Guide to Staying Safe during Wildfires
Written By: SafeHome.org Team | Updated: January 19, 2023
It’s no secret that wildfires wreak havoc on communities, displace families, and even destroy homes and lives. And they seem to be getting worse: 16 percent of people across the U.S. currently live in areas at risk of wildfires, but over the next thirty years, the number is expected to rise to 21 percent. Minority communities will face the most risk.
In 2022 alone, 66,255 wildfires burned across 7.5 million acres in the United States, which was more than each of the previous five years. Wildfire suppression costs have skyrocketed in recent years, as well. In 2021, total wildfire suppression costs topped $4 billion, an average of about $74,000 per fire!
If you live in a wildfire-prone state, like California or Colorado, it’s especially important to learn the latest tips and tricks to stay safe when the flames erupt. However, more regions of the country are becoming vulnerable to wildfires. By 2052, half of Americans at risk of wildfires will live in Southern states like Florida and Texas, according to the Washington Post. Given this reality, everyone should understand the basic strategies for wildfire survival.
Our experts are here to help. This all-in-one guide delivers the essential strategies and tactics to keep you safe from wildfire — no matter where you live.
Table of contents
- Safety Tips from Wildfire Experts
- Safety Preparation Before a Wildfire Occurs
- Safety During a Wildfire
- Pet and Livestock Safety
- Safety After a Wildfire
- Maintaining Air Quality During a Wildfire
- Make It Your Aim to Evacuate
- Additional Wildfire Resources
Safety Tips from Wildfire Experts
Before a Wildfire Occurs
Take steps now so that if a wildfire breaks out, you and your property are in better shape to get through it. The first thing is to sign up for your community’s warning system alerts. The Emergency Alert System and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Weather Radio also alert the public to wildfires and other dangers.
- Fire-resistant materials around your home and property for repairs, renovations, and building
- Low-combustible materials for gates, walls, and landscaping to act as a barrier against fire
- Noncombustible outdoor furniture
- Decks, porches, gutters, and eaves clear of leaves, debris, pine cones, and tree bark
- An outdoor water source and hose that can get water to any area of your property
- An emergency plan
- Insurance coverage that is adequate to replace your property
- Hydrated and maintained yards
- Keeping brown grass cut
- Quick disposal of lawn cuttings and debris
- Wire mesh around exterior attic vents, decks, and patios
- Trees pruned to make the lowest branches six to 10 feet from the ground
- Firewood, propane tanks and other flammable materials within 30 feet of your home, shed, and other structures you want to survive a wildfire (ideally, they’d be at least 100 feet away)
- Dead vegetation within 10 feet of the house (check under your porches and decks!)
- Loose shingles or roof tiles
What to Include in Your Emergency Plan
Developing an emergency plan is a vital part of wildfire safety preparation. Include the following essentials:
At least two evacuation routes for everyone in your family (and practice them!)
Considerations for pets and livestock
A meeting place for you and your family after evacuation
Emergency supply kit with N95 respirator masks, necessary medications, documents, and personal ID stored in a fireproof location
Considerations for family members with disabilities, asthma, or other conditions
Digital copies of important documents
How Various Groups Can Help
As you undertake wildfire safety precautions, groups such as your local fire department and zoning office can help. Here’s how.
- Local fire department: Get in touch for preparedness and evacuation tips and to get an idea of how the department would respond to your neighborhood if a wildfire occurs.
- Planning/zoning office: Ask about the wildfire risk level of your home and if there are any ordinances you should be aware of. For example, Cal Fire mandates that easily combustible vegetation be kept at least 100 feet from walls and that new builds near forests and wilderness must be made of fire-resistant materials.
- Reach out to learn about building materials, landscape designs, and home designs.
Safety during a Wildfire
In some cases, a wildfire may take your area by surprise, as the 2018 Camp Fire did with Paradise, California. You may be told to evacuate immediately—do it! Any reluctance to leave may prove fatal. The fast-moving Camp Fire was one of the deadliest fires in history, killing a staggering 85 people.
However, you do get some warning in many situations. For example, fires may have been raging in your general area for a few days or weeks, and you’re aware that you may need to evacuate at some point. In those cases, keep an eye on conditions, and get ready to evacuate should the need arise.
Listen regularly to local alert systems, NOAA Weather Radio, and EAS.
Move outdoor furniture, doormats, and potted plants in wooden basins inside, or move them as far away from your house as you can. These materials are combustible.
Leave immediately if given evacuation orders. Ideally, you would evacuate before orders go out so that firefighters have time to get into place and you have more of a safety cushion.
Wear N95 respirator masks, if possible. FEMA advises that all wearers undergo training, or the masks could prove harmful.
Put your emergency kit and other essential items in your vehicle.
Connect water hoses.
Close all vents, doors, windows, garage doors, and pet doors so embers don’t get into your house.
Stay in a safe room or location where air from the outside is blocked from getting in.
Fill garbage cans, tubs, pools, and large containers with water to help firefighters if they end up on your property.
Call 911 if you’re trapped, but understand that it may be a while before responders can reach you. Turning on your lights can help them find you more quickly.
Evacuating can mean spending lots of time in your vehicle waiting for traffic to move. If possible, evacuate in a vehicle that holds a large amount of gas. Evacuate away from the fire and away from the direction it is moving. Take wide roads if feasible because narrow roads can easily become blocked. Keep your vehicle’s doors unlocked and the headlights on. In smoky conditions, close all windows, and switch off ventilation fans.
Sheltering in Place
Sometimes, evacuation isn’t safe, for example, when your only evacuation routes would take you into the fire or when the fire is moving too quickly/is too close that you don’t have the time to evacuate safely. Other scenarios in which you shouldn’t evacuate: If you can’t see where you’re going due to smokiness or if your escape routes are too congested or blocked. Emergency personnel may also recommend that you stay.
However, some houses and structures aren’t safe for sheltering in place. In those cases, make plans with neighbors to evacuate to their safer house should the need arise.
Do any of the following sound like your home? If yes, your home is an unsafe shelter.
- Trees or thick grass grows right next to the home.
- Brush piles, wood sheds, or woodpiles are right next to the home.
- Thick shrubs are near sliding glass doors and windows.
- The house is on a steep slope with lots of vegetation below.
- The house has wood shingles or wood siding.
How to Shelter in Place
- Turn off the house’s propane or natural gas.
- Wet the yard and roof with a sprinkler. Inside, fill sinks and bathtubs with cold water.
- Move fabric-covered furniture away from windows and doors.
- Close all inside doors to slow the spread of fire inside the house.
- Turn off devices that circulate air throughout the house.
- Take a cellphone, fire extinguisher, bottled water, battery-powered radio, and flashlight with extra batteries when you gather with your family.
- Choose the hallway or room that is farthest from the fire. Avoid the house’s perimeter walls.
- Try to stay calm. It’ll likely get very hot inside the house, but it’s even hotter outside. Stay inside.
After the fire passes through and the thick smoke has cleared, heed any radio instructions for what to do. Check the rooms of the house as well as its exterior and the roof. Also, check below decks and around fences. Put out any fires, sparks, or embers. Avoid opening any interior doors that feel hot, and stay away from fragile trees and downed power lines. Wear long pants, long-sleeved shirts, and gloves made of cotton or wool.
Driving in a Wildfire
Many people who perish in wildfires do so in vehicles. One reason is that they wait too long to evacuate, or they think their vehicle can move faster than a wildfire. However, wildfires can leapfrog and hopscotch obstacles. Another reason people die in vehicles is due to the conditions—debris on the road, poor visibility, and high evacuee traffic, for example.
However, if you find yourself driving or in a vehicle during a wildfire, you do have options:
Turn your headlights and hazard lights on.
Roll up windows.
Use recirculated air from the air conditioner.
Close or block air vents.
Use dry material to cover your face and skin (wet material can create steam because of the heat that may surround you)
How to Avoid the Flames
- Park in an area where there are no objects such as trees and debris to feed flames. If possible, locate a solid object such as a concrete wall to act as a barrier between you and the flames.
- Get below the windows.
- Cover yourself with a jacket or blanket.
- Keep the engine running.
- Exit only after the wall of fire has passed.
Your tires might explode but stay inside the car. If you get out, you’ll never be able to stay ahead of the fire. Also, bring wool blankets instead of synthetic blankets because wool isn’t as flammable.
On Foot in a Wildfire
If you’re on foot in a wildfire, find a space with no vegetation and flammable material, and get as low as possible, like in a ditch. Lie with your face down, and cover your body with water, dirt, mud, or nonflammable fabrics (a wool blanket is more flame-resistant than a synthetic blanket). If you call 911, it’s possible but unlikely that rescuers can get to you soon. It won’t hurt to reach out.
Your biggest risk often comes from smoke inhalation, not from the flames themselves. It’s critical that you have a supply of clean air. Use a cloth to act as a filter around your mouth, and remain calm.
Pet and Livestock Safety
It can take a lot of planning to ensure that your pets and livestock get the best chance possible to survive a wildfire. If you have barns or other structures for the animals, treat them as you would your home. In other words, take steps such as clearing the area around them of debris and combustible materials.
- Have several evacuation options for the animals. Possible shelters include fairgrounds, equestrian centers, stockyards, and friends’ property.
- Designate a cleared area in case you have no choice but to leave your livestock. Leave sufficient hay or food for three days in addition to water (power cuts may render automatic watering systems unusable).
- Keep copies of your animals’ vital records along with copies of your own records. Include registration papers, vaccination and medical records, photographs of the animals, and your proof of ownership.
- Create a disaster kit for the livestock. Include items such as food and water for three days, wire cutters, knife, shovel, water buckets, flashlights, hoof pick, leg wraps. and first aid items.
Above all, evacuate your livestock as early as possible. Once you sense danger may be on the way, get out instead of waiting for officials to sound the alarm.
For pets such as cats and dogs, the preparations aren’t as extensive as they are for livestock, but they’re just as important. Many of the steps are the same.
Have alternative places for your pets to go if they can’t evacuate with you (like if you’re not at home).
Put ID, rabies, and license tags on each pet.
Have your neighbors’ contact information.
Transport pets in carriers, and use a light sheet or cover over the carrier so pets aren’t as afraid.
Check that any shelters you plan to evacuate to accept pets.
Create digital and physical copies of essential pet records for your disaster preparedness kit.
If you must leave your pets at home, bring them inside. Never leave them outdoors. Put them in a room such as a bathroom, utility room, or garage. These spaces have sufficient ventilation, no windows and won’t be too much of a pain to clean afterward.
Safety After a Wildfire
Listen to officials about when it’s OK to return after a wildfire. If you attempt to go home before the all-clear, you could end up dealing with smoldering ash, live embers, hot pockets that could spur another fire, and water that is unsafe to drink.
When you do return, you’re likely at high risk for inhaling unsafe dust particles. Get the debris and land around you wet, and wear NIOSH certified-respirator dust masks such as the N95. Also, try to use social media or texting to communicate with loved ones. Phone systems may be overburdened, so reserve calls for emergencies.
Interestingly, you may be at increased risk of flooding in the five years after a wildfire because these fires seriously change ground conditions. Mudflows and flash flooding could become more frequent, especially if the land has lost vegetation that will take a while to regrow. In fact, you may need to evacuate your home again due to floods or mudslides in the days, weeks, or months after you return home. Heed these orders, and take out a flood insurance plan to further safeguard your property.
Maintaining Air Quality During a Wildfire
In many cases, wildfires burning an hour away or even many hours’ drive from where you live can affect you. They may compromise the air quality in your town so severely that officials alert you not to venture outside.
In many cases, the smoke and pollution from wildfires can be just as dangerous as the flames. A study published in The Lancet Planetary Health estimates that at least 33,000 people die yearly around the world from pollution caused by wildfire smoke. Those most at risk are children under nine and adults over age 80.
Given the grave danger of wildfire smoke and pollution, here’s how to protect your family from breathing low-quality air.
Keep all windows and doors closed.
Use a portable air cleaner to keep the air quality in your house as high as possible.
Spend much of your time in a room or rooms where air from outside doesn’t filter in.
Keep your pets inside as much as possible until the air improves. Be extra careful with those who are elderly, pregnant, or young. Definitely don’t force dogs to keep up if you’re jogging or biking. They should go on short walks only for bathroom purposes. In addition, make fresh water plentiful for your pets.
Birds in particular are susceptible to airborne particles. Keep them inside, and monitor them.
Make It Your Aim to Evacuate
Evacuating as early as possible is your best bet for staying safe when wildfires rage around your home. Set up plans early so that you, your loved ones, and pets have multiple evacuation possibilities. Stay away from the area until authorities say it’s fine to return and be mindful of the potential risk of mudflows and floods.
- Firewise USA: Home prep for wildfires, home fire sprinklers, and much more
- Cal Fire: Wildfire prevention, debris burning safety and other issues that can benefit residents of California and other states
- Cal Fire: Wildfire prevention, debris burning safety, and other issues that benefit residents of California and other states
- Landslide Hazards: Identifying potential debris flow risks before a wildfire even occurs
- Wildfire Kit: Assemble an emergency supply kit
- Leaving: Pre-evacuation checklist