Wildfires, like the ones that continue to affect much of Northern California, are a threat for millions of people. The latest outbreak left a death toll of at least 40, destroying thousands of homes and tens of thousands of acres in the process. More than eight million acres throughout the United States and Canada are lost to wildfires every year. In the U.S. alone, 67,000 reported wildfires destroyed more than 4,000 structures in 2016. Most of these structures were homes.
“What makes these fires all the more tragic is that most of them are started by tossed cigarettes, unattended campfires, outdoor burning of leaves and other debris and arson,” says LHSFNA Management Co-Chairman Noel C. Borck. “Always being careful around fires and taking the time to practice good fire prevention would stop most of these fires from happening and avoid the loss the life and property that often follow.”
According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), nearly 45 million homes throughout the U.S. are located in areas where wildfires are a threat. More than 72,000 communities have what fire departments refer to as a Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) – they are adjacent to or intermix with undeveloped land. WUIs add to the challenges of fighting wildfires.
“[Intermix] is a recipe for disaster,” said Jonathan Cox, a battalion chief and fire department spokesman in California. “It’s not just put a line on the ground and the fire is contained. You have essentially a jigsaw puzzle of fire and homes and infrastructure, all mixed together, and then you add in topographical features like slope and hills and trees.”
While you can’t stop a wildfire bearing down on your house, you can take steps to help protect your family and property and avoid making it easier for the fire to spread. Being prepared may also buy you and your family time to evacuate. Seconds can make a difference.
Protect Your Family:
- Create an emergency escape plan.
- Learn your town’s evacuation route.
- Create an emergency kit stocked with food, water, medicines, cash and other basic supplies your family might need for 72 hours.
Protect Your Home:
- Clear leaves and other debris from gutters, eaves, porches and decks.
- Remove dead vegetation and other items from under your deck or porch and within 10 feet of the house.
- Screen or box-in areas below patios and decks with wire mesh to prevent debris and combustible materials from accumulating.
- Remove flammable materials (firewood stacks, propane tanks) within 30 feet of your home and from any outbuildings like a garage or toolshed.
- Trim trees so they do not touch and the lowest branches are at least six feet from the ground.
- Water and maintain your lawn.
- Inspect your roof and replace missing shingles.
- If ordered to evacuate, do so immediately. Make sure you tell someone where you are going and when you have arrived.
- If you see a wildfire and haven’t received evacuation orders, call 911. Don’t assume someone else has already called.
- Return home only when authorities say it is safe.
- For several hours after the fire, maintain a “fire watch.” Check and re-check for smoke, sparks or hidden embers.
- If you smell smoke, evacuate immediately.
Cleaning Your Home:
- Wear at least a NIOSH-certified N95 respirator and wet debris down to minimize breathing in dust particles.
- Discard any food or drinks that have been exposed to heat, smoke or soot.
- Photograph damage to your property for insurance purposes.
It’s also important to reduce exposure to wildfire smoke, which can linger for days after a fire has been put out. Wildfire smoke can trigger asthma attacks, heart attacks and strokes. People who work outdoors, children, the elderly and anyone with a respiratory condition, heart disease or diabetes are particularly at risk. To reduce exposure, keep the windows in your house and car closed and put air conditioners on recirculate to keep outside air from being pulled in. Seek medical attention if you develop a cough or have trouble breathing. These symptoms can appear as late as 48 hours after exposure.
Following these steps can help protect you, your family, your property and your neighborhood. More information can be found at www.firewise.org.
If you need additional support, many free resources are available, some of which are listed below. Others are listed on the mental health resources page on the LHSFNA’s website.
- See if you have access to a Member Assistance Program (MAP) through your employer or your health and welfare fund.
- The Crisis Textline serves those in any type of crisis with free 24/7 support. Text HOME to 741741 in the U.S.
- The Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration’s Disaster Distress Helpline is a toll-free hotline that provides 24/7 crisis counseling for residents in the U.S. and its territories. Call 800-985-5990 or text TalkWithUs to 66746 (Spanish-speakers should text Hablanos to 66746).
- Sponsored by the United Way, www.211.org connects people to local human services. Dial 211 to be routed to specialists who can refer or link you directly to a local agency or organization that can help.
[Janet Lubman Rathner]