This year, the US experienced one of its biggest wildfire seasons in recent history. More than a million acres have been scorched, whole neighborhoods have been reduced to ashes and thousands of people have been displaced with nowhere else to go.
Well, there’s more.
Damages have reached a whopping $3 billion and counting— and that’s in California alone. Other fires across the country, from Florida to Montana to Washington have been relentlessly wreaking havoc. Aside from major loss of life and property, these fires are also causing massive health risks due to the thick fumes and smoke that they produce.
Why are these wildfires so violent? Is there any way to survive one?
Let’s look into how wildfires start and see if you can get out of this inferno— alive.
Do Wildfires Start By Themselves?
For the most part, wildfires are Mother Nature’s mechanism to rebuild and renew. It’s a natural occurrence that allows some plant species to reproduce and thrive. Eucalyptus plants, for example, need fire for their seeds to actually grow. And since the earth is basically one big flammable orb— with oxygen-rich air and the right combustible materials in the form of brush and vegetation— it only takes a little spark for a forest fire to burn in earnest.
Other natural wildfire causes include:
- lightning strikes
- volcanic eruptions
- heat from the sun
- spontaneous combustion
However, a huge chunk of wildfires is also caused by human actions.
Slash and burn farmers routinely incinerate forests to make way for agricultural land. Other man-made causes include irresponsible camping practices like leaving campfires lit, throwing cigarette butts around, playing with matches, lighters or other firestarters and on occasion, even bullets.
The current climate situation isn’t helping much, either. Global warming has significantly contributed to the occurrence and intensity of these wildfires.
The proliferation of housing developments in forested areas has also increased both the damage and the actual risk of fires happening. The irresponsible burning of trash in backyards can also lead to wildfires.
Combine these factors together and you get larger, more violent fires that are harder to put out. In this case, it’s not simply about Mother Nature trying to help the growth of a certain plant species anymore. The once-beneficial wildfires have evolved into raging infernos that burn anything and everything in its path.
When There’s Smoke, There’s Fire…And The Other Way Around
You know what they say: when there’s smoke, there’s fire.
Inversely, when there’s a wildfire, there’s bound to be thick smoke. Smoke might not appear as dramatic as a raging fire, but it’s just as dangerous.
According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, smoke from wildfires contain a mix of water vapor, particulates, organic chemicals, compounds and noxious gases like carbon monoxide. The components of smoke depend on the type of material that’s burning. Particulates in the smoke can get stuck in your lungs and cause serious health concerns like respiratory irritation, bronchitis, asthma and even heart problems. Smoke can also cause eye irritation, coughing and wheezing. High levels of carbon monoxide cause headaches, dizziness and even death. Many components of smoke are often carcinogenic as well.
Do Wildfires Actually Cause Winds?
Most preppers would agree that getting caught in a crazy wildfire and breathing in that noxious smoke is scary enough.
But getting caught in a firestorm?
That’s even worse.
When a wildfire occurs, it can create its own weather system. Firestorms, fire whirls and even fire tornadoes can happen. The heat from the fire rises up pretty fast and it creates a vacuum. The air around the fire rushes in to fill that void, creating a nasty and powerful updraft. Imagine a strong burst of wind…only that it’s not wind. It’s a gust of fire instead. This is the reason why firefighters have such a hard time controlling these fires: they are very unpredictable and can change at the slightest shift in the weather.
Particularly large fires can also form their own storm cloud called a pyro-cumulonimbus. The cloud is as ominous as it sounds: this can create winds that only make the fire stronger. It can also generate lightning, which can start more fires if the lightning strikes the ground. The good thing is, these clouds can also produce rain, which can help put out the fire.
Here’s The Secret To Surviving A Wildfire
Given the scenarios above, it’s pretty hard to imagine surviving a wildfire, but it is possible.
Do your best to prevent one.
If you live in a wildfire-prone area, it would be prudent to take measures to prevent a wildfire from happening in the first place.
Here’s what you can do to prevent wildfires:
- Be mindful of your campfires. The National Park Service says that 90% of wildfires are caused by humans, mostly by leaving campfires unattended. Be aware of the area’s campfire regulations. Usually, campfires are prohibited during the wildfire season when conditions are dry. Know when and where to start a campfire.
- If campfires are allowed, be sure to pick a location away from possible fuel sources, like dry leaves, brush, and logs. It might also be safer to dig or use an existing fire pit.
- Remember the rule of thumb: “If it’s too hot to touch, it’s too hot to leave”. Drown that campfire out with water or dirt, and make sure there are no embers left before you leave the camp.
- Do not throw cigarette butts around. A small spark in a dry area is all it takes to start a fire.
- Handle fuel and any other flammable materials with care.
- If you live in a fire-prone area, maintain a defensible space. Defensible space is an area around a structure that deters the spread of fire. It can be a natural or landscaped area extending at least 100 feet in all directions. This involves removing vegetation, trimming trees and pruning shrubs in the area around the house. Check out the full guidelines from Ready For Wildfire here.
- Use fire-resistant materials in your home or establishment. Concrete, brick and treated wood are generally fire-resistant. They ultimately won’t stop a fire from burning, but they don’t burn all that fast either. These materials will lend you time to evacuate if a fire has already reached the building.
- If you suspect or see an uncontrolled fire, call 911 or the authorities immediately.
How Can You Protect Yourself From a Wildfire
Despite best efforts, wildfires can still spread quickly. Take the following measures to make sure you get out of a wildfire’s path safely:
- Stay calm and level-headed. Your panic can cloud your judgment and will impair your ability to make sound decisions.
- Evacuate immediately. Shut off your home’s gas valves to prevent explosions.
- Plan at least 3 safe evacuation routes ahead of time— if one gets blocked, you still have other options. Make sure to stay away from areas where fire will likely spread. Stay away from areas with many trees, dry grass and brush.
- Fire also moves faster uphill, so take downhill routes.
- Protect your airways. Cover your mouth and nose with a wet cloth and stay close to the ground to avoid inhaling smoke.
- If you’re in a vehicle, make sure that all windows and vents are closed. Take caution while driving as visibility will most likely be poor— keep your signal lights on. Watch out for people or even animals trying to escape. Be wary of falling trees and other structures.
- Avoid staying in canyons as they can funnel heat.
- Protect your body using long-sleeved clothes. You probably won’t have time to choose the type of fabric to wear while fleeing from a fire, but here’s something you need to remember: synthetic fabrics melt, causing severe burns. On the other hand, wool and silk are natural fire repellent fabrics so you might want to stick to those.
- Areas that are dry and full of fibrous materials like dry leaves, grass and brush spell trouble. Stay away from these places and stick to riversides, lakes, marshes or any other place that doesn’t encourage the spread of fire.
- Do not stay in places with only one exit, like a bathroom. Once the exit is blocked, you’ll be trapped inside with no way out.
- Sheltering in bodies of water, pools or water tanks should only be done as a last resort. While the water can protect most of your body from the fire, your face will most likely still suffer from radiant heat. Your lungs can also be damaged by smoke inhalation.
- Once you’re free from imminent danger, seek help immediately. Check yourself and family members from burns and smoke inhalation injuries.
Wildfires pose great risk to life and property. Multiple fires in different locations can burn simultaneously for days affecting thousands of lives. Weather conditions like unfavorable winds and droughts only make them more violent.
What makes wildfires unique is that they’re the only natural phenomenon that man can possibly contain and control. While there’s little we can do to stop these fires from happening altogether, we can at least do the necessary preventive measures to minimize its damage. Responsible human actions can make a huge difference. The simple act of putting out campfires and the responsible burning of yard waste can go a long way in terms of disaster control.