Every year, wildfires burn thousands of acres, incinerating everything and everyone unfortunate enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Temperatures can exceed 1000 degrees F. Heaven help you, if you’re trapped in the path of something like that. As the blaze closes in around you, terror is follow by nearly instantaneous death as you inhale super-heated air that literally melts the lungs.
How do you survive a forest fire? Here are rules to help you survive.
- The first rule is to be somewhere else. That means leave the area; don't wait around to see how things develop. If you can’t follow rule #1, life might become a literal Hell on earth. Fortunately, there are ways to survive Hell on earth — but only if you’re very lucky and do everything exactly right. Wildfires are so powerful, unpredictable and destructive, that even well equipped and trained professional fire fighters die when their luck runs out and they become trapped by an onrushing blaze that overruns their position.
- In the game of life, prevention always beats cure. Before leaving home, watch the news, listen to the radio, and check with the Forest Service (or other administrative agency) about the fire hazard. If possible, stay out of areas that are presenting a high fire hazard.
- Maintain situational awareness. At all times, be aware of what's going on around you.
- Plan escape routes and safe zones where you could take shelter if a fire came roaring through the area. Safe zones include rivers, lakes (get in the water), or large level spots out in the open away from combustible material. Heat rises, so the safest zones are those that are downhill of the fire.
- If you are trapped above a fire, get out as fast as you can. Don’t try to save any of your gear. Gear is replaceable, lives are not.
- Look for an escape route that leads downhill, but do not follow canyons, chutes or draws, as these act as chimneys that funnel deadly heat up the hill toward you.
- If the flames are upon you, seek low ground — in a ditch or the notch in a forest road that will allow the superheated convective current to pass overhead.
- Breathe inside your clothing next to your body to protect your respiratory tract so you don’t inhale hot gasses.
- If you can find an area that has already burned over, leaving no residual fuel to reignite, that might be a safe place. But the ambient temperature of the scorched earth, rocks and timber will feel like an oven. Watch overhead to avoid snags and standing dead trees that might fall on you.
- If you are above the fire, but close enough to a ridge to scramble over before the fire reaches you, you might find safety on the lee side of the mountain. Although a fire will race uphill, it will makes slower progress downhill on the other side of the ridge. Watch for smoke coming from beyond the ridge, because a secondary fire on the lee side of the mountain might be coming uphill toward you.
- For the best chance of survival, carry what firefighters use — a fire shelter, a domed foil covering to hide under as the fire passes over, as a last resort, when escape is no longer an option. The shelter claims to reflect 95% of radiant heat. It’s fairly compact and lightweight, measuring only 8.5”x5.5”x4” and weighing about 5 pounds in its pack. The cost is around $340 to $400, depending on size (from www.firecache.com). But when a wall of fire is roaring toward you at 70 miles per hour, sounding like Hell’s freight train, and live embers are raining down like flaming hailstones, 400 bucks might not seem like a lot. Of course, proper training in the shelter’s use is a must. Download “The New Generation Fire Shelter” publication from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group from www.nwcg.gov/teams/pmswt/pms.htm.