5 Things You Must Do When Wildfires Strike

While the East Coast deals with the impact of an unprecedented hurricane season, the West Coast is burning.

A rash of fires has swept the Los Angeles area, and dozens of wildfires have cast a haze across much of the Pacific Northwest. And that’s forcing people who live in these fire prone areas to flee, and fast.

Tom Zimmerman, president of the International Association of Wildland Fire, said 2017 could set a record for the number of homes destroyed by wildfires.

“The year has been a bad one,” he said.

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A Record Year For Wildfires

According to the National Interagency Fire Center, fires burned 6.97 million acres through Aug. 31. That compares with a national 10-year average of 5.3 million acres for the same period.

Zimmerman noted that the Southeastern U.S. had blazes early in the current wildfire season, followed by extensive fires in Nevada, Utah, southern Idaho, Western Wyoming, the northern Rockies, Montana, Northern Idaho, and the Pacific Northwest.

As of Aug. 22, 360 residences had been destroyed by fire during 2017, said Jessica Gardetto, a spokeswoman at the National Interagency Fire Center. The annual tally reached 3,192 in 2016. The center hasn’t complied data on the number of wildfire evacuations that have occurred so far this year, she added.

Who Is At Risk?

Wildfires are common where open land is located next to homes and urban development. CoreLogic in 2016 reported that the western U.S. consistently has the most frequent and severe wildfires in the country. According to the 2017 Verisk Wildfire Risk Analysis, the top 10 states with the greatest number of homes at risk from wildfire are:

  1. California
  2. Texas
  3. Colorado
  4. Arizona
  5. Idaho
  6. Washington
  7. Oklahoma
  8. Oregon
  9. Utah
  10. Montana

Neighborhood On Fire At Night

Why You Need an Evacuation Plan

When a wildfire strikes, residents often have little time to decide which items to take and which to leave behind. That’s why having an evacuation plan can save you precious time.

In 2007 Vince Ruggiero and his wife Carol had to evacuate their suburban home in Northern San Diego when an autumn firestorm burned through hundreds of acres and forced thousands of residents to flee.

Ruggiero said he began packing when the couple learned the fire was headed their way. He hadn’t anticipated the need to evacuate.

“We were scrambling around saying ‘What is really important?’” Ruggiero recalled.

The couple realized that the amount of possessions they could save was limited to what would fit into their vehicles.

“You have a car or two and that’s the extent of it,” Ruggiero said. “You fill up boxes and put them in the back seat. We were not all that prepared.”

They decided to take essential documents, such as insurance records, and items with sentimental value, such as photographs. Ruggiero has photos of his family going back several generations.

“I certainly wouldn’t want to lose them,” he said.

Fortunately, when the fire passed, the home still was standing.

Planning Ahead

You can increase your chances of having a successful evacuation by planning ahead, said San Diego Fire-Rescue Department Capt. Joe Amador. Here are five tips for getting ready to leave your home.

1. Prepare a “go-bag.” The idea is to have all essential items in a single bag or container in case of a fire. This should contain important documents, such wills, passports, and bank account information.

2. Locate your pets. It’s important to keep your pets nearby during a fire so they don’t get left behind.

3. Gather medications. Make sure you have prescriptions for all household members packed at the first sign that a wildfire may approach your neighborhood. A first-aid kit is not a bad idea either.

4. Bring some cash. Amador says it’s a good idea to have some cash on hand, in case ATM machines aren’t working after you evacuate.

5. Work as a team. If there are several people in your household, you’ll pack faster if you work as a team, said Lisa Lindsay, executive director of the New York-based Private Risk Management Association. For example, one person could be placed in charge of securing the pets, while another gathered prescriptions.

Keeping Your Priorities Straight

Amador notes that people often reluctant to leave their homes during natural disasters. It’s hard to leave most of your possessions behind, but he recommends departing as soon as an evacuation is recommended by fire agencies.

If you wait until you are ordered by public safety officials to leave, it could be too late.

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