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How to Escape a Wildfire

Time is of the essence.

Fleeing a wildfire.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

“This is Sky Valley Fire. Evacuation alert for Bolt Creek Fire. GO! No time for delay. Load up your family and pets and LEAVE NOW.”

Imagine getting an alert like this on your phone. Your heart immediately starts pounding; your hands shake. Is it real? Could this actually be happening? All the while, as your head spins, you’re losing precious minutes of time.

Luckily for many of the people who received this actual message last year in the Seattle suburbs, the “go now” alert was a mistake. But if you live in an area with anything greater than a “low” risk of wildfire, you should have a plan in place for what to do if that alert does come. It’s far better to “overreact” and leave immediately than to risk your life — and the lives of first responders.

The good news is, wildfire evacuation plans can begin long before your phone ever buzzes with that dreaded alert. Preparing for fire season ahead of time takes, cumulatively, as little as 90 minutes — but when a fire is encroaching, the math becomes far more urgent.

Importantly: Do not wait for an evacuation notice if you feel like a fire is approaching or like you could be in danger. Trust your gut and leave immediately. Though agencies do their best to protect people with advanced notices, fire is fast and unpredictable. In fact, many survivors of the deadly fire in Lahaina, Hawaii, say they did not receive evacuation orders before the flames had closed in on them.

Here’s what to do if there’s a fire in your area:

What to do if a fire is in your area or if you get a pre-evacuation notice or warning

If you are experiencing smoke from a wildfire at your home, you should be paying attention to its development — the hazards of wildfires, after all, start with the smoke. If the fire is within 20 miles of you, you should definitely start paying attention; and if it is within 10 miles of you, it’s a threat. This threat increases if you are downwind or uphill.

Do not underestimate how fast a fire can move: 6 miles per hour in forests and up to 14 miles per hour in grasslands, depending on conditions. Embers, which can ignite homes, can also travel several miles, and wind direction can also quickly shift. If a nearby wildfire is approaching the 10-mile range of your home but you haven’t received a voluntary evacuation notice or don’t feel directly endangered yet, still review this evacuation checklist from the U.S. Forest Service. If you do receive a pre-evacuation alert or notice of some kind or want to take further steps to prepare, also:

Make sure you are signed up for emergency alerts or have another way of receiving updates, such as an agency website or Twitter account or a radio tuned into the correct station. Turn the sound on and up on your phone so you’ll hear the alarm or it will wake you up if you’re asleep.

Keep your car charged or filled to half a tank of gas or more. Scope out potential evacuation routes ahead of time, planning alternative routes in case roads are blocked or closed. Authorities say you should memorize at least two ways out of your neighborhood and avoid sketchy shortcuts that might be dangerous or blocked. Otherwise, take the quickest route to the main road, highway, or freeway out of the area.

Make a plan of where you’ll go if you need to leave your home for an extended period of time. A family or friend’s house? A hotel? A community emergency shelter? Open Red Cross shelters can be found here.

Open your garage door so you’re easily able to leave if you lose power.

Round up pets and secure them so they’re easy to put into carriers and transport to the car if you need to evacuate, and so you don’t waste precious time trying to chase them down when they’re scared. As the U.S. Forest Service notes, “this is especially important with cats.”

Prepare livestock and horses, if applicable, by reviewing this checklist.

Load up your car so you are prepared to leave on short notice. Remember to pack your go-bag (here is a version of the list in Spanish); suitcases of clothes and medicine (enough for at least a few days); pet supplies like collars, food, and water bowls; important files and back-up disks; insurance and bank papers; special or sentimental items; valuable jewelry or heirlooms (or store them in a fireproof safe); photo albums; and household items like keys and purses.

Too much to remember? Washington State suggests running through the Five P’s of evacuation: People, Prescriptions, Papers, Personal Needs, and Priceless Items.

Strongly consider leaving immediately. Roads can get congested after a mandatory evacuation order is issued, potentially creating dangerous situations where you’re trapped in your car near the fire. It will also get more difficult to see as the fire gets closer and the smoke gets thicker (always evacuate with your headlights turned on). Evacuating early also gives you time to calmly prepare a plan and collect essential items. If you’re on the fence, keep in mind it’s always better to leave too early than too late.

What to do if you decide to leave or receive a voluntary evacuation notice

If you have time to prepare your house ahead of your evacuation, here is a checklist from the Western Fire Chiefs Association that you can use to get ready. Keep in mind that “the accepted sequence for safe evacuation is people first, then pets, livestock, and finally property,” Idaho Firewise writes. Major steps include:

Close all windows and interior doors to prevent the spread of fire indoors if the flames reach your home, and remove any curtains from windows. Close shutters and blinds. Leave your exterior doors unlocked so firefighters can get inside if need be.

Turn on all the main lights in your house as well as outdoor lights. This will allow firefighters to be able to see and navigate around your home in smoky conditions.

Push flammable furniture away from walls and windows and to the center of the room.

Shut off gas and turn off pilot lights. Don’t forget about pilot lights in gas fireplaces.

Attach hoses to outdoor water sources — firefighters will potentially use these to defend your home. The Western Fire Chiefs Association also recommends turning the nozzle to “spray” and propping a non-flammable ladder against your house to provide roof access. Fill buckets or garbage cans with water and leave them around your property if you’re able. However, you should not leave any water running, KQED notes, since that decreases the flow available to firefighters.

Prepare yourself for evacuation. California’s recommends wearing “long pants, [a] long sleeve shirt, heavy shoes/boots, [a] cap, [a] dry bandanna for face cover [or a leftover COVID mask], goggles, or glasses,” and notes that “100% cotton is preferable.”

Finally, check on, text, or call neighbors and make sure they’re aware of the fire and also prepared to leave. Let them know you are choosing to evacuate. Also email, text, or call family who live outside the area and might be worried about you to let them know of your plans.

What to do when you get a mandatory evacuation notice

There is only one thing to do: Leave as fast as you can.

If you get an evacuation notice (or hear the high-low siren that also signals an evacuation order in California), do not waste time checking to see if the alert is real, gathering up items around your house, or making efforts to prepare your home. Your only focus at this point should be on getting to safety as quickly as you can.

Grab your go-bag and pets and get in your car; drive with the headlights on and follow the directions of any fire or emergency officials. If you need to evacuate on foot, quickly change into long pants, a long shirt, a cap, and heavy boots, and take essential items in a backpack or easily carried duffel bag. Know what to do if you get trapped near a wildfire. Be careful of downed powerlines or other hazards. And stay out of the area until officials say it is safe to return.

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. Read More

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