When you’re in the midst of an area fire, it’s hard to breathe, much less think. As a veteran of the devastating Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires in Colorado Springs, I can attest to that. It’s been a rough year regarding wildfires in the United States and Canada — and while many eyes are turned to the 10 active wildfires in central California right now, there are also large fires burning in Arizona, Nevada, Oregon and West Virginia.
If you’re currently dealing with a wildfire in your area, trying to help a loved one in the path, or just thinking ahead, we hope this safety guide can offer some assistance.
Understand Your Wildfire Risk
The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) is one of the best places to start when assessing your personal risk—whether fires are raging around you or everything is currently calm.
On this site, you can find a link to the National Interagency Coordination Center, and from there, click directly into your region to see current fires burning, what the response is, and area fire potential and weather outlooks.
State and county websites also can provide up-to-date information.
Make Sure You’re Receiving Local Alerts
These days, most cellular service providers participate in the Wireless Emergency Alerts program. You don’t have to sign up for the program, but you do need to make sure you have the option selected on your phone to receive these free, location-aware, text-like notifications.
When there is a fire in your area, you will receive imminent threat alerts as determined necessary by local public safety officials. When we were going through the Waldo Canyon Fire five years ago here in Colorado Springs, it was particularly helpful to receive alerts notifying us when individual neighborhoods were required to evacuate.
Be Ready to Evacuate
We knew we should have an evacuation plan. We didn’t, and so we began the process as we were breathing in smoke and keeping the TV tuned to the local news all day long. If I can say one thing, it’s that I wish we had put this in place ahead of time. If you’re currently safe, ready.gov can help you make a plan. (And if you’re like we were, it can help you get up to speed quickly.)
Questions you should know the answers to:
- If you cannot be in your home, where will you stay?
- What are the particular needs of your family members (medical needs, dietary needs, disabilities, etc.)?
- If you have pets, how will you manage them and their needs?
- What is your evacuation route?
- What is your family’s plan to stay in communication even if separated?
- What papers and documents do you need to take with you?
- What do you need to do to help protect your home right before evacuating?
Protect Your Health
If you are living or evacuating an active fire area, you may encounter flying sparks and ashes so wear protective clothing and footwear if you need to be outdoors.
Beyond that, smoke becomes the biggest concern. While those at greatest risk from wildfire smoke are the elderly, children and those with heart or lung disease, smoke inhalation can affect anyone. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends:
- Checking the air quality and suggestions for how much outdoor exposure is safe for your specific zipcode through the Environmental Protection Agency’s AirNow.gov website;
- Consulting local visibility guides so you know what the level of particulates is in your air;
- If you’re advised to stay inside, keeping your indoor air as clean as possible, which means keeping windows and doors closed and running air conditioners with the fresh-air intake closed or seeing shelter elsewhere if you can’t;
- Do not rely on dust masks found at hardware stores for protection — they don’t capture smoke particles.
As we reported earlier this summer, smoke impacts not only those living nearby, but also those in farther-flung neighboring areas. If you can see a haze, smell smoke, have stinging eyes, or just know of a wildfire in your area, your health could be impacted.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency offers more advice on everything from how to minimize smoke in your car to choosing (and using) an appropriate respirator in its 2016 Wildfire Smoke guide.