Wildfires destroyed 17,904 structures in 2020, according to the National Interagency Coordination Center’s Wildland Fire Summary and Statistics annual report. Fifty-four percent of those structures were residential. As a homeowner, these wildfire statistics may sound threatening.
However, there are ways to prepare for a wildfire — from testing your home’s air quality to growing fire-resistant plants. First, you must understand forest fires and their capacity to harm your home. Different locations have varying levels of risk, and you should monitor your area’s fire-danger level — but there is much more to it than that.
Understanding Your Wildfire Risk
There are wildfire risk maps and fire weather updates that you can check for up-to-date information in your area. Certain weather conditions may affect the likelihood of a fire, such as:
- Dry thunderstorms;
- Unstable atmospheric conditions;
- Low relative humidity;
- Strong winds.
These conditions make it more possible for situations to occur and spark a wildfire, including:
- Power lines sparking;
- Lightning striking trees;
- Dry brush catching fire.
Essentially, if the weather is hot and dry, the conditions are more conducive to wildfire formation.
How Quickly Do Wildfires Spread?
The speed at which the fire head moves away from the point of origin is referred to as the forward rate of spread (FROS). It’s measured in chains per hour (ch/h), and one chain is equal to 66 feet; 80 chains are equal to one mile.
Wildfires, in particular, are capable of having a rather rapid FROS. They may reach speeds of up to 14 mph in grasslands that have uninterrupted terrain and favorable conditions for fire spread. Generally, forest fires spread more slowly but can still reach speeds up to 6.2 mph.
This extreme type of wildfire is referred to as a conflagration and is capable of causing major damage to land and property. It is also a threat to human and animal life. Oftentimes, people misjudge how far away a wildfire is from their location, and this is sometimes a grave mistake.
Understanding Fire Behavior
The concept of fire seems self-explanatory, but it’s important to understand the chemical process to understand how fire spreads. Fire is a chemical process that requires oxygen, fuel, and ignition. Without these necessary elements, the fire won’t start or will burn out quickly.
Fuel sources, themselves, have different rates of combustion. This gives you insight into what types of materials in your home are most flammable and resistant to fire-extinguishing efforts. Here are some common household items and how they react to fire:
- Cleaners — Chemicals in common household cleaners react with fire, making it burn and spread more quickly.
- Hairspray and other aerosol cans — Aerosol cans will see a rapid buildup in pressure when exposed to heat, causing them to explode. On the other hand, some aerosols can act as a fire suppressant, removing the heat source by releasing microparticles that cool the flames.
- Open-concept floor plans — Open areas, such as hallways, have more oxygen and, therefore, more opportunity to fan the flames. Walls and doors trap flames and make the fire easier to control.
- Central air and heating ducts — If you have central AC and heat, you have ductwork. This is very common, but the ducts serve as funnels for the heat and smoke to spread across floors.
- Frame construction — Concrete and steel buildings are more fire-resistant than their wood-framed counterparts. However, hotter fires can burn through any construction material.
- Grease and oil — Cooking grease can exacerbate fires. Oil does boil, but when it becomes around 500 degrees Fahrenheit, it catches fire.
- Water — Water is present in almost every home. While it isn’t flammable, per se, it may worsen the issue. For instance, water thrown on grease fires can spread the fire.
- Mattresses, sheets, and blankets — Certain fabrics commonly used in homes are flammable. This isn’t limited to bedding, but extends to towels, pillows, furniture, and other textiles.
- Books, documents, and magazines — Paper is highly flammable and is often used to stoke fires in fireplaces or campfires. However, it does burn out quickly.
Of course, you can’t monitor every item that makes its way into your home. However, you can take some measures to prevent wildfires from spreading too quickly outside and inside of your residence.
Protecting Your Home from Wildfires
There are many causes for wildfires, and just because your location doesn’t typically see mass amounts of fires doesn’t mean it can’t happen. Wildfires can start in dry fields, carried along with the wind onto the dry brush. They can also be caused by humans. Some of the most common reasons for wildfires include:
- Human negligence — Anything from a rogue campfire to gender reveal parties;
- Arson — To destroy someone’s property or set fire for any malicious reason;
- Lightning — Typically in thunderstorms without rain, causing ground fires;
- Volcanoes — Eruptions and pyroclastic flow can start wildfires;
- Heat waves — Hotter conditions mean the sun may emit enough heat to start a fire;
- Droughts — Dryer conditions mean less moisture to prevent wildfires from starting
Wildfires may happen when you least expect them. With this in mind, it’s important to prepare your home — indoor and out — before disaster strikes.
Start with preparing the yard, porch, and exterior of your home. Outdoor fireproofing may lessen the impact a wildfire has on your residence.
Fireproofing Your Yard
While grass lawns are flammable, there are steps you can take to thwart the spread of fire toward your home.
- Use your fire pit safely — Avoiding chemicals like gasoline and lighter fluid, as well as keeping water or dirt nearby to always put out the flames;
- Create defensible space — In other words, a buffer between your home and any flammable materials like trees, shrubs, or dry brush;
- Grow fire-resistant plants — Be aware that any plant can burn, but maintaining the right type of plants in the right conditions may help.
Keeping your lawn and greenery moist may deter the fire from spreading. Proper maintenance, like eliminating any dry brush, is just good practice and lessens the fuel source for any wildfires that come into contact with your property.
Fireproofing the Outside of Your House
With the right conditions, any fire is capable of reaching your home. You can also take precautionary measures on the exterior.
- Install wire mesh over any house vents to prevent embers and particles from coming in;
- Use fire-resistant siding and shutters;
- Lay down a fireproof outdoor rug or mat;
- Avoid flammable roofing materials;
- Screen in spaces under decks and porches to prevent the accumulation of any combustible material.
Above all, make sure the outside of your house is maintained. If there are missing roof shingles or holes anywhere, embers and smoke may make their way inside.
There are several steps you may take to prep the interior of your home for a wildfire emergency. Consider:
- Improving the quality of your indoor air — Including humidity levels, air flow, and air purification;
- Closing window shutters, vents, and other openings — Stops flames from spreading;
- Removing flammable drapes and curtains — And think about investing in flame-retardant textiles;
- Removing flammable furniture away from windows and walls — Which also may claim to be fire-resistant, but any material will burn in the right conditions;
- Protecting important documents and items in a fire-retardant safe or document bag;
- Installing smoke detectors — With proper installation and smoke-alarm maintenance for increased accuracy;
- Preparing a disaster supply kit — With food, water, and other supplies;
- Drawing up an emergency-escape plan — And tailoring it to a fire emergency.
Remember that these precautionary measures may save your life, but they are not foolproof. Batteries in smoke detectors can die, flame-retardant couches may still burn, and closed openings may only stop the flames briefly. However, preparing in this way could save you valuable time and keep harmful smoke from impacting your health.
How To Stay Safe During a Wildfire in Your Area
If you are aware of a wildfire burning in your location, it’s never too soon to take action. Grab your disaster supply kit that you prepared beforehand, and refresh yourself and your family on the emergency-escape plan. Once equipped with those life-saving tools, you should:
- Wear protective clothing (sleeves, pants, and gloves) when outside, and limit exposure to smoke by donning a smoke-filtering mask.
- Shut off any natural gas, propane, or fuel oil supplies at the source.
- Use a garden hose to fill pools, garbage cans, or other large bins with water.
- Place sprinklers on the roof to soak the structure as much as possible.
- Turn on outside and inside lights to make your home more visible in heavy smoke.
All of the above will better prepare you for keeping your family safe during a wildfire. Remember that flames can move quickly, and it’s difficult to estimate the wind speed and ground cover. Have a plan for any children, older family members, or pets to help them evacuate when necessary.
Lessening Negative Effects of Wildfire Smoke
Flames are the most obvious threat, but wildfires also come with deadly smoke. Smoke inhalation accounts for most fire-related deaths, with only about 30% resulting from burns. Toxic fumes from fires can prevent you from reaching an exit. These dangerous situations occur when:
- Synthetic substances inside the home are burned, releasing toxic gases such as hydrogen cyanide from plastics;
- Foggy vapor enters through lungs or skin;
- Small particles of smoke bypass respiratory filters and become lodged in the lungs;
- Carbon monoxide is released and inhaled, replacing oxygen in the blood;
- Heat burns the respiratory tract and lining of the lungs.
If the fire is hot enough, one breath can be enough to result in death. In addition to the release of toxic gases and particles, fires deplete oxygen by using it up or replacing it with those other gases. This can suffocate and incapacitate people who are exposed.
Symptoms of Negative Smoke Effects
Anyone can feel the adverse effects of smoke inhalation, but certain groups are more vulnerable. These sensitive populations include:
- People of lower socio-economic status — Due to higher likelihood of untreated health conditions and exposure to wildfire toxins;
- Pets and farm animals — Due to grooming behaviors and respiratory-system makeup;
- People that work outside — Due to the increased length of time spent in outdoor areas exposed to smoke;
- Older adults — Due to the higher prevalence of health conditions and lower capacity to fight off infection;
- Pregnant women — Due to physiological changes during pregnancy, such as rapid breathing patterns;
- Babies in the womb — Due to the increased vulnerability of being in the middle of crucial development;
- Children under 18 — Due to decreased rationale and body weight, keeping them outside longer and inhaling more smoke per pound.
While certain populations are more vulnerable to smoke inhalation, it may affect anyone. Some symptoms of adverse smoke-inhalation effects include:
- Coughing and wheezing;
- Difficulty breathing;
- Impaired judgment;
- Increased dizziness and clumsiness;
- Dizziness and nausea;
- Irritation to nose, eyes, and throat;
- Heart palpitations;
- Decreased alertness and even falling unconscious.
If you notice any of these smoke-poison symptoms, you should decrease physical exertion, cover your mouth and nose with fabric, and try to evacuate the affected area.
Returning Home After a Wildfire
Do not return home until officials declare it is safe. Even then, there are after-fire safety measures that you should take, including:
- Wearing protective clothing — Similar to what you wear during the fire;
- Using caution when entering burned areas — Due to hazards, such as hot spots or damaged structural integrity;
- Inspecting your home carefully:
- If you detect heat or smoke, leave immediately.
- Inspect the roof and extinguish any sparks or embers.
- Continue checking for sparks and smoke for several hours afterward.
- Check for any tripped breakers or loss of power, and contact your utility company if found.
- Notify your insurance company if your home is damaged.
- Watching out for downed power lines — To reduce risk of shock;
- Wetting down any remaining debris — To minimize dangerous dust particles;
- Removing any burned or damaged trees — To decrease the risk of unstable trees falling and damaging property further;
- Discarding any food exposed to heat or smoke — As it may be contaminated;
- Paying attention to local water safety declarations — Due to the possible contamination of public water from other affected sites;
- Waiting for safes to cool before opening — As contents may burst into flame.
- Contacting professionals for wildfire remediation — And keeping track of any losses or damages.
Even after cleanup is done, there are still considerations to be made. Residual fire damage may lead to floods or landslides. Smoke and soot may linger in unexpected places. Mold overgrowth may even occur in places with water damage from extinguishing efforts.
How To Reduce Smoke Exposure at Home
Going forward, you may want to make changes to your home to reduce future smoke exposure. Look into ways to keep your indoor air as clean as possible. There are varying types of air purification systems, each with its own benefits. You can even install in-duct air purifiers that filter out harmful dust and toxins.
Invest in Air Purification and Filtering
Different air filters have different features and perks. Before installing, get your home filter facts straight. There are common misconceptions about air filters that could cost you in the long run. You’ll want to change out your filters regularly and choose the right filter for your needs.
To combat odors, smoke particles, and mold from water damage, you’ll need a standalone air purifier in addition to your air filter system. Some purifiers come with the dual ability to add carbon and other filters. True HEPA filters weed out 99.97% of air contaminants, trapping small and large particles. This is crucial for wildfire smoke, because smoke particles are among the tiniest.
Avoid Activities That Create Smoke Indoors
Long-term exposure to smoke is linked to negative health effects. There are a plethora of ways smoke pollutants can enter your home, including, but not limited to:
- Smoking tobacco products;
- Exposure to secondhand smoke;
- Thirdhand smoke from previous owners’ smoke residue building up on surfaces;
- Improper ventilation;
- Lack of air purification and filters;
- Filters that haven’t been changed;
- Improperly maintained furnaces and fireplaces.
If you notice any lingering smoke from the wildfire — or have contributed to any of the above activities — take steps to clear the smoke from your household immediately.
Set Up a Cleanroom
Having a clean room means much more than just asking your teenage son to pick up his dirty socks. A clean room, in microbiological terms, is a room that is designed to be constantly filled with clean air and consistently kept at a higher pressure than that of the outdoors. While this is generally used in lab settings, it may be helpful if homes are located in places with high wildfire occurrences.
When building a clean room in your residence, you’ll want to consider:
- Keeping the room as small as possible;
- Calculating proper air flow;
- Installing the right type of air filters;
- Acquiring the proper blowers for air pressure;
- Limiting the use of the room.
This may sound extreme, but if the chances of a wildfire are high in your area, it may be a safe haven during and after the blaze. If you can manage it, some sort of toxin-free area in your home is advised.
Additional Wildfire Resources
Researching wildfires is the best way to be prepared. You may look into the:
- National Fire Protection Association’s wildfire fact sheets;
- National Centers for Environmental Information’s info on the societal impacts of wildfires;
- The National Weather Service’s guidelines on wildfire-weather safety.
If you are the victim of a wildfire disaster, consider reaching out to wildfire recovery resources like the Red Cross and the Centers for Disease Control. Furthermore, don’t be afraid to get help for your — or your family’s — mental and physical wellbeing.
Wildfires cause extreme distress in those affected — even if your property is not destroyed. Seek support systems, and prepare your family and home for future wildfires.