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Staying safe during wildfire season

There’s a tendency to think of wildfires as only occurring in California. However, a wildfire can happen in any location where the conditions are right. These conditions include high temperatures, low relative humidity, high winds and drought. It’s estimated that roughly 4.5 million homes in the U.S. are located in high or extreme risk areas. 

In 2020, there were approximately 57,000 wildfires that ravaged over 10 million acres of land. Sadly, 90% of wildfires are caused by negligence and arson.

What you need to know about wildfires

Wildfires 101

Wherever there’s oxygen, fuel and heat, a fire can begin. Though the majority of wildfires are started by careless human behavior such as discarding lit cigarettes or leaving a campfire burning, lightning strikes and lava may also start a wildfire, but this is only the case about 10% of the time. 

Elements such as high winds and drought can help a fire spread rapidly until it’s burning out of control. Some wildfires grow so large that they create their own weather system. Rising hot air lifts smoke and moisture up until it condenses into dense clouds that produce lightning without rain. In some instances, the rising air can begin to whirl and create a fire tornado.

Three types of wildfires

The three types of wildfires are a ground fire, a surface fire and a crown fire. A wildfire may be one, two or all three types at once.

Ground fire: A ground fire is a fire that ignites and burns underground.

Surface fire: A surface fire is any fire that burns along the surface of the ground.

Crown fire: A crown fire is a fire that burns in the uppermost section of trees. This type of fire is extremely dangerous as wind can cause it to spread rapidly.

How fast do wildfires travel?

A wildfire can travel up to 6 mph through a forest, but in grasslands, some can move up to 14 mph. When a fire is moving uphill, the speed can drastically increase. Wind, temperature, type of fuel and weather conditions all play a role in how fast a wildfire spreads.

Hazards created by wildfires

Wildfires create numerous hazards in a wide variety of areas ranging from climate change to loss of life. Following are some examples of the impact wildfires can have on health, the environment and the economy.


While many individuals are worried about the heat of a fire, toxic smoke causes more fire-related deaths than the fire does. The smoke created from a wildfire contains carbon dioxide, water vapor, carbon monoxide, particulate matter, hydrocarbons and more. 

The particulate matter is the most troubling element because it can be inhaled deeply into the lungs and cause problems such as wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath, asthma-related hospitalizations, chronic respiratory and cardiovascular conditions and death. Young children with developing lungs and the elderly are at the highest risk.

The environment

While some wildfires are actually beneficial to the planet, allowing areas to reset and create environmental conditions that certain wildlife need to thrive, they’re also part of a vicious circle that contributes to climate change: wildfires create the conditions that lead to more wildfires. Wildfires can also cause damage to forests which may take centuries to recover, and cause erosion and sedimentation of creeks and wetlands.

The economy

Besides damage and loss of property, wildfires create a strain on the healthcare system. In populated areas, wildfires necessitate evacuation, which requires the establishment of shelters and impacts housing development. Funding and care must also be provided for equipment and individuals who fight to contain and control wildfires.

How to prepare for wildfire season

Pay close attention to  weather conditions

Like hurricanes and tornadoes, there are Fire Weather Watches and Red Flag Warnings. A Fire Weather Watch alerts fire departments to conditions that could lead to wildfire activity, while a Red Flag Warning means conditions are ideal for the start and rapid spread of a wildfire. You can monitor these updates wherever you get your local news, but it’s best to have a NOAA weather radio so you’re immediately notified of changing conditions. NOAA Weather Radio is a network of radio stations across the country which broadcast continuous weather information directly from the National Weather Service.

Know what changes when a watch or a warning is active

Long before wildfire season starts, check in with your local municipality to learn what restrictions are in place when there’s a watch or a warning. It’s possible you may not be able to mow your lawn or use other power equipment during these times. Additionally, know your community’s emergency response plan, have a destination planned if you need to evacuate and map out several routes to get there.

Create a family plan

Besides knowing your community’s emergency response plan, you need to have one in place for your family. This plan should include choosing a safe, interior room that can be sealed off from outside air. The room should be equipped with a portable air cleaner. You need a plan for how to care for individuals with health or mobility issues as well as any pets or livestock you may own.

Take action

  • Close all doors and windows and seal areas where smoke can easily enter.
  • Make sure your automobile is fueled, ready for evacuation and you have a portable jump starter, portable tire inflator and road flares on hand in case of any problems.
  • Pack all medicines, including rescue inhalers and allergy medications, and be sure all emergency numbers are programmed into your phone.
  • Make sure everyone has a respirator.
  • Turn on your central air (recirculate mode only — no fresh air intake) .
  • Test lawn sprinklers and irrigation systems to make sure they’re in full working order, but don’t turn them on unless needed.
  • Connect hoses to outdoor spigots so they’re ready if needed.
  • Distance any combustible items such as leaves, wood piles, grills or wooden furniture from your home.
  • Make sure all of your financial, medical and insurance documents as well as your insurance policies are stored in a fire- and water-resistant document bag.
  • Move all combustible items (including curtains) away from the windows and exterior walls of your home.
  • Turn lights on so firefighters can see your home in smoky conditions.
  • Avoid using candles, propane, tobacco products, aerosol products or anything else that would contribute to diminishing the air quality in your home.
  • If you feel unsafe, don’t wait for the call to evacuate.

Assemble an emergency supply kit

An emergency supply kit should contain any items that are essential to your survival during an emergency situation. In the event of a wildfire, you need a three-day supply of water and food. This supply should include a gallon of clean drinking water per day for each family member and nonperishable foods such as protein bars, mixed nuts and breakfast cereal. You also want a reliable communication device, such as your cell phone, a backup power supply and emergency lighting. A comprehensive first aid kit is also essential, as are personal hygiene items such as hand sanitizer, soap and a toothbrush. Don’t forget anything you use on a daily basis such as contact lenses and hearing aids.

Check your insurance coverage

Homeowners insurance typically protects belongings from perils such as fire. If you live in an area that has a high risk of wildfires, it’s advisable to sit down with your insurance agent to determine exactly what your policy covers.



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Allen Foster writes for BestReviews. BestReviews has helped millions of consumers simplify their purchasing decisions, saving them time and money.


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