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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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Surviving A Wildfire

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There is a wildfire disaster occurring now in southern California, ranging from Solvang to the north to the Mexican border to the south, with at least 1,000 homes destroyed and hundreds of thousands of acres burning in and around San Diego alone. With the strong winds and dry weather, these fires may continue to rage for many days.

The following information was prepared by my friend Marty Alexander, who is a Senior Fire Behavior Research Officer with the Northern Forestry Centre of the Canadian Forest Service in Edmonton, Alberta, and senior author of the chapter entitled “Wildland Fires: Dangers and Survival” in the 5th edition of the textbook Wilderness Medicine. What follows is adapted from the citation, “Alexander ME, Surviving a wildfire entrapment or burnover. Canadian Silviculture August 2007:23.”

Would you know what to do if you were caught in a forest or grass fire? As we are all aware by the wildfires that are raging in California, the danger of being entrapped or burned over by a wildfire is a very real threat for people living, working, or visiting in rural areas and wildlands, as well as in the urban areas adjacent to wildlands. There are many actions that can be taken to protect a home against an approaching wildfire, but these powerful fires can rapidly overwhelm the best preventive efforts.

There are four main survival options if you ever become trapped by a wildfire:

  • Retreat from the fire and reach a safe haven,
  • Burn out a safety area,
  • Hunker in place, or
  • Pass through the fire edge into the burned-out area.

In considering these options, remember that the temperature of an approaching fire is sufficiently high to ignite a dwelling, so synthetic clothing (including undergarments) can readily melt and ignite.

A person’s initial reaction when faced with being entrapped or overrun by a wildland fire is to run, which is one of the available survival options - to retreat from the fire and reach a safe haven. A safe area is an area with light or
no fuels, such as a rocky surface, marshy area, large area of pavement, center of a sufficiently large body of water, or recently burnt area. This option only works if the distance between the fire and entry into the safety area
is short, the fire is advancing slowly, and it is easy to reach the safe area (e.g., there are no obstacles that would impede foot travel).

Fire travels more quickly than most people realize and can reach rates of 650 feet (approximately 200 meters) a minute (7 miles per hour, or approximately 12 kilometers per hour) in forests, and nearly twice this rate in grasslands. Even the fittest person cannot outrun a fire for long.

If there isn’t a safe area close by, another option is to burn out a safety area. Carrying wind-resistant matches is a good safety precaution when visiting, or if living in an area adjacent to, rural or wildland areas. This option only works well in a grassy area and when there is sufficient time to burn out a safety area. Burning away light fuels, such as grass, will provide a safe area for surviving being overrun by a wildfire. However, this option does not work well in forested locations because of the generally heavier fuel conditions, which in turn lead to prolonged smoldering combustion. This technique is not recommended to be used near a dwelling, because if the grassy area intentionally ignited is close to the dwelling (e.g., there is not a sufficient non-flammable safe zone around the dwelling), a wind shift can direct the flames onto the dwelling, and have precisely the opposite intended effect.

If you are caught in the open and about to be entrapped or burned over by a wildfire you may have no choice but to “hunker in place”. This involves trying to find an area that has little or no fuel - the bigger the better. It is important to lie completely flat, with your nose to the ground, while the fire is burning over and around you. Lying flat will minimize body exposure to radiant heat. If available, a fire-retardant blanket or shield is desirable.

Radiant heat is the “invisible heat” emitted from the flames of a fire. It will usually kill you long before flames directly reach you. When a fire passes over and around you, heating of body tissues from thermal radiation can be unbearable. Staying calm and not getting up until the fire has substantially dissipated is critical.

During the burnover, remember the following:

  • Protect yourself from radiant heat at all costs
  • Protect your airways from heat and minimize smoke exposure
  • Try to stay as calm as possible

Although one will likely receive serious burns, many people have survived using this technique even under extremely arduous conditions. The alternative is almost certain death. People commonly use their hands to protect parts of the body from radiant heat - especially the face, neck, and ears. Thus, wearing leather gloves will decrease the severity of the burns suffered by the hands and in turn lessen the tendency to get up and aimlessly run about. Survivors of entrapments and burnovers have commonly concentrated on thinking about their family in order to get through the ordeal.

The fourth option to escape an entrapment or burnover by a wildland fire is to pass through the fire edge into the burned-out area. Generally, this technique should not be attempted if the flames are more than about 5 feet (approximately 1.5 meters) in height or depth. While running through the flame front of a fire is considered dangerous, people have survived by picking their spots and avoiding areas of intense or confluent flame development.

The survival options as outlined here are not presented in any particular order. Circumstances may dictate that you try more than one or all of them. Wildland fires are precarious phenomena and each situation is different. Use the best option that will, ultimately, get you out alive. Don’t ignore the obvious - safety could be nearby.


photo from the Los Angeles Times

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Tags: Staying Safe

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About the Author

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

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