California wildfire with glowing orange smoke in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Photo by Ross Stone on Unsplash
California wildfire with glowing orange smoke in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Photo by Ross Stone on Unsplash

Currently Explains: Wildfire Safety

June 21st marked the summer solstice — a day when the Earth reaches its maximum tilt — creating the longest day of the year and the official beginning of the summer season in the northern hemisphere.

Like most people, I look forward to summer; the days are long, the excitement is high and it seems there’s an endless list of activities and events.

In recent years, however, the summer season can mean anxiety for many who live in areas impacted by severe weather. Suddenly, my excitement about the warm months turned to worries about being able to survive extreme heat, which now, thanks to climate change, comes more frequently and in more extreme waves. 

Countries like France reported experiencing their hottest May on record and many states across the U.S. were hit with extreme heat advisories — nearly 20 percent of the country seeing lasting temperatures above 100 degrees F (38 degrees C) in recent weeks.

We can look to cities like Monterrey in Mexico to see the real-life impacts of extreme heat and drought. Local authorities began restricting water supply in March when three of the city’s dams dried up. Now, residents are struggling to access the water they need to survive, competing with their neighbors, if they can afford it, for water that the city makes available only between the hours of 4 am and 10 am daily.

Wildfires are becoming another prominent risk for many living in more arid climates. They have become increasingly more intense in recent years, with nearly 26 million homes now facing some sort of wildfire risk according to new research. States like California, Texas, and Colorado are among some of the most vulnerable. 

“One thing we can attribute to the climate emergency is more severe drought nationwide,” said Currently’s Colorado-based meteorologist Megan Montero.

“Severe drought is a big factor in wildfires because you need very dry conditions for a fire to spark and spread — so the more places you see in a severe drought, the more you will see homes at risk for wildfires.”

Wealthy folks, and the communities they live in, have the privilege of adaptation — they can afford to increase their water intake to avoid dehydration or afford to make their homes more energy-efficient or develop robust wildfire safety plans. The same cannot be said for those who are frontline workers, for example, or houseless.

“The homeless, elderly, disabled — when a fire sparks in an area — those folks have the hardest time getting out of a fire evacuation zone,” said Montero. 

When the Marshall and NCAR fires hit Montero’s hometown of Boulder, she says her social media feeds were flooded with community members, primarily disabled and/or elderly ones, asking their neighbors for evacuation assistance — many of them without cars or the resources to do so. 

The freak fire, which was accelerated by a 100pmh windstorm, consumed many homes within minutes, leaving residents scrambling as they searched for important items and grabbed pets.

Montero described the entire ordeal as “scary.”

Here is a comprehensive guide on how to prepare for, navigate, and adequately prepare yourself and your community for extreme heat and wildfires.

Gauging Vulnerability

Nearly 85 percent of wildfires in the U.S. are human-caused according to the Department of Agriculture, meaning that everything from an unattended campfire to a negligently discarded cigarette can have huge impacts — both for the nearby wildlife and the communities that reside on or nearby that land.

The fact that the majority of wildfires are human-caused makes them particularly difficult to predict by meteorologists using traditional physics and statistics-based models. Wildfires can also be naturally started by things like lightning — making wildfires among some of the most unpredictable and hard to anticipate extreme weather events.

However, if you’re in a vulnerable area — a climate that is predisposed to extreme heat or wildfires — there is a way to prepare yourself:

The government’s Fire and Smoke Map reveals how susceptible your home is to wildfires. To assess your home’s fire risk, click on the fire icon to the left of the screen. Pay particular attention to the information displayed under “smoke plumes” and “air quality”, this will tell you how much smoke from nearby wildfires might be in the air as well as the quality of the air, based on other pollution sources. This is particularly important for the elderly, children, and those with asthma, or other respiratory illnesses or chronic illnesses. 

“When a wildfire hits, the smoke is pretty debilitating to those with breathing problems,” said Montero.

“Since 2020, Colorado has seen its three biggest fires in Colorado history — we had non-stop smoke in the air which made it very hard to breathe. In 2021, Denver had the poorest air quality in the world — higher than China — thanks to wildfire smoke. Folks were not only wearing masks indoors but a lot of us had to use a mask just to walk outside.”

Putting together a plan

There are several questions you can ask yourself as you begin to prepare your plan:

  1. Does my place of residence have smoke detectors? Do they function properly?
  2. Do I know where all my home’s exits are?
  3. Does everyone in my household, building or community have an in-case-of-a-fire meeting point?

During the actual fire itself, should you find yourself face to face with one, it’s important to stay as low to the ground (crawl, roll, etc) as possible in order to avoid inhaling the poisonous smoke; the toxic air causes more fire-related deaths than the flames themselves. 

Other ways to defend yourself against wildfires or extreme heat, include: keeping the doors closed in your place of residence, keeping a fire extinguisher somewhere easily accessible, and, if you live in a home or on a property, installing a sprinkler system.

Montero also recommends, to those living in particularly vulnerable areas, reinforcing your home with a “fire break.”

“What that means is to change, reduce or eliminate the amount of fuel near your home, so if a fire comes to your area it is less likely to burn that fuel [and] get to your house. You can do that by making sure any small trees, household debris and shrubs are at least 30 feet away from your home.”

Preparing yourself for extreme heat, specifically, looks like staying hydrated, wearing breathable clothing made of non-heavy fabrics and staying in cool, temperature-controlled spaces. The CDC has more guidance on how to navigate these conditions.

Navigating the aftermath

Following a wildfire, and successfully making your way to a secure and safe spot, do not re-enter your home or dwelling until an official tells you it’s safe to do so. 

Upon re-entry, check your home for any leftover sparks or embers, checking places like the attic or roof for several days after the fire appears to have ended, to be sure there aren’t any potential dangers left.

For those who own their home or property, take any relevant photos you may need to capture the damage the wildfire caused to your personal property. This will be important, and useful, for insurance purposes.

“The best thing [you] can do is follow the instructions from your insurance company and emergency managers,” said Montero.

Some more things to consider include:

  • Make sure any utilities (gas lines, electricity) are turned off and covered to prevent further damage.
  • Be mindful of any animals that may have found their way onto your property, which could be potentially harmful, poisonous or otherwise dangerous.
  • Protect yourself against any sharp debris, exposed wire or unstable structures by using a flashlight and wearing clothing that covers any exposed part of your body.

Protecting your community

There are a plethora of ways you can increase your community’s resilience to extreme weather like wildfires and heat. 

Holding a community-wide first aid or CPR class is one way to do this, along with preparing and learning a community evacuation route or making sure each household has access to an emergency kit, with things like a copy of important documents or first-aid kit.

“The best community advice I have is to just be fire aware,” said Montero. “Finding out what you can do when a fire happens and taking some precautions will help you a lot in the future.”

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