The last thing you need in a bug-out situation—or at home—is an out-of-control fire, and you’d be surprised how easily that could happen.
Fires can be highly destructive and deadly, but often, they are preventable. Whether it’s an out-of-control campfire or a threatening wildfire in the wilderness, there are things you can do to protect yourself and your loved ones.
All fires start from a single ignition. A spark on a pile of dead leaves is all it can take. To find out what precautions can be taken to avoid fires, we talked with Lucian Deaton, senior project manager of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Wildland Fire Operations Division Field Office in Denver, Colo.
Campfires or bonfires are characterized as small, contained fires used for heat and cooking, and these types of fires can still be dangerous and easily get out of hand. Campfires are one of the most common human causes of wildfires, Deaton says.
“To minimize your campfire risk, start with the location,” he says. “Make sure you are either on private property (and have approval) or on lands approved for campfire use. Even though campfires can be necessary for survival, especially in inclement weather in backcountry, they can also lead to devastating wildfires and must be treated with respect. Any time a burning ban is in effect, or when it’s windy and the fire danger is high, do not build a fire.”
But even when the circumstances are fair for fire building, deciding when and when not to build a fire is only the first step toward proper fire safety.
“Even though campfires can be necessary for survival, especially in inclement weather in backcountry, they can also lead to devastating wildfires …” —Lucian Deaton, Senior Project Manager, NFPA Wildland Fire Operations Division field office
“If you decide that building a fire is safe, take some basic precautions,” Deaton continues. “First, choose an area on clear, flat land or use a designated fire pit. Remove any leaves or other flammable materials and store extra firewood several feet away. Keep the fire small and do not throw gasoline or other flammable materials on the fire. Never leave a campfire unattended and use extra precautions on windy days, when embers can fly off the fire and ignite dry fuels several feet away.”
Deaton also told us that, when it’s time to leave the fire, it’s important that you make sure it is completely out. Embers can smolder for a long time, but the fire looks like it’s out. To safely and completely put out a campfire, drown it in water. Stir up the remaining ashes and continuing dowsing with water until every last ember is wet. Do not cover the embers with ash, as this will help preserve their heat. If you don’t have access to enough water, stir dirt or sand with the embers until all embers are out.
Even though wildfires have the impression of being rural, remote and on wildlands, that is not always the case. Brush, grass or forest fires can occur anywhere. Any igniter, be it lightning, an electrical spark, hot embers, a cigarette butt or an out-of-control campfire, mixed with the right conditions—dead trees, dry grasses or other combustibles—can lead to a wildfire. Add in hot, dry and windy weather and the outcome could be disastrous and deadly. According to Deaton, wildland fires can throw hot embers up to a mile in windy conditions, meaning the fire easily becomes volatile, unpredictable and fast moving.
Although there is no way to eliminate the threat from wildfires, you can work to mitigate the risk. First, before wildfire season (summer and fall) even begins, make sure your house and property are safe. The easiest thing to do is remove anything flammable from next to your house or buildings. Make sure gas cans, firewood, hay bales and other flammables are at least 30 feet away from structures. Also make sure the plants and trees near structures are trimmed and thinned. During the dry months, use irrigation to keep your lawn, landscaping and plants wet and lush in the defensible space around your home. Keep debris cleared away from under your deck, in your gutters and around your home. Then, work to thin trees and remove low branches on any trees within 30 feet from a structure to create a fuel break. In a wildfire, this could save your home, your property and your family.
“All fires start from a single ignition. A spark on a pile of dead leaves is all it can take.”
If a wildfire starts anywhere near your property, hopefully most fuels or combustibles are already far from any structures, but act quickly to double-check. Especially in dry, hot and windy conditions, watch for any embers flying onto your property. Keep an extra eye on the roof, gutters and anywhere fuels collect, like stacked firewood. Get any fuels—such as patio furniture, rugs, excessive landscaping and decorations— as far away from structures as possible. Finally, make sure you are personally prepared for an evacuation. Pack all emergency items, including medicine, important paperwork, valuables and select sentimental items. Preparing these items ahead of time will help you make sure you got everything. Once you evacuate, you usually won’t be allowed to go back home until the threat has passed and, if the worst occurs, you will have nothing to go home to. Do your best to mentally prepare yourself for this. Figure out where communications will be coming from and who to contact with questions regarding the fire. Adequately preparing your property before a fire can help save it when a wildland fire strikes.
PROCEED WITH CAUTION
Regardless of what type of fire you encounter, be smart, be prepared and keep all fuels and family members away from the fire. Fire plus oxygen plus heat equals unpredictable, volatile and dangerous.
- Never throw cigarette butts out of the window or onto the ground.
- Use precaution when burning leaves or household debris, obtain the right permits and only burn in safe places on calm days.
- If you notice smoke, call 9-1-1 immediately. The quicker emergency personnel respond to wildland fires, the less likely the fire will develop into a destructive force.
- Do your best to remove fuels from your property, including dead trees, and keep combustibles 30 feet from structures.
- Create a relationship with your neighbors to help with mitigation and emergency planning. Visit www.firewise.org to learn how.
- Use fire-resistant building and landscaping materials.
- Thin trees and remove low-hanging branches.
- Remove leaves and sticks from your roof, gutters, under your deck and near your house.
- Only start campfires in designated, approved places.
- Never start a campfire during a burning ban or in high-wind situations.
- Before starting a fire, make sure the area is clear of dead leaves and other dry debris.
- Keep all people and flammable materials at least 3 feet away from the fire.
- Keep the fire small and contained.
- Never leave fires unattended.
- Always be watching for hot embers leaving the fire. If an ember flies away and catches other fuels on fire, call 9-1-1 and use water or dirt to try to contain or put out the fire.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the June 2014 print issue of American Survival Guide.