underestimate the danger involved.
Even trained firefighters who are in good shape and with plenty of support and the proper equipment sometimes succumb to wildfires. The uncontrolled infernos must never be underestimated.
Wildfires are surprisingly speedy. A strong wind can push a flame faster than we can run. An average speed for a forest fire is 5 miles an hour. But the average is far exceeded in certain bursts.
In experiments confirmed by studies of fires, flames have moved at a speed of well over 30 miles per hour. Keeping a steady pace of 5 miles an hour may not be sufficient to out run a fire due to the danger of other wildfires nearby. And the fast gusts are certainly too fast to out run. Small fires tend to burn and merge with larger fires.
Fires Don’t Discriminate
Wildfires can occur anywhere. The American West and other similar land masses such as Australia are the most common scene of wildfires. But they can occur anywhere that has sufficient combustible material. Also, wildfires don’t always present a cohesive front. Due to wind currents and conditions that are generally favorable for fire, the wildfire may spread unpredictably. In a number of cases, wildfires that roared through Western timber were actually as many as 100 separate fires.
In Australia, as another example, a wildfire killed some 200 people. It was estimated that there were 400 separate fires in the Australian bush. This was a horrific episode that left a devastating human and financial impact. After careful analysis of the debacle, it appears that many followed a good plan and acted correctly according to standard escape plans. The problem was that the fires were unpredictable. Escaping one fire often left the victims in the jaws of another.
When you are running to get out of the path of the blaze, you may receive serious burns. If possible, the ready kit should include fire resistant blankets. These wool blankets are chemically coated to be more flame resistant and are large enough to cover an adult carrying a child.
These blankets should be kept in an accessible location. Stored in the attic is not the best location. Keeping the blankets and the ready first aid bag together is important. The more likely the area is to host a wildfire, the more important this blanket becomes.
On a related subject avoid nylon clothing if possible. Nylon has a low melting point and burns into the wound. Cotton is much superior.
Vehicles Can Be Death Traps
A wildfire—an uncontrolled fire in woods and forest—can occur in a national park or a suburban area. Wildfires quickly jump to homes and structures. A sobering thought must accompany every plan. You can be brave, quick thinking, resilient and prepared, and still lose. There is simply no room for error. So what are some of the steps that will save your life?
Vehicles are caught in a wildfire and fuel the fire. If you are trapped in a vehicle you will be cooked like meat in a kettle. The vehicle actually will compound the heat. Many people do not understand that flame doesn’t have to touch you to kill you or inflict horrible burns. Radiant heat is a killer. After all, there is no flame in an oven; it is powered by radiant heat.
A vehicle is useful for evacuation and for escaping a grass fire, but not for driving through a wildfire. The vehicle is useful for driving out of danger when you have warning. But you may be boxed in by the fire.
If you are caught in a fire with nowhere else to go, roll up the windows and keep the air conditioning going but outside vents closed. Do not drive through smoke. It is better to stay put than to drive into dense smoke. Where there is smoke, there is fire. Get on the floor of the vehicle if possible.
Every fireman and expert on the subject stresses that remaining calm is most important. Those that panic cannot adapt to the situation and will find themselves disoriented.
No matter how bad the situation, as long as you are breathing you have a strong chance of escape. And that is what will matter most—continuing to breathe normally and avoiding panic. A deep breath every four seconds reduces panic and oxygenates the blood.
However, if the air is filled with smoke then you must not breathe in deeply; rather, you must protect your airways. The best chance of normal breathing is to keep close to the ground. Cover your nose and mouth and if possible a damp cloth is a great filter.
Escape And Evade
When confronted with a wildfire, you must have a plan. Experts recommend that you quickly form at least two plans and act upon the one that seems best. Be certain that the plan has been qualified with research, which must be done before the emergency. Prior research will show you the best escape routes and the most dangerous places to avoid.
Because fires usually rush uphill, taking a downhill route is preferable. Avoid areas that would provide a source of fuel for the fires. Combustible material is what will lead the path of the flame. The fire must have fuel to continue. Potentially combustible material such as old dry wood sheds and dead vegetation— leaves and dead trees—are among the most easily ignited material.
However, a large wild fire may generate heat of 1,000 degrees or more. Estimates of as high as 1,200 degrees apply to large fast-moving fire. Given sufficient heat, blooming plants and healthy trees will also quickly become engulfed in flames. Some of the flammable oils in plants may intensify the fire.
You must search out areas that are devoid of combustible material. You should look to rocky terrain, furrowed dirt fields and roads to escape. Water is always good. A stream or creek between you and the fire is ideal.
If there is anything that you must gauge it is the wind. If the wind is blowing toward the fire, then a route that leads into the wind is most advisable. If the wind is behind the fire, blowing the flames, then run in a perpendicular route so that you will escape the flames and their predictable path. The wind may well be carrying sparks ahead of the flame, starting another flame you may run into.
Sometimes looking behind the fire and finding burned out areas works well. However, fire can sometimes be fanned by the wind and arise out of the ashes, so be certain that the fire has passed over this area and the area is safe.
If the fire has overtaken your position, the speed of the fire may be put to your advantage. If you are able to find shelter in the ground and make a small curled-up profile, then you may be able to shelter as the flames roll over you. A culvert or drainage pipe may be ideal. As much of the body as possible should be covered. This may also reduce the chances of smoke filling your lungs.
Firebreaks and ditches are not always the best choice as the fire may jump right over the ditch. But if you are surrounded by flame one option is to cover your body with dirt. Dig an opening and cover yourself as heavily as possible. A few inches is almost worthless. Twelve inches is far more viable.
There is a chance of suffocation as the fire burns oxygen so attempt to leave a ‘bubble’ of air underneath the dug-out area. This is absolutely a last ditch tactic but one that may be the only chance of survival.
Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the Doomsday 2016 print issue of American Survival Guide Magazine.