Medicine for the Outdoors
Medicine for the Outdoors

Dr. Paul Auerbach is the world's leading outdoor health expert. His blog offers tips on outdoor safety and advice on how to handle wilderness emergencies.

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In Advance of a Wildfire

The tragedy of 19 firefighters of the Granite Mountain Hotshots from Prescott, Arizona being killed attempting to control the Yarnell Hill fire is beyond measure. The hot and dry environmental conditions being experienced by this nation have launched what has now become an extraordinarily deadly fire season. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families and friends of the brave persons who perished. We simply must appreciate more than ever the amazing people who put their lives on the line for all of us each and every day, and do our best to help not have to need them to venture in harm’s way.

I have written about wildfires before in this blog, so I apologize for repeating information that you may have already read. For those of you who have not seen this before, here is information that might save your or someone else’s life. I thank Bob Mutch, Kathleen Davis, and Marty Alexander for their wisdom and total dedication to preventing wildfires and doing their best to keep us all safe.

High-Risk Situations

The risk for a wildland fire is increased under certain environmental conditions. Pay heed to posted warnings of fire hazard, and do not venture into the woods unprepared to escape. Be particularly cautious when:

  • There are drought conditions. Low humidity, higher air temperatures, and gusty winds create dry fuel for a fire.
  • You are in an area rich with abundant fuel, such as dead grass, pine needles, shrubs, fallen trees, etc.
  • You travel through gullies, in canyons, along steep slopes, or in other regions where wind and fuel are ideal for rapid advance of an established fire.
  • Fires have occurred recently in the vicinity.
  • You cannot see the main fire and are not in contact with anyone who can.
  • Terrain and fuels make escape to safety zones difficult.

Standard Fire Encounter Principles

1. Have advance knowledge of weather conditions and forecasts before undertaking an expedition. Do not travel in hazardous regions in times of high fire risk. Local ranger stations are the best source of information. Never plan an extended journey without leaving an itinerary with the proper authorities. In the event of a fire, try to maintain communication with firefighters or other rescuers.

2. At every campsite, take a few moments to prepare a plan for an evacuation, with at least two escape routes. Be certain that everyone understands the routes.

3. If a fire is in the area, pay attention to it, so that you will know what the fire is doing. Obtain current information on fire status. If there is any chance that it can involve your party, get out early.

4. If you see smoke or fire at a distance, post a lookout to watch for any changes that might indicate increased danger.

5. In all situations, stay calm and act with authority. Give orders concisely and be sure that they are understood. Base all of your actions on the current and expected behavior of the fire.

6. Do not attempt to fight the fire unless you have provided for safety first. Your first responsibility is to evacuate all potential victims and provide necessary first aid. In general, it is best to leave fire fighting to professionals. If you become a fire fighter, provide for safety first. Determine safety zones and escape routes.

7. Do not sleep near a wildland fire. If the wind and fire direction change, you may be overcome with smoke and unable to escape.

What to do When Caught in a Wildfire

1. Try not to panic. This is difficult, but if anything will save your life, it will be a clear head.

2. Don’t move downhill toward a fire, because fires have a tendency to run uphill.

3. Unless the path of escape is clear, don’t start running. Conserve your strength, and seek the flank of the fire. Continually observe changes in speed and direction of the fire and smoke to choose travel away from fire hazards. Be alert, keep calm, and avoid injury from rolling or falling debris.

4. Enter a burned area, particularly one with little fuel (grass or low shrubs). Although there is a chance that the area might burn again, you are better off here than in an area of fresh fuel. If you have to cross the fire line, cover your skin as well as possible, take a couple of deep breaths, and dash through the lowest flames (less than 3 ft, or 92 cm, deep and where you can see through them). If smoke is dense, crawl along the ground for better air and visibility.

5. If you cannot enter a burned area, ignite grass or other fine fuels between you and the fire edge. After this area burns, step into it and cover your exposed skin with clothing or dirt. This is not an effective technique in areas of heavier fuels.

6. Try to avoid breathing smoke. Hold a moistened cloth over your mouth. If the air is very hot, use a dry cloth (dry heat is less damaging to the lungs than is steam). If you have a choice of clothing, cover your skin with closed-toe shoes, a long-sleeved cotton or wool shirt, cotton or wool pants, a hat, and gloves.

7. Seek refuge from the radiant heat. Take shelter in a trench, in a pond, behind rocks, or in a stream, vehicle, or building. Do not climb into elevated water tanks, wells, caves, or any other place where you might be trapped or quickly use up the available oxygen.

8. If all else fails and you cannot escape the advancing flames, lie face down on the ground and cover your exposed skin as best possible. This is better than standing or kneeling.

9.  If you are near a vehicle, and there is no route for escape, it is better to stay in the vehicle than to run from the fire. Try to position the vehicle in an area of little natural vegetation. Avoid driving through dense smoke. Turn off the headlights and ignition. Roll up the windows, close the air vents, and shield yourself from the radiant heat by covering up with floor mats or hiding under the dash. Stay in the vehicle as long as possible (it is rare for a gasoline tank to explode, and it takes a minute or two for the vehicle to catch on fire). Do not be overly alarmed if the vehicle rocks, or if smoke and sparks enter the vehicle. When the fire passes, cover your nose and mouth with a moistened cloth to avoid inhaling fumes from burning plastics and paint. Use urine if no other liquid is available.

10. If you are in a building and a fire is approaching, attach hoses to external water fixtures to achieve as much water spray coverage as possible. Place lawn sprinklers on the roof or use the hoses to soak down the roof. Put a ladder outside that will reach the roof. Locate and position buckets, rakes, axes, and shovels. Soak down shrubs and combustible foliage within 20 ft (6 m) of the building. If you have time, also do the following:

  • Close windows, vents, doors, and blinds. Remove combustible drapes and window dressings. Close doors inside the house to prevent drafts.
  • Turn off the gas at the meter. Turn off all pilot lights (heater, range, oven, and so on). Turn off any propane tanks.
  • Open the fireplace damper and close the fireplace screens.
  • Place water in containers to fight the fire. A wet mop may be used to extinguish sparks and embers.
  • Turn on a light in each room (for visibility if smoke accumulates).
  • Move flammable furniture away from windows and sliding glass doors.
  • Move flammable patio furniture indoors or far away from the building.
  • Keep all of your pets in one room. 
  • If you have a car or truck, back it into the garage or park it in an open space facing the direction of escape. Shut the doors and roll up the windows. Leave the key in the ignition. Close the garage door(s) and windows, but leave them unlocked. Disconnect any automatic garage door opener.

How to Report a Fire

If you suspect a wildland fire, immediately report it to local fire protection authorities. You should be prepared to give your name and location, the location of the fire, a description of the fire (flames, color, smoke), and a list of any people in the area, with their most exact locations.

Creating a Defensible Space

Everyone now must consider how best to safeguard their homes and property against an encroaching wildfire. At the wildland-urban interface, human dwellings are juxtaposed against the wilderness. As opposed to the man-made fire breaks imposed by living in the city, there is often scant protection out “in the country.” The recommendations that follow are applicable in an urban setting as well, but are much more important in a wildland setting:

  • Use fire-resistant external construction materials, particularly for the roof, where embers may fall. Wooden shakes are highly flammable. Keep the gutters clean of combustible materials.
  • Remove combustible materials from close proximity to the dwelling. This includes piles of wood, flammable refuse, leaf litter, dead limbs, and slash piles. Dry underbrush within stands of trees close to a dwelling serves as tinder for a fire.
  • If landscaping is flammable, maintain it as far as possible from the dwelling, so that it does not provide an easy flame path to your home. The further that combustible landscaping is located from the at-risk buildings, the better. A recommended minimum distance is 30 to 50 feet. In addition, create paths and openings that allow firefighters easy access to the dwelling.
  • Keep all trees and shrubs pruned of dead limbs and leaves. Do not allow large trees, dead or alive, to overhang your home. Maintain a green lawn if the lawn is adjacent to your home. Do not allow grass to grow tall and become dry, so that it can easily burn.
  • To block embers from entering your home, use metal screens over vents and other openings. Otherwise, they can enter and ignite the inside of the dwelling.
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Tags: General Interest , Staying Safe

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About the Author

Dr. Paul S. Auerbach is the world’s leading authority on wilderness medicine.