Wildfire preparedness & safety tips
Last updated: May 2023
Some areas may be more prone than others, but wildfires can happen anywhere in the U.S., according to Ready.gov. Wildfires can be caused naturally, such as by a lightning strike, or by humans (accidentally or intentionally), and can start in national parks, wilderness areas or even in a residential neighborhood.
It's important to know ahead of time what to do if there is a wildfire in your area. From having necessary supplies on hand to creating a communication plan, here are some wildfire evacuation tips to help you and your family stay safe.
What can you do to prepare for a wildfire?
Being prepared before a wildfire is in the area may save valuable time and help you and your family stay safe. Ready.gov recommends including the following tasks in your preparation:
Plan an evacuation route
Have a plan for where to go if you have to evacuate. Know where evacuation shelters are located and be familiar with a few alternate routes and destinations so you have options depending on where the fire is. Plan for pets and farm animals, too.
Develop a family communication plan
Create a network or phone tree for your family that outlines how you will keep in contact and, if necessary, reunite if you are separated. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recommends that everyone keep a copy of the plan with them.
Create a family emergency plan
It's a good idea to determine ahead of time who will help which family members, pack certain items and handle necessary tasks if you ever need to evacuate. If everyone has assigned responsibilities, it may be easier to navigate an evacuation. Consider your family's specific needs, such as medical restrictions, as well as whether children and pets will need extra help.
Stock an emergency kit
Consider putting together an emergency kit you can keep in your car that includes items like food, water, a flashlight, hand-crank radio, first aid kit, dust masks, prescription medications and clothing. You can customize your emergency kit to accommodate your specific needs. Don't forget to pack items for your pets, too.
Sign up for emergency alerts
In many communities, you can opt to receive a phone call or text from local authorities if there is an emergency in your area. You may also receive an alert from the Emergency Alert System via TV, radio or cellphone.
Protect important documents
Gather important documents, such as birth certificates and insurance policies, and put them in a fireproof safe. (If time allows, you may want to bring these documents with you when you evacuate.) You may also want to create digital copies of the documents for added peace of mind.
Wildfire evacuation safety tips
If there are wildfires in your area, the American Red Cross says it's time to prepare yourself and your family to evacuate on short notice. Listen to local TV and radio stations for updated emergency information. Replenish your emergency kit, if necessary, and put it in your vehicle. Start making arrangements with friends or relatives you can stay with or locate the closest shelters.
Consider these tips from Ready.gov for what to do if a wildfire begins in your area:
- If ordered to evacuate, do so immediately.
- If you or a family member are trapped, call 911 immediately.
- Return to your home or apartment only after local authorities report that it is safe to do so.
- Use caution when entering burned areas, as they may still be hazardous and have heat pockets.
- Wear a respirator certified by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and wet down any debris to limit dust particles.
And if you live in an area that's at risk of a wildfire, you'll likely want to take precautions to help protect your home itself.
How to protect your home from a wildfire
Consider these tips to help create some lines of defense so you're more prepared if a wildfire affects your area.
Consider additional wildfire defense
When adding to your landscaping, consider fire-resistant vegetation, Ready.gov says. Maple, cherry and poplar trees are less flammable than conifers such as pine and fir trees, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE).
While no plants are fireproof, low-growing plants with high moisture content and low sap or resin are typically more fire resistant. Those may include aloe plants, honeysuckle bushes and shrub apples, among others, CAL FIRE says.
If you're remodeling your home or installing a new roof, opt for fire-resistant materials, Ready.gov suggests. That may include selecting fire-resistant shingles, fireproof window shutters and windows with multiple panes or tempered safety glass. FIRESafe MARIN also recommends using metal gutters since they're able to withstand fire. Vinyl gutters are combustible and may fall, creating an even greater fire hazard.
Vinyl siding may pose another hazard in a wildfire, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) says. FEMA suggests opting for non-combustible siding made from materials like stucco, brick or concrete, instead of vinyl. Regardless of the material that cover's your home's exterior, it's important to make sure there are no spaces through which embers from a fire might be able to enter, FEMA says.
For instance, embers from a wildfire may make their way into vents and other openings on a home. To help safeguard your home, use one-eighth-inch metal mesh screening to cover openings such as vents in your eaves and attic, suggests the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). Also, check to make sure window screens aren't loose or broken, and consider installing wire mesh below decks or patios to help prevent debris from collecting and potentially catching fire, the NFPA says.
It's also important to keep your roof and gutters free from debris that could catch fire, says FEMA. Installing gutter guards may help prevent leaves and other flammable debris from collecting, FEMA adds.
It's important to create a barrier between your home and anything that might burn, says Ready.gov. Keep materials such as firewood, dried leaves, newspapers and any vegetation that can burn in a fire 30 feet away from your house, Ready.gov advises. In addition, anything flammable, such as a propane tank and gas grill, should be kept at least 15 feet away from any structure, Ready.gov says.
Next, between 30 and 100 feet from your home, reduce or remove plants or trees that could catch on fire. Ready.gov says. That may involve pruning vegetation and incorporating "fuel breaks" — areas that are not flammable — such as driveways and gravel paths.
If you have neighbors nearby, it's a good idea to work together to create a safety zone that reaches about 200 feet around your homes. This may include thinning plants, removing underbrush and trimming trees so their canopies don't touch, Ready.gov says.
Once you've created buffers with your landscaping, be sure to maintain them, Ready.gov adds.
Provide easy access for firefighters
As much preparation as you can do to mitigate your risk of wildfire damage, you may still need to rely on firefighters. You can take some steps to make it easier for them to help you out.
For instance, CAL FIRE says:
- Look at your property from the road to make sure your address is visible.
- If you have gates around your property, check to ensure they swing inward and that the opening is large enough for emergency crews to enter with their equipment.
- Keep a ladder handy that is long enough to reach your roof. It may help firefighters gain quick access.
In addition to hydrants, Ready.gov says water from ponds, wells or a pool on your property may help provide water to firefighters in a pinch. Keep on hand garden hoses that are long enough to reach all parts of your home and other structures, such as sheds, on your property. If a wildfire forces you to evacuate, leave the hoses connected so they are available for firefighters, Ready.gov says. You may also want to fill large containers, such as garbage cans, with water, the website suggests.
A wildfire can cause unexpected damage. By taking some precautions before a wildfire begins, you may help defend your home against one.