Not long ago, a 60-year-old man, his wife and two children faced that question when a furious wildfire trapped them at the edge of a 164-foot seaside cliff.
According to reports, the family was driving home from a vacation when the fire swept across the highway. They abandoned their car and ran. They weren't alone in this situation, as approximately 150 other tourists also abandoned their vehicles to flee on foot, heading down steep hills toward the beach.
Unfortunately for the family in question, they got separated from the rest of the group and found themselves trapped between the wind-driven fire and the top of the cliff.
The deputy mayor of the nearby town (Portbou, France) told reporters, "The fire started to close in on them, and they couldn't climb up or climb down. The only way out was to jump into the sea."
So, facing the desperate situation of trying to survive the fire or jumping off the cliff, they chose to jump.
What would you have done? What would be the odds of getting out alive by jumping off the cliff?
Here's what happened —The father died instantly when he hit the rocks below. His 15-year-old daughter made it into the water, but drowned. The mother survived, but in critical condition with a back injury. The son and other daughter survived without life-threatening injury.
A wildfire is a catastrophic event that can kill you in short order if you don't do things right. It's good to know the kind of actions that will give you the best probability of survival, so you don't have to face the decision of taking a desperate, and probably lethal, gamble in an attempt to escape.
Here's the doctrine about surviving wildfire, as published by FEMA.
If you are in a vehicle:
- This is dangerous and should only be done in an emergency, but you can survive the firestorm if you stay in your car. It is much less dangerous than trying to run from a fire on foot.
- Roll up windows and close air vents. Drive slowly with headlights on. Watch for other vehicles and pedestrians. Do not drive through heavy smoke.
- If you have to stop, park away from the heaviest trees and brush. Turn headlights on and ignition off. Roll up windows and close air vents.
- Get on the floor and cover up with a blanket or coat.
- Stay in the vehicle until the main fire passes.
- Stay in the car. Do not run! Engine may stall and not restart. Air currents may rock the car. Some smoke and sparks may enter the vehicle. Temperature inside will increase. Metal gas tanks and containers rarely explode.
If You Are Trapped at Home:
- If you do find yourself trapped by wildfire inside your home, stay inside and away from outside walls. Close doors, but leave them unlocked. Keep your entire family together and remain calm.
If Caught in the Open:
- The best temporary shelter is in a sparse fuel area. On a steep mountainside, the back side is safer. Avoid canyons, natural "chimneys" and saddles.
- If a road is nearby, lie face down along the road cut or in the ditch on the uphill side. Cover yourself with anything that will shield you from the fire's heat.
- If hiking in the back country, seek a depression with sparse fuel. Clear fuel away from the area while the fire is approaching and then lie face down in the depression and cover yourself. Stay down until after the fire passes!