Home Survival How to Survive a Forest Fire

How to Survive a Forest Fire

by Paul-Martin Foss

With wildfires in California and throughout the West ravaging many communities and destroying thousands of homes, the risk of forest fires has once again made its way into people’s minds. Fierce fires fueled by hurricane-force winds can quickly turn an idyllic wilderness retreat into a raging inferno. If you live or spend any time in the woods, here are some tips to protect yourself against the dangers posed by fires.

Preparation Against Fire

For Homeowners

Many people love to live out in the woods. The beauty of the natural surroundings, the silence at night, there’s really nothing in the suburbs that can compare. But too many people get complacent. Just like suburbanites who don’t give enough thought to the large oak tree in their yard crashing down in a major storm, folks who live in the forest often don’t give enough thought to protecting their houses against wildfires.

Houses in forest areas should be designed from the ground up to be fire-resistant. That means siting the house in an area that is clear of excessive vegetation. Combustible bushes, trees, and other vegetation should be at least 30 feet from the house, but the larger the area cleared around the house the more protection you’ll have.

Keep gutters clear of leaves and pine needles, make sure the roof is made of fire-resistant material and protect any air vents from flying embers. Wooden decks and wooden fences also are susceptible to fire, so you may want to avoid building those.

For Hikers and Campers

If you’re planning to hike into an area that hasn’t had rain in a while, make sure to check with park rangers to assess the likelihood of fire. If conditions are really dry, or if there is a burn ban, do not light a campfire.

If camping at a designated camping spot, use a fire ring or fire pit for any fires. If you’re not in a designated camping spot, choose a campfire site that is away from trees, tents, and combustible shrubs, and keep your campfire small. Allow the fire to completely burn down, then douse it with water until you no longer hear hissing and everything is cold to the touch.

Once You’re Affected By Fire

For Homeowners

You’ll want to assess the severity of the fire. Depending on how large and fast-moving it is, and if you have sufficient warning, you may want to evacuate, particularly if you haven’t made preparations to fire-proof your property.

If your evacuation route is cut off, you’ll want to start taking steps to defend your property. Clear anything combustible well away from your property. If you have time, try to build firebreaks around your property. Multiple rings of firebreaks can be helpful if you have the time and ability to build them.

Hopefully, you have a generator that can power your well and maintain a supply of water to your hoses. If you’re forced to stay put, you may have to rely on garden hoses to fight any stray embers that blow into your protective ring and threaten to set fires.

For Hikers and Campers

In general, you want to head downhill and upwind. Fires will naturally climb to the top of hills with hot updraft and will travel in the direction the wind is blowing.

If you’re surrounded by fire, try to find ditches or other low-lying areas to protect yourself. Avoid canyons or other areas that could funnel a fire towards you. If you need to, dig a hole to hide in and let the fire pass over you. One of the greatest dangers in a forest fire situation is breathing in super-heated air, so keep your mouth covered by clothing and try to breathe in the air that’s trapped between your clothes and your body.

Bodies of water such as rivers, ponds, and lakes can provide protection too, as fires won’t be able to cross them. Roads can also act as natural fire breaks, although overhanging limbs may allow the fire to cross them. You can try to travel down roads to reach main thoroughfares, or if the road is functioning as a fire break you can take shelter on the non-burning side.

In a worst-case scenario, you could even try to cross the fire line into burned-out areas, if they no longer contain fuel that can burn. It will be incredibly hot and you may suffer burns, but if you know where you’re going you may be able to find your way to safety.

Finally, if all else fails, you can always carry a fire shelter. It won’t guarantee your survival, but the new generation of fire shelters are supposed to deflect 95% of radiant heat, allowing you at least a change of surviving if you find yourself overwhelmed by flames.

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