If you live in wilderness areas or the wildland-urban interface, where the forest meets the urban developments, then you must be aware of wildland fires and be prepared for them. As urban areas expand, they increasingly interface with wildlands, and many people enjoy being further out of the cities. This puts those areas at a greater risk for wildland fires. In this article, we will discuss some actions, precautions, and plans you should put in place to protect your family.
One of the best programs on wildland-urban protection is the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Firewise USA program. One of the first lines of defense is creating a zone of protection around your home and property, called the Home Ignition Zone, which should extend out to 200 feet from your home. The purpose of the zones is to reduce fire load, or fuel, close to your home, as research has shown that one of the primary risks is from embers. This includes using fire-resistant materials on your roof, eliminating overhangs, removing dead vegetation, and increasing distance between trees.
In addition to protecting your home, you should work with your neighbors to make your entire community is a Firewise community. If you and your neighbors create Home Ignition Zones, you increase the protection for your own home. To facilitate this, the NFPA encourages a Wildfire Community Preparedness Day, held on May 2, 2020. The Firewise site provides materials you can use to help promote the program in your area. You can expand on this by encouraging your community to have a cleanup weekend before summer weather increases the chances of wildfires. While summer is traditionally considered wildfire ‘season’, it was recently reported in Colorado that the dry weather and winds can dry out grass within days of snow and create the potential for wildfires.
Even though you, and your neighbors, may have created Home Ignition Zones, you must still have a plan to evacuate should there be a wildfire near you. Your plan must include triggers, points where you have determined that you will take specific actions. Your triggers must include early warning actions, such as checking bug out bags at the start of any wildfire within 50 feet of your home. Making sure that your bug out bags have important documents such as insurance policies, recent photographs, and video of your home contents and a list of phone numbers. Another trigger should be the decision point at which you decide to get your family together, such as getting your kids from school BEFORE it is time to evacuate. Other triggers should include the point at which you decide to leave – this should be BEFORE local officials order an evacuation so that you have plenty of time and are not trying to compete with everyone else.
Find out the warning methods your local emergency management has in place to notify you of wildfire. As many people no longer have landline phones typical reverse 9-1-1 systems, where a program calls listed addresses may not work. Are sirens used, and is there a difference between a tornado siren for shelter in place versus an evacuation? Does notification rely on police or fire services driving through the streets with a PA announcement? Your triggers should have you well out of the area before this happens!
Your plan should also include WHERE you are going if you have to evacuate. You really don’t want to end up in a shelter where you have no idea who else is there and around your family. You are prohibited from carrying anything to protect yourself and family in almost all shelters and are reliant on emergency services such as the Red Cross. This is especially important if you have pets. Talk to friends and family that you might have outside of your immediate community. Perhaps stage some supplies there such as camping cots, sleeping bags, and spare clothing. Depending on the size of their home, a tent in their backyard might be an option, in which case you might want to store one there, so it is not something you have to load in your car when it is time to evacuate. If this is an option for you, then your plan needs to include a trigger to call them as a ‘heads up’ BEFORE it is time to evacuate. Your plan might also involve getting emergency or additional food that you store at their house, so you are not suddenly arriving on their doorstep with a bunch more mouths to feed!
You must pre-plan all possible evacuation routes from your home, so you have multiple options based on the location and direction of the fire. You must drive these routes, so you are familiar with them; are they maintained roads, paved roads, dirt roads, etc. If they are dirt roads, are you able to travel them all the time or only at certain times? How are they after a rainstorm? Is your vehicle suitable to travel on them, i.e., do you need all-wheel or 4-wheel drive at certain times? This is all part of an Area Study that you should do as part of any preparedness planning, know what is around you.
Do not rely on GPS in your phone for navigation, a wildfire might knock out the power to local cell sites which will hinder GPS navigation. Get paper maps and mark them, name the routes for quick reference for your family and incorporate these into your plans so you can quickly communicate them to friends and family. You can also download maps to use with apps on your phone; however, I would still have a backup of paper maps and a GPS that is not reliant on cellular service, such as a Garmin car navigation system or better yet one that you can pre-program routes and landmarks into.
If you have pets or other animals, livestock, etc. then you must try and factor this into your plans. Most shelter programs now include provisions to accommodate pets, but this is usually a plan with a local shelter to house pets, as most shelters do not allow you to keep them with you. Many rural areas do have plans or programs where neighboring areas will take in livestock, such as horses. However, if you have other animals such as chickens, this might be a problem. Now is the time to reach out to your local emergency management to see if they have any programs in place. If not, then local farming organizations or groups like 4H or other programs might have something, or you might start a group to plan and facilitate something.
As with all aspects of preparedness, planning is the key. NOW is the time to plan or update your plans. Make sure you know and update your triggers, know routes, and emergency contact information. Know where you are going and pre-position provisions there, if possible. Do the best you can to create zones around your property to reduce fire load and encourage your neighbors to do the same. Know what plans your local emergency management or fire protection district has in place and especially how your community will be notified in the event of a wildfire warning or evacuation.