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You Can Get Ready for Fire Season in 90 Minutes. Here’s How.

No excuses — these steps all take 30 minutes or less.

A stopwatch and flames.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Preparing for wildfire season can feel daunting. Reroof your house, the advice often goes. Bury your propane tank. Gather your important documents in a go bag.

That is all well and good, but let’s face it: The average American has nine unfinished home improvement projects at any given time, and it’s going to take a lot more than one weekend to figure out where you put your social security card.

Firefighters don’t call it “dirty August” for nothing, though, and the predictive maps for the coming month show “above normal” wildland fire potential for all of Washington and Oregon, most of Idaho and Montana, as well as large swaths of Texas, Alaska, and the Great Lakes region (fire potential will remain high in most of the Pacific Northwest through September, aided by persistent drought).

But if you’re feeling overwhelmed about where to start, here are seven things you can do today — each in 30 minutes or less — to set yourself up for the weeks ahead.

1. Calculate your personal wildfire risk (5 minutes)

The USDA Forest Service offers a handy dashboard for understanding the wildfire risk in your community. Take a few minutes to punch in your locale at Wildfirerisk.org and learn how on the alert you need to be.

The results might surprise you. As an experiment, I entered my mother’s address in the Phoenix area and learned she has a “very high” risk of wildfire — “higher than 94%” of counties. Yikes!

2. Sign up for emergency alerts (10 minutes)

If you have anything more than a “low” risk of wildfire, you should sign up for emergency alerts for your area. Fires can spring up and spread quickly, and there are a number of different ways to stay informed of developing hazards. Here are three places to start:

Make sure you’re opted in to receive FEMA wireless emergency alerts (WEAs). Here is a guide for enabling the alerts on an iPhone and here’s a guide for Android. WEAs do not track your location but are sent using local cell towers in order to be relevant to cell phone users in a specific area. They are also free to receive and don’t count toward text limits.

Create an account on Smart911.com. Though the service is most commonly used to provide 911 dispatchers with extra information about you when you call during an emergency, Smart911 is also used by many counties to provide targeted weather, traffic, and yes, fire alerts to their residents.

Also check if your county has its own emergency alert system that you should be registered with.

3. Order an air purifier (5 minutes)

Just staying inside isn’t necessarily enough to keep you safe from wildfire smoke. If you live in an area prone to wildfires, or in an area downwind of them, you’ll want to invest in a good air purifier before everyone else makes a run on them as the season starts to pick up.

If you don’t have an air purifier, can’t afford one, or have questions about using a purifier or AC unit during a smoke event, here is our guide to staying safe when the air quality is bad no matter what is at your disposal.

4. Take a stroll around your house (30 minutes)

Sorry, you’ve got to put on shoes for this one. But it also might be the single best thing you do ahead of wildfire season.

Homes primarily catch on fire not from being overcome by a wall of flame, but because of small embers that can fly more than a mile from the main wildfire and ignite roofs, decks, and yard debris.

Fire managers like to talk about this in terms of the ominously named “home ignition zone,” which is the buffer area around your house that you want to make as inhospitable to embers as possible. It is broken down into three zones: Zone 1 or “the Immediate Zone,” which is the area zero to 5 feet around the sides of your house; Zone 2, or the “intermediate zone,” which is between 5 to 30 feet around your home; and Zone 3, the “extended zone,” which is 30 to 200 feet away from your home.

For the sake of prioritizing, though, you want to start with your house and work outward. Take a slow walk around your house and make a to-do list of future projects with an eye out for the following potential issues, as recommended by the National Fire Protection Association:

• Do your gutters need to be cleaned? Make a note to prioritize doing so — the dead leaves and pine needles that accumulate there can easily catch fire.

• Are there places on your roof where leaf litter and debris are accumulating? Make a note to get those cleaned ASAP as well.

• Do any tree limbs hang over your house? Add those to your removal list.

• How does the area immediately around the sides of your house look? You’ll want to keep this clear of dead vegetation, trees, shrubs, and wood mulch that can ignite and spread to your home. Add a gardening weekend to your to-do list if need be.

• Do you have a deck? Make sure it’s clean of vegetation above and below. Don’t store things under your deck!

• Locate the vents on your house; these are potential openings where embers can get in. Make sure they’re clear of vegetation and properly covered.

• Is your lawn starting to look overgrown? You’ll want to keep it mowed to about four inches for the duration of fire season.

• Do you have a wood fence — AKA, a fire superhighway — connected to your house? You’re going to want to do something about that eventually, too.

• Make sure your home address is visible from the road.

Now I know how we feel about home improvement projects, particularly ones that require a lot of labor, like redoing a garden, or money, like paying an arborist to cut down overhanging tree branches. But firefighters won’t waste time or their safety by defending homes that are dangerous. “You just drive past and you go to the places that you can save that have done some things to protect their own homes,” firefighter Bre Orcasitas told the authors of the forthcoming book This Is Wildfire: How to Protect Yourself, Your Home, and Your Community in the Age of Heat.

It might take a lot of work to get started, but in the event of a nearby wildfire, checking items off the to-do list you just created also might ultimately save you your home. Once back inside, pull out a calendar and set aside time to actually get these projects done.

Ready for a more robust checklist? Here’s the full home ignition zone task list from the National Fire Protection Association and here’s an additional checklist that focuses on potential design weaknesses of your home. This Is Wildfire is also an excellent guide for anyone who lives in fire country, with many additional tips for time-pressed individuals who want projects they can tackle after work or over a weekend. It can be pre-ordered here.

5. Dig out your old go bag (15-30 minutes)

Maybe you put together an evacuation bag during your first wildfire season and have since forgotten about it. Maybe you never made a go bag at all. Now, though, is the time to make sure you have the basics set aside in case you need to quickly leave your home.

If you have an old go bag stuffed in a closet somewhere or buried in the back of your car, quickly look through it to make sure the items have not expired and all the batteries still work. There is no need to get extreme and fill it up with treasured heirlooms when there’s no active wildfire in your area, but do start setting aside irreplaceable items like photographs and beloved mementos if you get a pre-evacuation alert. And yes, now might finally be the time to start figuring out where your important documents are so they’re easily grabbed in the event you need to leave.

There are lots of slightly different checklists for preparing a go bag from scratch, but if you need a place to begin, here’s a good one. Here’s another that is specific to pet and livestock owners. You can also find pre-made emergency kits online to take some of the work out of getting started, though they tend to be pricier than assembling the items yourself.

6. Bookmark InciWeb (30 seconds)

Save this page (and if you’ve bookmarked InciWeb in the past, make sure the URL is up to date since it’s changed).

InciWeb is an emergency incident information page that offers the latest news on wildfires, including if a burn is prescribed, its containment, the number of responding personnel, potential evacuation orders, the firefighting outlook, and contact information if you need to learn more. If a fire is burning near you, it is the best source of general information, though you don’t want to use this to replace emergency alerts.

7. Check the weather (5 seconds)

You probably check the weather in the morning anyway. When you do, keep an eye peeled for “red flag warnings” — many weather apps, including the one on iPhones, will display this, but you can also check the National Weather Service for alerts.

A red flag warning signifies that there is an increased risk of a fire starting due to warm temperatures (above 75 degrees Fahrenheit), low humidity (25% or less), and/or gusty winds (15 mph or greater). Lightning storms during prolonged dry spells can also trigger red flag warnings.

Red flag warnings tell locals they should be careful when extinguishing cigarettes outdoors and avoid any unnecessary burning of letters from estranged husbands. But the alerts also tell residents to be prepared in case a wildfire breaks out — as LAist says, consider it the “set” in “ready, set, go.”

And if a fire does ignite in your area, you’ll now know what to do. You took a day to prepare. Stay safe, stay calm, follow directions from authorities. And seriously, pack that go bag.

Read more advice about wildfires:

How to Stay Safe From Wildfire Smoke Indoors

Jeva Lange profile image

Jeva Lange

Jeva is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Her writing has also appeared in The Week, where she formerly served as executive editor and culture critic, as well as in The New York Daily News, Vice, and Gothamist, among others. Jeva lives in New York City.

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