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How to prepare your family for wildfire season

In an emergency, families and homeowners may only get a couple minutes to evacuate their neighborhoods before a wildfire rushes in and takes it all away

The Robertson Draw fire burns in Montana.
In this photo provided by the U.S. Forest Service, the Robertson Draw fire burns on Wednesday, June 16, 2021, south of Red Lodge, Mont.
Amy Hyfield, U.S. Forest Service via Associated Press

A wildfire can change a family or a community in an instant. And this summer, wildfire season has an early start.

In Utah alone, 40,000 acres of the Beehive State’s landscape have already been destroyed this June, while eight different wildfires continue to burn within the state’s borders, KSL reported. These fires have been aided by record drought and temperatures in the West.

“This year, we are observing fire activity that we tend to see in August and it is early June,” Utah Division of Forestry, Fires and State Lands spokesperson Kait Webb told KSL earlier this month.

So here’s some information to help you catch up with the wildfires and to begin preparing, just in case you and your family are unfortunate enough to be in the path of one these roaring infernos.

Understanding wildfire behavior

First, it’s important to understand a little bit about how wildfires act in nature, and the factors that can turn a fireworks explosion or lightning strike into a deadly, thousands-acre nightmare.

In your middle school science class, you might have learned that three ingredients are needed to make a fire, often explained as a fire triangle. Those ingredients include: fuel (a forest of dry trees), heat (lightning) and oxygen (in the air).

There is also a fire behavior triangle, according to the National Park Service, which represents how wildland fires can spread. Those three factors include fuels, weather and topography. Here’s why each are important considerations in determining wildfire behavior:

  • The fuel part of the triangle includes anything a fire can burn, like trees and plants, along with other considerations of that fuel’s density and moisture.
  • Weather factors like wind, temperature and humidity can contribute, often in big ways, to how a fire reacts. “Wind is one of the most important factors because it can bring a fresh supply of oxygen to the fire and push the fire toward a new fuel source,” according to the National Parks Service.
  • An area’s topography — the shape of the land — effects how a fire will, or will not, travel. A rocky slope, with the little vegetation, can act as a natural fire barrier, while a fire may quickly run up a grassy slope as dry air rises and preheats fuel in the fire’s path.

Prepare your home before a wildfire breaks out

In an emergency, families and homeowners may only get a couple minutes to evacuate their neighborhoods before a wildfire rushes in and takes it all away. So planning ahead can go a long way in making sure those few minutes aren’t squandered.

The National Fire Protection Agency — a global nonprofit whose mission is to prevent fire losses — recommends that homeowners take several simple steps to help project their home from wildfire. Those include:

  • Removing dead leaves and vegetation from gutters and from anywhere within 10 feet of a home.
  • Ensuring flammable materials, like firewood and propane tanks, are kept more than 30 feet from a house’s foundations or outbuildings.
  • Trees should be pruned so the lowest branches are 6-10 feet from the ground.
  • For a complete list of preventative housekeeping steps, visit the NFPA’s Firewise USA website for details: Residents Reducing Wildfire Risks

Ready.gov, the federal government’s emergency preparedness website, also suggests homeowners connect a hose to an outside faucet and that is long enough to reach each corner of the property.

Pack the supplies you’ll need, and don’t forget the dog

The American Red Cross recommends that people are prepared for a couple different contingencies: 1) evacuate in an emergency with three days of supplies, or 2) be prepared to be stuck at home a couple weeks — potentially with limited power and no opportunity to go to a store.

In its recommendations, the Red Cross also encourages families and individuals to have the following on hand:

  • Water and food.
  • At least a week’s supply of medication and medical equipment.
  • Personal financial and medical documents, like birth certificates, passports, deeds and a list of medications.
  • Baby supplies and toys for young children.
  • Pet supplies.
  • A full list of the Red Cross’ suggested emergency supplies can be found at this website: Survival Kit Supplies.

It’s also good to practice evacuating and make sure everyone in your household knows your own wildland fire emergency plan, Ready.gov suggests. In a hasty, and smoky exit, it’d be awful to leave the dog behind, so practice loading up the family pets too!

How to deal with wildfire smoke

Actual flames are not the only danger of wildfires, as smoke can also lead to medical emergency and cause logistical problems like closed road ways and traffic delays.

  • “The biggest health threat from smoke is from fine particles. These microscopic particles can penetrate deep into your lungs. They can cause a range of health problems, from burning eyes and a runny nose to aggravated chronic heart and lung diseases. Exposure to particle pollution is even linked to premature death,” the Environmental Protection Agency warns.
  • Health risks associated with wildfire smoke are higher for kids and older adults, individuals with heart or lung disease and diabetics, according to the EPA.
  • To protect themselves and their unborn children from potential health problems, pregnant women should avoid wildfire smoke, the EPA says.

A simple, and now abundantly familiar, way to protect yourself from wildfire smoke is with a mask — but not just any mask.

  • For wildfire smoke protection, people should use an N95 or P100 respirator, according to the AirNow, the government’s air quality tracking program.
  • The EPA agrees with Airnow, and also suggests an N95 or P100. Using surgical masks or cloth face coverings (wet or dry), won’t be enough to protect your lungs.
  • Airnow offers an online tool that lets people search for an air quality report for their area: Current Air Quality