Whether your dwelling sits comfortably in California, the deep South, or anywhere else prone to wildfires, you probably know that it’s possible to safely life in a place with frequent fires. While it’s important to stay on your toes and take the necessary precautions to live safely in your area, it doesn’t help to live in fear or high-tail it out of your dream location every time you smell a neighbor barbecuing.
People frequently live in places known for fires. Just because fires occur doesn’t mean a place is unsafe or unfit for people to reside. Just like any other frequent weather condition — such as tornadoes, tropical storms, floods, lightning and earthquakes — the locals often learn to live with these events safely and comfortably. Every place has its defining characteristics, and there’s no such thing as a location with no weather events at all.
From insuring your home to looking after your beloved pets, there are a few points concerning wildfire safety that are worth learning about. That way, you can keep yourself safe and prepared wherever you live.
Plan Your Route
While safety precautions are always good to have in place, sometimes evacuation is the only viable option. Plus, if you have nothing else, an evacuation plan is the bare minimum everyone should have just in case things really do get bad.
Ideally, your evacuation plan should include several routes and a designated meeting location outside the fire zone. This way, you can take stock of who in your household is safe. When you formulate an evacuation plan, it’s important to discuss the details with everyone in your household. That way, everyone can be on the same page if the time comes to get out.
Of course, fires spread quickly! This means you really do need to have a viable plan in place well before anything might occur. And your evacuation destinations likely need to a significant distance away if things are bad enough. This is why it’s crucial you take the time now to plan your routes, locations, and ensure everyone in the household knows what is expected.
Have a Go Bag
A go bag should be part of any evacuation plan. This is a bag that’s been packed with supplies you’d need in case of an emergency. It should be easily accessible, in a secure location and pre-packed so you’re ready to go. If your evacuation plan involves a vehicle, keeping a go bag in your car could be a great option. If a vehicle isn’t involved, keeping it near the front door is another great alternative.
[Editor’s note: I keep mine in my vehicle for this very reason, it’s both accessible at home if I need to get out on foot but also already in my car if I need to leave by vehicle.]
While no two emergency bags are the same, they tend to share a few qualities across the board. You should have everything you’d need to survive in the worst-case scenario of being left with nothing else but your bag. Clothes, socks, flashlights, medications, food and water are essential things to keep in any emergency bags. [Editor’s note: But if you want a complete list, read this book.]
You can and should tailor your items to your needs, the season you’re in and the area in which you live, though any go bag is better than none at all.
Protect Your Home
While having an evacuation plan is always a good idea, there are also ways to protect your home from fires so your risk will be lower overall, not only for you but for your possessions as well. After all, you don’t want to lose everything you own if you can help it, though fire protection is a sliding scale. While there’s no way to guarantee your home will never come into contact with a fire, you can do various things to minimize the harm if one occurs.
One of the best ways to protect your home and yourself from fires is to prevent them altogether. Up to 85% of wildfires are started by humans rather than from natural causes. Doing your part to keep fires away from your area is one of the most effective ways to prevent damage.
Paying attention to local guidelines and burn bans so you can actively follow them is a great step as well. In addition, make sure you put out campfires, cigarettes, candles or any other small fires thoroughly and effectively. While it might be hard to imagine, small flames spread and cause larger fires all the time.
When it comes to fires started elsewhere or naturally — or fires that are already underway — all hope isn’t lost. While it’s harder to protect against existing flames than to prevent them in the first place, there’s still a lot you can do to safeguard your home if there’s a fire nearby. Creating a firebreak around your home is an effective way to prevent the fires from reaching your dwelling.
This essentially means removing any pathways the flames could use to get to your home, which could include dried out organic material like trees, brush, or even grass. Firebreaks should extend at least 30 feet in every direction around your home.
In addition to adding a firebreak, ensuring the vegetation around your home is hydrated and irrigated can help keep fires at bay. Dry patches and dehydrated land can often exacerbate wildfires and make threats of damage even worse. While you need to stay within local watering guidelines, regularly watering the grass and plants around your home can do a lot for your home’s protection should things progress that far. Remember that embers can travel miles on a strong wind and that even a small ignition source can burn dry vegetation.
Insure Your Home
If your home does catch fire, the only thing that could make your situation worse is losing everything you have in your house and not having it insured. While you might not need to seek specific fire insurance, you do need to ensure that whatever insurance you have covers the amount of damages that would make you most comfortable.
Most forms of homeowners insurance will cover damages caused by fires — including your main housing structure, other property structures and personal belongings. The only issue is that many homeowners insurance policies have a cap on the dollar amount they’re willing to cover. If that amount isn’t high enough to cover the loss of your possessions, you could get stuck with paying the remaining bill yourself.
Double checking what your homeowners insurance covers, making sure it covers fires and to an amount that you’re comfortable accepting if everything gets lost.
Also, ensuring you have a financial emergency fund is an excellent step in preparing for such situations in case, for instance, you have unexpected expenses like hotel bills, dining out, or hiring restoration services that insurance might not pay for.
Have a Plan for Your Pets
Now that you have an escape route for you and your family, what about the smallest members of your household? Many people wonder what they’d do if their home caught fire and their pets happened to be inside, and that situation shouldn’t be a hypothetical. You should have a plan in place to help protect them, too.
While some pets are easier than others to plan for, there’s always something you can do to help your animals in case of such an emergency. With animals that can be trained, such as dogs, you can teach them specific signals for emergency situations and even train them to find your designated meeting place. Of course, not all pets are so trainable, so you’ll have to decide how to proceed.
If your pets can’t be trained or are too old, all hope is not lost. By keeping your pet up to date with their chip as well as ID information on collar and tags, you can find them more easily if they get separated from you. If you don’t know where they are during a state of emergency or are unable to help them evacuate, leaving the doors open so they can escape may be the last ditch solution to choose, then you can work on finding them once everyone is safe. Realize, however, that having a plan in place for your pets beforehand is always better than hoping for the best.
Have Supplies on Hand
Although your home is likely insured and you probably have a getaway plan in place, having the supplies you need to spot and quell a fire in the moment can sometimes prevent things from getting out of hand before it’s too late. Make sure you have a multiple fire extinguisher in your house at the bare minimum.
In addition to putting out fires quickly, you should also make sure you can catch them before they get out of hand. Ensure your smoke alarms are fully functional and tested regularly. In so doing, you can detect fires in your house early and get to them before they become a real problem.
If you’re looking to equip your home even more effectively, you can establish a fire safety system — such as a water-based one — in case of emergencies. That way, you will have more than one line of defense for protecting your home against the flames.
Call the Fire Department
If you experience a fire of any kind, calling the fire department should be in your action plan. While the way the fire department responds will depend upon the details of the fire in question, they’ll almost always send someone over to take care of the situation. The type of assistance they send will often depend on the area you live in, the fire hydrants nearby and the size of the fire itself.
If you have any family members who are injured or unaccounted for at the time you place your call, let the operator know. That way, they can send emergency medical services (EMS) to administer any medical treatments or take people to the hospital if necessary. Even if you think everyone around is probably fine, you should communicate any concerns just in case. EMS technicians can offer water or oxygen to combat smoke inhalation.
You may assume everything will be kept under control when handling a fire yourself, but it can sometimes be difficult to tell for sure. Even if all the fire department needs to do is send someone down to check things out, you can never be too careful. Plus, in areas where fires are common, you never know what could happen.
Begin Recovery and Handle the Aftermath
If a fire unfortunately interrupts your life by damaging your property or home, your first order of business — once everyone is safe and healthy, of course — should be to contact your insurance company so you can begin placing a claim and getting a reimbursement. While it may take time to get everything back to normal, the sooner you start, the sooner you can begin rebuilding.
In the meantime, you’ll need to find somewhere to stay. Returning to the site of a fire could be dangerous, and you might not be able to go back until you’ve been cleared to return. Whether you’re renting, staying with family or going for another alternative, taking time after a fire to recover — mentally, physically and emotionally — will be vastly important for you and your loved ones.
A fire can be a shocking event to go through, especially if you’ve experienced injuries or lost something precious. Take all the time you need while you rebuild, and consider what you and your family need to heal during this time.
Stay Safe While Living in an Area Known for Fires
Living in a region known for fires can be a bit scary if you don’t know much about them, but fires are just like any other extreme weather condition. As long as you understand the common practices, take efforts to be prepared and have the proper plans in place, you should be fine.
While it’s impossible to completely prevent fires from ever happening — much like tornadoes or storms — you can ensure that if you ever come into contact with one, you’re as ready as can be. Do you have a fire safety system and evacuation plan? If not, now is a good time to make one.
[Note: This was a guest post.]