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How to Survive a Wildfire

This guide will teach you how to prepare your home for a forest fire, how to escape, and how to survive a wildfire if you find yourself in a vehicle or on foot.

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For many people, wildfires are a very real threat. Hundreds of millions of homes around the world exist in areas that are susceptible to this all too common natural disaster.

If you are among the millions of people who live in a fire-prone area, you've probably asked yourself, what should I do to prepare myself for a wildfire?

Preparing yourself to survive a wildfire is a multifaceted task.

At a minimum, you need to know how to prepare your home for a forest fire, how to escape, and how to survive a wildfire if you find yourself in a vehicle or on foot.

In this informational guide, our goal is to help you be prepared before a wildfire becomes a threat to you and your home.

In a hurry? If you just want to get to our conclusions, here are our top picks and recommendations!

Last update on 2024-05-30 / Affiliate Links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

What is a Wildfire?

The word 'wildfire' is oftentimes used interchangeably with the term 'forest fire'. As both words suggest, these are uncontrolled fires that rage through areas that are often heavily forested or covered in thick brush

As more and more people move into rural areas and swatches of forest are conserved amidst new developments, wildfires have become a very serious threat to people and their property. 

Wildfires can start naturally through events like lightning strikes, though they are most frequently caused by the negligence of man. Countless fires have started from campfires or burning trash that has blown out of control.

If you want to know how to survive a wildfire, it helps to learn a bit about how they work first.

A forest fire dying down

Understanding Wildfire Risk

Three main factors influence how a wildfire starts, spreads, and eventually dies out:

Fuel + Weather + Topography

Fuel for a wildfire is typically made up of thick brush, undergrowth in a forest, or canopy branches and foliage. It can also be underground roots and other organic matter.

Weather is the most variable factor. Dry hot spells will create fuel that is dry and quick to burn. Winds will blow fire out of control in an instant. Winds can also change the direction of a fire from one moment to the next. 

Topography, or the lay of the land, also has a lot to do with the direction a wildfire will travel. Fire travels quickly uphill. The features of the area, both natural and man made, can also serve as protective barriers against wildfires.

Roads, rivers, lakes, and ponds can potentially slow down a wildfire or stop it. If you live in a flat area, it will be harder to anticipate a wildfire's movement, which will be more susceptible to the effects of weather.

When you are preparing yourself and your home to survive a wildfire, the first step is to assess the natural area where you live.  

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is the natural terrain like? Mountainous? Hilly? Flat?
  • Are there natural bodies of water nearby such as lakes and rivers?
  • What are the seasonal weather patterns? Do we have regular extended dry periods? 
  • What is the vegetation like where I live? Are there dense forests? Brushlands? Grasslands and fields?

Answering these questions will help you understand what are the most effective measures you can take to survive a wildfire and protect your property. 

If you live in a forested mountainous area with a dry climate, you can assume the risk is quite high for forest fires. If you live in a flat region on the plains, the risk of having to face down a fire is quite low though not unheard of.


Preventing Wildfires

Preparing to survive a wildfire starts with learning to prevent wildfires

It is said that nine out of every ten forest fires are started by man. There are certain, rather obvious, precautions that we should all be taking to limit the possibilities of unintentionally starting a wildfire.

  • Never start a fire on a windy day, especially if the general conditions are hot and dry.
  • Never leave a fire unattended and douse it completely to put it out.
  • Never throw a match or lit cigarette into the brush.
  • Don’t light fireworks on a windy night, or let children light them unsupervised.
  • Don't let gasoline or other flammable materials spill onto grass or brush.
  • Respect all local burn ordinances.
  • Report all fire activity that you see. Never assume a fire has already been reported.

Here's a quick summary of what are wildfires and how to prevent them, from National Geographic.

Preparing for the Inevitable

Aside from prevention, you must also learn about how to prepare to confront a wildfire.

If you live in a high-risk, fire-prone area, you should consider the possibility of having to face down a wildfire as inevitable. 

Prevention and preparation go hand in hand. 

Before a Wildfire Strikes

The time to think about surviving a wildfire is before a wildfire becomes a threat.

Most of the time, when a wildfire presents a danger, an evacuation order will be issued. When you leave your home, you want to be confident that it has the best chance of withstanding the fire.

And what happens if the fire comes on suddenly, and you have no time to leave your home? Or if all the evacuation routes are closed off by the fire itself? Your only option may be to ride out the fire at home.

This is why preparing your home to survive a forest fire should be one of your top priorities.

How to Prepare Your Home to Survive a Wildfire

The main cause of homes burning down in the event of a wildfire is because they fall victim to falling embers.

Embers can travel more than a mile away from the main fire and, in the right conditions, cause a new fire to light. 

When you are preparing your home for wildfires, you need to keep this in mind. Your goal is to minimize your home's vulnerabilities to these airborne firestarters.

Here’s a basic wildfire preparedness checklist for the home:

  • Clean all your roofs and gutters of dead leaves and debris.
  • Cover all your home’s vents in ⅛ in. metal mesh screening.
  • Move away flammable material from the exterior of your home. This includes mulch, leaf debris, firewood piles, and flammable resinous plants.
  • Prune your trees to have a minimum of six feet of clear space between the ground and the tree’s first branches.
  • Don’t plant shrubs and bushes under trees.
  • Make sure there are at least 10 ft. between treetops and structures.
  • Keep at least 12 ft. of space between the crowns of trees.
  • Keep your lawn well mowed.
  • Remove debris piles and dead wood within 200ft of your home.
  • Keep the spaces under decks and porches clear.
  • Have a ladder that reaches your roof on hand.

Last update on 2024-05-30 / Affiliate Links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

How to Prepare Yourself for a Wildfire

Once you have your home prepared, you need to focus on yourself.

As mentioned, the most frequent response to wildfires is for local officials to issue an evacuation order.  If this happens, you should take heed and get out while you can.

Escaping wildfire is best done before the wildfire is an imminent threat.

Even so, sometimes you have just moments to get out of harm's way.

Being ready to evacuate on a moment's notice requires a certain level of preparation.

Here’s a wildfire emergency preparedness checklist for yourself and your family:

  • Create a Bug Out Bag or emergency supply kit. Have it ready to 'grab and go'. Be sure to include important documents and identity paperwork.
  • Prepare a wildfire appropriate outfit of clothing. These clothes will protect you from falling embers, hot ash, and smoke. You should include long pants, a long-sleeve shirt, heavy boots, a bandana as a face cover, and safety goggles. If you want to be extra prepared, consider purchasing a special fire suit that will provide you with full-body protection.
  • Purchase an extra-large thick wool blanket or fire shelter. You should have one for your home and one to store in each vehicle.
  • Learn your local evacuation routes. Go the extra mile and get out of your car to explore the areas. If you find yourself forced to abandon your vehicle, you will have a better chance of survival if you are familiar with the terrain and natural features to be found along the route.
  • Study the techniques for survival in case you get caught in the fire.
  • Create a communication plan with your family. If cell phone signal goes out, phones get lost, or you get separated from your family, you should all know who to communicate with (or which organization to register with) to let your family know you are OK.
  • Sign up for weather alerts that will be broadcast to your phone.

Last update on 2024-05-30 / Affiliate Links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

Using a Fire Shelter

At this point, I think it is worth clarifying what, exactly, is a fire shelter.   

A fire shelter is kind of like that emergency fire blanket you may keep by the grill to put out grease fires.

The difference is that it is designed to put over yourself as an emergency cover for when a wildfire is at the point of raging over your body. 

Last update on 2024-05-30 / Affiliate Links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

It sure would be nice to have one of these handy if you were to unexpectedly face a wildfire in the backcountry. 

Unfortunately, these are prohibitively heavy and bulky, weighing around 8 lbs. They are also rather expensive.

Most folks wouldn't find it practical to pack one on a weekend backpacking trip.

You may want to consider investing in a fire shelter to keep in your car or home, however. It is a costly piece of survival gear, but it may save your life.

To use a fire shelter, you simply throw it over yourself and use the weight of your body to pin it to the ground. 

Fire shelters isolate the person under them from radiant heat and trap a quantity of breathable air for the person taking shelter.

These emergency shelters are indispensable for firefighters, who consider it a last-ditch tool for surviving a wildfire.

What to do During a Wildfire

So, at this point, I'll reiterate it. The simple answer to how to survive a wildfire is to simply get away as fast as possible. Heed evacuation orders immediately.  

It might be tempting to stay close to your home to defend your property. If you can put out those flying embers before they ignite, you may be able to save your home, right? 

It might be tempting to take on the firefighter role, but unless you are trained, have the physical stamina, and special equipment at your disposal - you should not take any chances.

Your life is worth more than your house or any physical structure on your property. 

But how do you survive a wildfire if you get caught unaware and don’t have time to flee? 

What happens if you are in the back country on a weekend camping trip and get caught in the flames? 

Or how do you survive a forest fire in a vehicle if your car gets trapped in the flames?

A wildfire warning sign in a forest

Escaping Wildfire

If you find yourself in the situation of having to face down a wildfire, here are some tips for how to survive:

If You are in Your Home:

  • Keep your family indoors.
  • Call 911 or your local emergency service to let them know you are there.
  • If it is safe to do so, use a hose and sprinklers to wet down your roof, outdoor walls, and areas around your home. Check with your local fire department on this one. If they count on fire hydrants for fire fighting, it might affect water pressure and their ability to do their job.
  • Shut off all gas connections and turn off all air conditioning, ventilation systems, or fans that circulate air.
  • Keep your lights on as long as there is electricity. This may help firefighters locate your house and know someone is inside.
  • Take down all curtains, wall coverings, and furniture from windows and doors. Keep your windows and doors shut, but not locked.
  • Fill your sinks and bathtubs with water.
  • Change into your ‘fire clothes.’
  • Use a heavy wool blanket or fire shelter to hide under and stay as close to the floor as possible.
  • Cover your face with bandanas to avoid breathing large particles of ash.
  • Wait until the fire front has passed if you need to escape from your burning home.

If You are in Your Vehicle

Before we talk about how to survive a forest fire in your vehicle, it is worth noting that your vehicle is the absolute last place you want to be.

If you have studied your evacuation routes, you should know every natural or artificial body of water along the route.

You will be much better off jumping into a nearby lake, pond, or swimming pool, if you have time, than in your car.

However, if you have no other alternative or the wildfire is going to overtake your vehicle before you have a chance to get to a more appropriate area, take the following steps to increase your chances of survival:

  • Try to park your car in an area that has a very wide clearance around it, such as a field, large parking lot, etc.
  • Close all windows and get on the floor of your car, covering yourself with a thick wool blanket or fire shelter.
  • Stay inside the car until the initial wall of fire has passed.
Car caught driving near a wildfire

If You are on Foot

One of the scariest things that can happen in the wilderness is being overrun or coming up upon a forest fire.

Even in the suburbs, you may find yourself on foot and away from your home when a wildfire suddenly starts nearby.

Escaping wildfire without the aid of a vehicle or the refuge of a house can be one of the most terrifying experiences you may have to face. 

Keep the following tips in mind if you ever find yourself in this situation:

  • Clear your mind and focus on the wind. Where is it blowing from? If it is blowing towards you, run perpendicular to it. This will hopefully help you get around the fire. If the wind is coming from behind you, turn around and run into the wind to move away from the fire.
  • Remember that fire moves uphill. If you are on a slope, do not try to outrun the fire uphill. It is a better idea to travel perpendicular to it until you find a suitable spot to take shelter.
  • Look for bodies of water to take refuge in such as rivers, ponds, or lakes.
  • Seek out vegetation free areas such as rocky hilltops, meadows, or other areas that have a minimum of combustible material.
  • Cover your nose and mouth with a cloth of some kind to protect your airways from smoke and ash.
  • If the smoke is thick, lower yourself to the ground. Remember, smoke rises. Breathable air can be found lower to the ground.
  • If there is not an option to run away from the fire, you may need to run through it. Look for the weakest point, and charge through to the other side. You will be safer in an area that has already been burnt.
  • Roads are natural firebreaks. Take refuge in the road or on the opposite side to the fire. Ditches and culverts on the opposite side of the road from a fire can provide safety as well.
  • Avoid canyons and gullies. You may become trapped, and these essentially work as fire funnels.
  • As a last-ditch option, look for any kind of depression and lay down in it, with your mouth to the ground. Try to cover yourself with any protective materials you may have available to you, including dirt.

What to do After the Fire Front Has Passed

The fire front is the leading edge of a wildfire. It is also the most dangerous phase of a fire raging out of control.

If you have to hunker down and hold your ground inside your home, in your car, or alone outside, expect this phase to last around 10 minutes to a half an hour. It will be absolutely terrifying.

Expect to experience intense radiant heat, falling burning debris, a terrifying roar of noise, and the most intense sense of panic and adrenaline you will probably ever experience in your life.

You’ve survived the worst part of the wildfire, but what comes next?

Even when the worst has passed, you are still not out of danger.  Surviving a wildfire requires you to eventually get to help when the world is burning around you.

When leaving your home, crawling out of your car, or coming out of the lake, be sure to take the following precautions when getting to safety after a wildfire:

  • Head towards areas that have already been burnt. A wildfire won't backtrack but keep on the watch for flare-ups.
  • Be vigilant for falling burning debris: branches, treetops, or embers carried by the wind are common dangers after a wildfire passes through.
  • Be wary of electrical lines and posts.
  • Keep your airways covered by using a facemask, bandana, or piece of cloth.
  • Be careful where you step. Watch out for smoldering spots on the ground.
  • Be careful what you grab. Anything that survived the flames may be incredibly hot.
  • Seek medical attention if you feel it necessary.
  • Register with the Red Cross or other local emergency response organizations to let them know you are alive and well.
  • If you can stay in your home, inspect it for damage and remain vigilant for falling embers and coals. Put these out immediately.
  • If your home is uninhabitable, or fire damaged, seek refuge at a shelter. Do not try to re-enter your home.
  • If your vehicle still works, leave the area to seek help.
  • If you were on foot, travel through the burned out areas to seek help and shelter. If you have cell phone coverage, call your local emergency services immediately to report your location.

Physically surviving a wildfire is just the start to a post-fire recovery. Physical injury may take months or years to overcome.

Mental trauma may take a lifetime to process. Hassles with insurance and rebuilding will be exhausting.

But you’ll be alive, and that’s the important part.

Be Prepared

As you prepare yourself to survive a wildfire, it makes sense to read up on the different kinds of scenarios presented above. 

A wildfire can rip through your life unexpectedly at any moment.  It will not care if you are at work, at home, or out for a hike.

Educate yourself, prepare your home, and make sure you have your bug out emergency backpack ready to go.

Do your home inventory and maintain it updated for insurance purposes. Conduct drills with your family to practice your wildfire survival skills.

Wildfire Frequently Asked Questions:

How do I predict a forest fire?

Knowing when or where a wildfire will start is impossible to predict. Knowing how the wildfire will behave and where it will travel is an inexact science, at best.

What you can do is learn to recognize the level of wildfire risk. Pay attention to the weather. Particularly the drought conditions and prevailing winds.

What are the signs that a wildfire is near?

Signs that a wildfire may be near include the presence or odor of smoke, strange behavior on the part of wildlife, or a strange 'roar' in the distance.

You may also notice a red glow at night. If you see any of these occurrences and no fires have been announced, make sure to report your observations to the local authorities.

Never assume a wildfire has been previously reported.

What is a firestorm?

A firestorm is when a wildfire rages so intensely that it creates its own winds and weather.

Smoke from a fire can rise into the atmosphere, creating storm clouds with intense lightning (which can then start more wildfires) and even heavy rains (which can help put the fire out).

The erratic winds of a firestorm can cause extreme turbulence and even cause tornadoes, or rare the 'firenadoe', tornadoes made of fire.

Firestorms frequently form as a result of particularly large wildfires.

Surviving a Wildfire

When it comes to learning how to survive a wildfire, there is one thing that you will need to remember no matter what situation you find yourself in.

Stay calm.

Your state of mind, mental clarity, and emotional stability are the most important factor in keeping yourself and your loved ones alive during a wildfire.

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Hi, I'm Russ!

I've been prepping for a long time, but 2020 convinced me that I need to take it to the next level.

This website started as a way to keep me going forward on the path to being better prepared.

Now, I’m turning it into a complete blueprint for anyone else looking to do the same!
Russell M. Morgan
Telson Survival

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