There may be nothing quite as beautiful and deadly as fire. As children, we were mesmerized by the dancing flames that gave us warmth and toasted marshmallows. As adults, the flickering light from candles provides a romantic atmosphere. But this natural killer is a great equalizer for both the natural and man-made world, and it is important to have an understanding and healthy dose of respect to avoid falling victim to its unrestrained carnage.
It is estimated that the United States suffers about 60,000 wildfires, consuming around 6 million acres, annually. Southwestern states are historically at the highest risk, though no region is fully immune. Whether you are trapped in your house amidst the blaze, or you are caught in nature, your survival tips are outlined in this guide.
All fire survival tips revolve around a few key knowledge points. The first element of understanding is what a fire needs to survive: oxygen, combustible fuel, and a heat source. Oxygen is self-explanatory, but we will just equate it with air. Combustible fuel includes wood and other plantlife, petroleum products, fabrics, and the like; dry materials typically burn better than wet materials. The heat sources that start a fire are often innocuous flames, and the subsequent fire itself becomes its own self-perpetuating heat source.
The second element is appreciation for the physics of fire. Heat tends to rise, as does smoke. Flames travel across a flammable surface, but do not typically penetrate through a solid object unless there is an entry point (i.e. open window or door). Solid objects provide some thermal insulation between the burning and non-burning sides.
The third element of understanding is knowing the causes of fire-related deaths. Leading the pack are asphyxiation (smoke inhalation) and severe burns. Just as fire needs oxygen to survive, so do we, and people do not generally win this contest with nature. Third-degree burns can occur within seconds of proximity exposure to flames or burning clothes.
Now, on to the how-to guide. If there is a wildfire in your area, evacuation is obviously the safest course of action. Most fires allow for some warning time as it spreads and travels, and residents should follow local authorities’ guidance so that firefighters can focus on containing the carnage rather than rescuing people. However, if your home is near the inferno’s origin, or you are caught in the woods when a flame erupts, evacuation may not be an option, so you will need to enter survival mode.
Generally-speaking, fires are more survivable indoors than outdoors. The walls of your home (or cabin, shed, or even vehicle) provide a firewall that the hottest flames at the fire’s front cannot quickly penetrate. If your structure can weather the intense minutes of frontal passage, then you may be able to escape in its already-burned wake. You may only have minutes to prepare, so focus on the important items.
- Clear flammable or explosive material away from the structure. Wood, fuel tanks, dry leaves, and outdoor furniture may add additional fuel to draw the flames closer to your hideout. Close natural gas/propane valves. Moisten grass and the building’s exterior with a garden hose, and keep sprinklers on throughout the fire passage.
- Seal doors and windows, but keep them unlocked for ease of escape or rescue. Close blinds, and place wet towels around the cracks. Close vents, and turn off HVAC systems. Keep as airtight a structure as able. Maintain the integrity of your four-sided firewall.
- Fill tubs and buckets with water. These are useful for dousing small flames before they grow, as well as dousing yourself if your clothing catches fire. You may also need this as drinking water if you are stuck inside for a while.
- Wear flame-retardant full-coverage clothing (i.e. long pants and long-sleeved shirt or jacket). It will be hot, but safer than exposed skin. Wet clothing is even better for flame retardancy and heat dissipation. Include a hood, gloves, and boots if you have them.
- Move yourself to the center of the lowest floor, and keep some water, flame-retardant blankets, fire extinguisher, and flashlight available. Stay low to the ground, and breathe through a wet cloth.
The roar of the flames might be deafening, and the building will heat up, but it is usually cooler and safer inside than it is outside. Wait for the roar to pass, and then assess if it is safe to escape to the burnt-out area. Maintain your fire-protected posture (clothing and water) until you are well-clear of danger.
If you cannot get indoors in a sudden blaze, you will have to improvise ways to employ these principles outdoors.
- Get to a non-flammable area away from trees and brush, such as a lake or river, rock, sand, gravel, or dirt.
- Find an area that has already been burned, or consider pre-burning your own spot in an open field. (Do this cautiously, and only if you can control/stop the spread of your new flame!)
- Get low, even into a ditch if one is available. You can also dig a hole.
- Create a firewall around you with rocks, mud, sand, or dirt.
- Keep yourself and your surroundings wet, but always retain some water for drinking and dousing yourself.
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If you follow these guidelines, you will have a much higher chance of surviving a wildfire than an unprepared person. A little bit of preparation goes a long way. Always keep your cool, and keep your brain engaged.
Now, where did we leave those marshmallows?