What is a Wildfire: A Guide to Wildfire Safety

A wildfire is a fire that is, well, wild. It burns out of control in areas like forests, prairies, and other outdoor areas where fuel like trees and grass is abundant. These fires can move fast, and nowadays wildfire season is year-round and happens all over the country. So no matter where you live, you need to know how to know wildfire safety.

As a former volunteer firefighter, I have fought many wildfires hands-on, so I know a little something about staying safe. Here’s what you need to know.


Your guide to wildfire safety


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What to do if you see a wildfire

If you see a wildfire on the side of the road, in the woods, or anywhere else, call 911. I always say, even if it’s small, make the call. These fires can grow quickly. The faster your local fire department knows about a fire, the faster the firefighters can put it out before it spreads.

What to do if you’re caught in a wildfire

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Wildfires can happen quickly. My family and I were once trapped in a wildfire that caught and spread in just minutes. A bottle beside the road at a picnic area magnified light on a patch of dry grass and caught it on fire.

Before we knew it, everyone at the park was trapped between a mountain and a river with no way out. Thankfully, firefighters were able to put out the blaze before anyone was injured.

My point is, that even if there are no wildfires in your area, it doesn’t mean you won’t get caught in one unexpectedly. Emergency preparedness is key to staying alive. Read over and memorize what to do when you’re trapped by a wildfire.

If you’re trapped outside

  1. Go to an area with little vegetation, like an area covered with rocks, a parking lot, a road, or a body of water.
  2. Lay facedown or get as low to the body of water as possible.
  3. Cover yourself with a jacket or blanket (wool is best, it’s flame-retardant) if you have one. If you can, wet your clothing.
  4. Call 911 and let them know where you are.

If you’re in a vehicle

  1. Drive to an area with very little vegetation or flammable material if you have time.
  2. Close the windows and the vents so the smoke can’t get in.
  3. Lie face down on the floor of the vehicle.
  4. Cover yourself with a jacket or blanket and wet your clothing if you can.
  5. Call 911 and let them know where you are.

If you’re trapped in your home

  1. Make sure all of the windows, doors, and air ducts are closed around your home to prevent smoke from coming in and to slow down the spread of the fire.
  2. Turn on all the lights so your home will be easy for rescuers to see.
  3. Shut off gas valves.
  4. Move furniture away from windows and doors so they won’t catch fire. Remove your curtains, too. Only do this step if the fire isn’t close to your home and you have time.
  5. Choose a room as your safe room. Make sure the room has no exterior walls.
  6. Set up an air purifier in the room you decide to hunker down in to filter out smoke.
  7. Dress in clothing that covers as much skin as possible.
  8. Grab your emergency kit and important documents, if you have time.
  9. Wet your clothing.
  10. Wet blankets (ideally wool blankets) and cover yourself.
  11. Go into your safe room, close the door, and call 911.

How to prepare for wildfires

An example of an Air Now Wildfire Map with current wildfires marked by a flame emoji.

There are quite a few ways to protect yourself and your home from wildfires.

First, create an emergency kit that contains first aid items, water, and food. Take a look at our emergency kit prep guide for help. Make sure to include fire blankets in your kit to smother fires and fire-retardant wool blankets to protect you. Get a wool blanket for every member of your family. Also, pack N95 masks for each member of your household to limit how much smoke you inhale.

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Current wildfires map

You can see a current wildfires map by visiting Air Now, a collaboration between U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. This wildfire map shows current wildfires as well as air quality levels.

Next, decide where you will go in case of an evacuation and plan your escape route. Remember to consider locations that will accommodate your pets.

Finally, prep your home:

  • Purchase an air purifier to filter out smoke when wildfires are in your area.
  • Set your air conditioning system to “recirculate” (if it has that feature) to prevent it from drawing in smoke from the outside.
  • Buy a water hose long enough to reach all the way around your home so you can easily water down the ground around your home and the roof ahead of the evacuation.
  • Create a fire-resistant zone around your home. Make sure leaves, pine needles, and other flammable materials are at least 30 feet from your home. Use these tips from the US Fire Administration to create a fire-resistant yard.
Checklist
Wildfire words to know
  • Evacuation notice: A notification that there is a wildfire in your area and that you need to leave for your safety.
  • Fire Weather Watch: This means dangerous weather conditions possible in your area for the next 12 to 72 hours.
  • Red Flag Warning / Fire Weather Warning: Current (or incoming) weather patterns are causing fire danger in your area.

What to do after a wildfire

Never go home before authorities tell you it’s safe. Once you’re there, use these fire safety tips:

  • Stay away from ash and blackened debris. They can still be hot and cause burns.
  • Make sure to wear thick shoes and clothing that covers your body to protect yourself from burns.
  • Wear a respirator to keep dust and ash out of your body.
  • Wet down ash to prevent dust and improve air quality.

Make sure to take photos of the damage and contact your insurance company as soon as possible.

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Don’t make calls

During emergencies, phone systems get jammed with calls. Only call 911 when you need emergency services and keep those lines clear by using text or social media to communicate with friends and family.

Wildfire FAQ

Check out the Air Now wildfire map. It site will use your location and show any wildfires in your area. The Active Fire Mapping Program by the USDA Forest Service also offers a wildfire map that rates current wildfires by severity.

Almost every area of the United States is at risk for wildfires. You can check your area’s fire risk likelihood on this FEMA Wildfire Risk map.

California wildfires are the most common. In 2021, more than two million acres were burned by fires in California. In second place was Oregon, with just over 800,000 acres burned.¹

Yes, and they are one of the most common. There are around 70,000 wildfires per year.²

It depends on the situation. If it’s windy or there’s lots of dry combustible material available, the fire will spread more rapidly. Fire also spreads faster as it moves uphill because there is less space between new fuel to burn and the fire.³

How fast does fire spread? If the conditions are right, shockingly fast. During a California wildfire, the spread speed was clocked at 1 acre (43,560 square feet) per 5 seconds. This grass fire’s high speed was due to high winds and very dry conditions.

Far away from the flames. It’s always best to evacuate as soon as possible. Listen to your local radio stations or watch local channels to learn of emergency notifications from the Emergency Alert System (EAS) and Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA). Or download the FEMA app and sign up for Government community alerts on your phone.

Discarded cigarettes are a big cause of wildfires. When I worked wildfires many were caused by trains or hot car engines igniting dry grass. Lightning and fireworks were also common causes of wildfires.

The best way to prevent wildfires is to not be a litter bug. Discarded glass bottles can magnify sunlight and start fires. Carelessly tossed cigarettes can easily catch dry grasses.

Also, don’t shoot off fireworks when there is a burn ban or dry conditions, and make sure to put out campfires before you leave them.

Sources

  1. Statista, “Acres Burned By Wildfires in the United States in 2021, By State,” March 31, 2022. Accessed June 2, 2022.
  2. EPA, “Climate Change Indicators: Wildfires.” Accessed June 2, 2022.
  3. Australian Academy of Science, “Things You Need to Know About Bushfire Behavior.”  Accessed June 2, 2022.
Alina Bradford
Written by
Alina Bradford
Alina is a safety and security expert that has contributed her insights to CNET, CBS, Digital Trends, MTV, Top Ten Reviews, and many others. Her goal is to make safety and security gadgets less mystifying one article at a time. In the early 2000s, Alina worked as a volunteer firefighter, earning her first responder certification and paving the way to her current career. Her activities aren’t nearly as dangerous today. Her hobbies include fixing up her 100-year-old house, doing artsy stuff, and going to the lake with her family.

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