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An unidentified woman watches as flames approach her home from a fast moving wildfire near Palmdale, Calif. on Thursday, July 29, 2010. See more pictures of natural disasters.

AP Photo/Dan Steinberg

Guide to Wildfire Safety

We usually think of wildfires as horrifying events, but actually, they're part of a normal cycle of nature that helps to keep our forests healthy. The trouble starts when people who are looking to get away from the hustle and bustle of urban living settle near a forested area. Often the desire to escape to a beautiful place trumps the knowledge that you're moving to an area prone to wildfire. But you can enjoy the view and take reasonable precautions to keep your family and yourself safe. Here are some tips to protect your family and property from wildfires.

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Protecting Your Home

The best way to protect your home is to take measures to make sure you never start a wildfire. If you're going to build a campfire, do it in a clearing well away from anything flammable, including vegetation. Never leave the fire unattended and keep a fire extinguisher handy. Don't build fires during the dry season, and never smoke in fire hazard areas.

Adding houses and shrubbery to a known wildfire area often contributes to a fire getting out of hand. If you're building a home in such a place, it's best to situate it so it has some distance from the nearby wooded areas so you can maintain a safety zone around your house. The closer you are to the woods, the more likely the fire is to hop right over to your house. Keep vegetation to a minimum around the house and use fireproof materials in the construction.

If you're moving into a pre-existing home, take measures to make your home fireproof. A roof with fire-resistant shingles is the first line of defense, because if your roof catches on fire, it's highly likely that the rest of the house will go up in smoke. You also can replace windows with tempered glass and replace drywall with a fire-resistant material. These amendments can get pretty pricey, but one of the cheapest things you can do is have a spark arrestor installed on your chimney so fire can't enter your house that way.

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Ten-year-old Amanda Sexton carries her hamster while her father carries two guinea pigs after they fled their Crestline, Calif. home from an approaching wildfire Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2007.

AP Photo/Michael A. Mariant

Protecting Your Family

In order to get your family out safely and calmly during a wildfire, you need to have a strategy in place. It's helpful to create and rehearse a family evacuation plan -- both on how to get everyone safely out of the house (pets included) and how to exit your neighborhood in case roads are blocked.

The adults and all of the older kids in the family should know ahead of time how to shut off all the utilities. You should keep a prepacked emergency kit on hand with plenty of nonperishable foods and a three-day supply of drinking water. You'll also want a portable weather radio, a flashlight and batteries, and a first-aid kit stocked with all necessary medications. It's helpful to have a small tool kit, and you're going to need cash and credit cards, too.

If you get warning that a fire might strike, back your car into the garage to keep it from getting smoky, but keep it facing forward so you can make a quick exit. Close all windows and doors -- garage door included -- but keep everything unlocked. If you get the word you need to evacuate, you need to get out of there immediately, so having a well-rehearsed plan will make the process go much more smoothly. Make sure your house numbers are made of fireproof materials so emergency help can identify and get to your house quickly.

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Human Carelessness

The two main causes of fires are human activity and lightning strikes. According to the U.S. Fire Administration, human activity accounts for seven times more fires than lightning.

What to Do if You're Trapped

Wildfires spread quickly, and there's not always enough time to get to safety without encountering the fire. If you're stuck outside, try to find a clearing where there aren't a lot of trees and branches to fuel the fire. If you're on a mountain, the windward side is usually safer because it's not as dry. Cover your nose and mouth to minimize smoke inhalation and stay put until the fire passes through.

If you're in a car, you're safer than being outside, so don't get out unless it's an absolute emergency. Roll up your windows and close your air vents to help keep out the smoke. Then turn on your lights and drive slowly, but not through heavy smoke. If you get to the point where you have to stop, then you should leave your lights on, get on the floor and cover up with a blanket, coat or whatever you have with you. Stay down until you're sure the fire has passed.

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Lots More Information

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Sources

  • American Red Cross of Greater Los Angeles. "Wildfire Season is Here: Safety Tips to Help You Prepare." July 23, 2010. (Aug. 20, 2010)http://redcrossla.org/news/wildfire-season-is-here-safety-tips-to-help-you-prepare
  • Institute for Business & Home Safety. "Is Your Home Protected From Wildfire Disaster?" 2001. (Aug. 20, 2010)http://www.firewise.org/resources/files/wildfr2.pdf
  • USA Today. "Southern California Wildfires: What you need to know." July 30, 2010. (Aug. 20, 2010)http://content.usatoday.com/communities/kindness/post/2010/07/southern-california-wildfires-what-you-need-to-know/1
  • U.S. Fire Administration. "Wildland Fires: A Historical Perspective." December 2001. (Aug. 20, 2010)http://www.usfa.dhs.gov/downloads/pdf/tfrs/v1i3-508.pdf