In the past two days, we have looked at survival fire starters and learned how to build different types of fire lays. Today we will continue our fire-based posts by discussing what you can do to maximize your chance of surviving a wildfire.
What are wildfires?
A wildfire is any unwanted, uncontained fire, either naturally occurring or man-made.
Wildfires are most often seen in forests, prairies, and grasslands, but they can even occur in swamps and deserts!
Forest fires are the first thing most people think of when they hear “wildfire.” There are two types of a forest fire: surface and crown or king.
Surface fires are low fires that clear out the undergrowth, such as brush, leaf litter, and deadwood. This prevents healthier trees from being choked out, and is essential to the life cycle of the forest.
Some plant species, such as chaparral, have even evolved to only release their seeds after exposure to a fire! Surface fires burn themselves out relatively quickly.
By contrast, crown or king fires are very damaging. If there is too much undergrowth, the fire can spread to the forest canopy (the tops of the trees), killing the entire forest and spreading much further, due to its direct exposure to winds.
Brush fires are wildfires that feed on grasses, such as those found in prairies and savannahs, and shrubs such as sagebrush and mesquite, found in deserts and plains. The relatively dry conditions are ideal for spreading wildfires, and droughts will exacerbate the danger.
You wouldn’t expect to see a wildfire in a swamp, but it can happen! Many areas within swamps contain much more plant fuel than water. This plant fuel can become compressed into peat, which is highly flammable.
Swamp fires, also known as muck fires, spread very quickly, and are extremely difficult to extinguish.
A complicating factor is that they can travel underground and re-emerge at great distances from their original source.
Wildfires can also occur in cities. In 1666, a fire began in a small bakery in London. Three days later, it had destroyed close to 90% of the city. In 1871, a fire that began in a family barn in Chicago wound up destroying more than three square miles of the city, leaving more than 100,000 people without homes.
We mentioned swamp fires traveling underground, but there is another type of underground fire: the coal seam fire. If a fire begins in a coal deposit, it will slowly burn along each seam, deep underground, where it is impossible to extinguish.
How long can they burn? Well… The coal seam under the abandoned town of Centralia, Pennsylvania has been burning since 1962. Brennender Berg, in Germany, has been burning since 1688, and Australia’s Mount Wingen has been burning for thousands of years!
Naturally occurring wildfires are most often caused by lightning strikes, but can also begin from spontaneous combustion. Volcanoes and other geothermal activity can also start wildfires through the ejection of burning material, but we will cover in a later post.
Man-made wildfires are begun in one of two ways. If the fire was started deliberately it is known as arson. They can also be started through negligence, such as leaving a campfire unattended or dropping a cigarette onto dry fuel, or by accident, such as electrical or mechanical malfunctions.
Note: In much of the United States, even accidentally starting a wildfire may result in you being charged with arson.
Ironically, many people blame fire suppression efforts for resulting in more devastating wildfires. Fires that would normally burn themselves out are deliberately extinguished, causing more undergrowth and other fuels to accumulate.
When the next fire occurs, it burns hotter, lasts longer, and moves faster.
Obviously, being burned to death is a major danger from wildfires, but there are others, too. Smoke inhalation can kill you long before the fire arrives, particularly if the fire is burning anything toxic.
The collapse of debris, whether trees that block exit routes or buildings burning down, can also trap or crush you. And those are just the dangers to living creatures, not even accounting for property damage.
Wildfires also threaten the environment, as the removal of root systems can cause accelerated erosion to the land.
How can wildfires be prevented?
Unfortunately, they can’t. There are, however, steps that can be taken to minimize their destruction. Communities can enforce proper building codes, using fire-retardant or fire-proof materials.
Property owners should keep gutters, roofs, and chimneys clean. Proper landscaping, such as cutting brush and trees back and keeping dead plant material picked up, can create fire breaks around structures.
Letting naturally-occurring fires burn themselves out (within reason) will prevent the accumulation of too much undergrowth. Taking extra care with campfires, cigarettes, fireworks, etc., especially in drought conditions, will go a very long way towards prevention.
Finally, there are geographic areas known to be prone to wildfires, so don’t build there.
What if I have to evacuate?
Wildfires can travel very quickly, depending on a number of factors. 40 miles per hour is not unheard of!
This is a case where advanced preparation really pays off, as you may not have a lot of time to get clear. You should have your emergency kit close by and ready to go.
You should also have plenty of fuel in your vehicle and know several different ways of getting out of the area. Beyond that, though, you should take time now to go through your home and decide which possessions are irreplaceable to you.
Important papers can be stored in a safe-deposit box, and digitized copies kept on a flash drive. Pictures can be backed up in the same way. Do your children have favorite toys? Is your whole life on your computer?
Maybe you have a handmade quilt that’s been passed down through your family or some antique jewelry. Whatever it is that you can’t bear to lose, decide now, while you have time, what steps you will need to take in order to save it.
Note: People that have to evacuate regularly, whether because of wildfires, hurricanes, tornadoes, or other threat, tend to become nonchalant about it, particularly if there are no big consequences to them. Don’t do this.
Treat every evacuation order seriously, no matter how many times you have to go through it. Otherwise, you may find that the one time you left everything behind is the one time your house burned to the ground.
If you choose not to evacuate or are trapped in place, there are a few things you can do that may help.
We hope you have found this post to be informative! Since we have raised the idea of evacuating, tomorrow’s post will explore the different ways to get out of Dodge when you have to. See you then!
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