Wildfire Prevention and Preparation

The destructive wildfires that rage through our forests, brush, and grasslands each year have two primary causes: lightning and people. Unfortunately, careless people cause more fires than lightning, and wildfires destroy vegetation, homes, businesses, and the lives of people and animals each year in alarming numbers. In an average year, 13 million acres as well as countless homes and businesses are lost to wildfires in the U.S. and Canada. 

How can you do your part to keep from starting a wildfire? First of all, be aware of conditions. Is the weather dry? Is your region experiencing a drought situation so the vegetation is unusually dry and ready to burn? 

Many wildfires begin along the side of a road from dry grasses being ignited by a carelessly-tossed cigarette or match. If you smoke in your car, use the ashtray. When pulling your car off the side of the road, try to avoid dry, grassy areas that could be ignited by heat or sparks from your exhaust. Likewise, do not operate ATVs or use fireworks - even children's sparklers - in areas of dry vegetation. Check your lawnmowers or farm equipment for properly-working spark arrestors. 

If you are camping or picnicking in a fire-approved area, keep your fire contained within the provided fire pit or grill, or dig a depression in an area swept clean of all vegetation and lined with rocks or logs. Always double-check to be sure your fire is completely doused before leaving the area. Never leave fires unattended, and keep a container of water close by to help control the spread of a fire as needed. Do not allow young children access to any type of fire-starting materials. 

Homeowners need to be extra-aware of things they can do to protect or prepare their homes and families against the possibility of wildfires. Here are some suggestions that may help:

-Regularly clean leaves and twigs from your roof and gutters.

-Design your landscaping with a 30-foot buffer of non-combustible materials around your home. Do not have trees drooping over your roof or vines climbing your chimney, no matter how attractive they look. Space trees at least ten feet apart, and do not attach wooden fencing directly to your home.

-Maintain a good sprinkling or irrigation system.

-Keep stacked firewood covered and 50 feet from your home.

-Teach family members how to use an ABC-type fire extinguisher.

-Install and regularly check the batteries on smoke detectors on each level of your home?especially the furnace area, kitchen, and bedroom area. Install dual-sensor smoke alarms.

-Rake leaves, pine needles, dead branches and twigs away from home and outbuildings, and clear away all flammable vegetation. Remove any dead or dying trees or shrubs promptly.

-Have a garden hose long enough to reach any area of your home and property.

-If you feel you need and can afford it, there is a spray system that delivers a clear, safe wildfire retardant that covers buildings and property. It is safe to use for people, animals and plants, and is similar to the retardant sprayed by planes on fire-threatened areas, but without the red dye. It will protect until the next rainfall, or until it is washed off.

-Be patient when disposing of fireplace ashes; wait until they are completely cold before removing them from your fireplace; many fires have been caused by otherwise diligent homeowners anxious to get the chore done.

-Store all flammable liquids properly.

-Make certain that your house address is clearly visible from the street, in case firefighters or other emergency personnel need to find you.

When a Wildfire Threatens
You should prepare your family for possible evacuation by becoming familiar with your community's emergency plans and creating a compatible plan of your own with several potential escape routes (by car and on foot). Choose an established meeting place familiar to all family members - a school, a church, a flagpole, or a friend or relative's home?where you can meet in case you become separated from each other during an evacuation. 

If you are advised to evacuate, do so immediately. Don't stall, hoping that the wind and flames will change direction. Listen to the NOAA Weather Alert radio for Civil Emergency Messages about where the danger is and which routes are safe to take. 

Be prepared ahead of time with evacuation kits for each family member containing food, water, and other necessities for at least a period of 72 hours. Include a copy of your most important documents (birth certificates, homeowners insurance, life and health policies, etc.) and up-to-date family pictures for ID purposes in case young children get separated from you in the confusion). Also have some cash in small bills tucked in your kit. 

If you have pets, prepare for them as well. An average dog will need about a quart of water per day, and a cat will need one to two cups. Have leashes, harnesses, food, dishes, kitty litter and carriers ready to go. 

If there's time before you have to leave your home, turn off any natural gas or butane tanks at the meter. Back vehicles you're not taking into the garage and close the door. Park your evacuation vehicle facing outward for ease of loading up and getting into traffic. Have a tall ladder resting against the side of your house opposite the approaching fire, and if your roof is flammable, douse it with water. Much of the danger from wildfires is from embers and sparks that are blown by the wind to land on the roof of a house. Close all doors and windows to your home. Have tools such as shovels, rakes, and buckets of water available outside. 

If a fire is approaching your property, call for help if you think authorities are not already aware of the situation. Dress yourself and family members in long pants and long-sleeved shirts made of cotton or wool (synthetic fabric catches fire readily), and sturdy shoes. Wear gloves and a mask or handkerchief over your face. Use a cell phone to call and let someone - relatives or friends - know that you are evacuating and where you are heading. 

When the air in your neighborhood is polluted with smoke and particulate matter, especially protect those with asthma and other breathing problems. When possible, stay inside, and if you must go out, avoid strenuous exercise. Keep the windows and doors closed unless it becomes too hot and stuffy. Run your air-conditioner if you have one, but change the filters more often. Paper comfort masks are designed to keep out only large particles, and will not protect your lungs from smoke. An N-95 mask, properly worn, will offer some protection. Voluntary evacuation may be safer for your family than breathing smoke-polluted air at home. 

Being prepared in advance for an emergency and evacuation can reduce the stress and feelings of chaos that accompany those situations. Take steps now to prepare your family so everyone will know what to do in case of a wildfire (or any fire) near your home.
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