Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Survive a Wildfire

A wildfire is unlike other disasters because it creates it own engine — wind.

The hotter and more widespread the inferno, the more wind it self-generates. That wind fans the flames like the bellows in a blacksmith's forge until a raging firestorm consumes everything in its path. Then the wind blows embers into the sky, carrying the eager coals to combustible fuel, and the fire clones itself in a new place.

Even though hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes, and tsunamis create massive damage, they tend to come and go in a relatively short period of time. But a wildfire can hang on for weeks or even months (remember Yellowstone), defying all human efforts to suppress it until there is virtually nothing left to burn. In the worst cases, firefighters can exhaust themselves, struggling against impossible odds, eventually having to wait for rain or snow to come to their aid.

An uncontrolled wildfire is truly a monstrous type of catastrophe with an appetite that will not be sated until the last combustible fragment is consumed.

If you're ever caught up in a wildfire, there are certain things you can do to survive.
  • Get out of the area early. Don't wait for an official evacuation order, because by then the escape routes might be clogged with fleeing evacuees.
  • Unless the fire is upwind of your position, head upwind because the fire will run downwind. 
  • If the fire is upwind of your position, choose an escape route that will take you directly away from the advancing fire. If the fire is small and localized, you may be able to make an end-run around it and get upwind. But if there is a lengthy and active fire line burning, move directly away. 
  • Try not to get uphill of the flames, because fire burns rapidly up a slope. If anything, try to get to a lower elevation, as long as that takes you farther from the fire. 
During your evacuation, if you are trapped in your car:
  • Roll up the windows and close the vents. Drive slowly with headlights on so others can see you through the smoke. 
  • If you must stop, park well away from trees, brush or other combustible objects. 
  • If the fire overtakes you, get down on the floor and cover up with a blanket or coat to protect against the intense heat.
  • Stay in the vehicle until the fire passes. Fuel tanks rarely explode from the heat of a wildfire. 
If trapped in your home:
  • Move to an interior room that has no walls or windows directly in contact with the outside of the house. 
  • Close doors, but leave them unlocked so rescuers can enter and search for survivors. 
  • Don't leave the relative protection of the house or vehicle and try to run away on foot, because you will probably be overcome with heat and smoke. 


  1. If trapped in your home: Move to an interior room that has no walls or windows directly in contact with the outside of the house.

    That should make a dandy crematorium being as all the oxygen is being consumed by the fire and you are going to die anyway.

    I should go get some fresh marshmallows.

  2. Maybe. Maybe not. This advice comes from emergency response agencies who go into buildings following fires in search of survivors. It's based on what strategies deliver he best chance for success. Having been a firefighter myself, I can bear witness to the awesome heat inside a burning home. I've been there more than once. Toxic smoke inhalation takes most victims down, not total absence of oxygen. And a fast moving wildfire might leave the innermost portions of the structure intact. There is no good place to be when you're in the path of a wildfire, but the advice given here gives the best chance for survival.

  3. smoke inhalation takes most victims down,

    I've seen that plenty of times, even laying on the floor won't always get you below the smoke.

  4. Might not get you completely out of the smoke, but smoke rises with the heat, and getting down close to the floor will help get you below the heat. One of the tricks we used to use on the fire department when entering a smoke-filled room was to aim the fog nozzle at the ceiling and sweep the upper part of the enclosure with fine mist. That would often knock the smoke down so we could see what we were doing. Hollywood can't possibly show what it's really like inside a burning building, because it's impossible to see anything. That's one reason fire fighters will get down on hands and knees and crawl through the building, so they're not bumping into furniture and falling down stairs. It is blind work until you get the smoke and heat knocked down.

  5. I was in a car fire when I was about five, I'm not here today cuz I did anything right, I'm here cuz a man came along and jerked us out of the car.

    That was so many years ago that the scar on my face doesn't show anymore.