Surviving a Forest Fire

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How much do you know about the reality of a forest fire? Did you know that wildfires each year destroy more property than tornadoes, hurricanes and floods combined in the United States.

Stop and let that sink in.

All the hurricanes the coastal states suffer…

All the tornadoes that tornado alley suffers

The towns that suffered from mass and severe floods…

Combined together do not equal the destruction forest fires are responsible for each and every year. Why aren’t we more aware of these facts? Because where there are huge forest fires, there are relatively few people in comparison to Houston and Miami. Trees don’t read the news therefore, it’s not as news worthy.

If forest fires can be compared to anything I’d say its like an invading army, a vicious one. They begin their invasion at one location, sometimes more than one, they march across the landscape, spreading out as it goes and destroys and kills everything in its path until it is stopped, or destroys everything leaving nothing further to destroy. It doesn’t care if you just built your dream home, just finished planting your crops or yourself are unable to escape, it culls nothing; destroys everything.

You may ask why I seem to be so dramatic. Why all the adjectives and dire talk? Because I care about people and most people skim articles thinking they are reading and understanding, but they aren’t. Certain dangerous subjects, such as a forest fire, is too dangerous to underestimate. In February of 2009 on Black Saturday as Australians call it, several fires converged on a town and surrounded and trapped the population. 200 people were killed and most too charred to identify. To me that’s serious enough for a little drama.

Tragically we have professional fight fighters, the bravest of all men and women, who are killed every year as the results of fighting a fire. Besides giving recognition, I say this to stress that fires are not only deadly, but extremely unpredictable. You don’t fool a professional, you surprise them by doing something against the norm, unexpected or crazy. 

Deciphering a Fire

A forest fire is driven by many factors. Drought-like conditions supply a tender box of fuel, the varieties of trees can slow or excel the speed and intensity of the fire, but in general forest fires are driven by two main factors Wind and Terrain. Because there are so many variables that can nearly immediately alter a forest fire, survival strategies are complex and difficult. The best method of escape is to leave asap. Of course that may not always be possible. If caught in a forest fire always try to move upwind, wind blowing in your face, when attempting to escape. If you are in dense woods and can’t determine wind direction, look skyward through the trees and you should see the direction the smoke is traveling.

Here’s an example of the complexity of escaping a forest fire and why they are so dangerous. You were just told to always travel into the wind, which may mean traveling uphill. Except, you should never go uphill during a fire.

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No Way Out

We all are aware heat rises, therefore by nature the massive heat created by the forest fire will draft upwards, climbing the mountain or hill. The heat can become so intense ahead of the fire trees have been known to explode into flames before any actual contact with flames. Keep in mind … Flames travel uphill. Once you have your bearings and decide your direction of travel, move quickly, fire doesn’t take a coffee break. Search for any natural firebreak, but what constitutes a firebreak will depend on the size of the fire. A dirt road, a clear cut area, small pond can serve as a firebreak during a small grass fire, but is totally worthless in the midst of a raging fire storm.

Can you or should you attempt to outrun a forest fire?

Love these questions without good answers. Here’s what you’re faced with. A fire is totally unpredictable and will veer left, right, or backtrack depending on directional change of the wind and/or surface conditions, drought-like landscape vs green trees. A firewall can not only travel 20 mph, much faster than a human, but embers from the flames can be caught in updrafts and whisked several miles ahead of the firewall, igniting another firewall which you would be running straight into instead of away from.

If running is the only resort, try to run back through the smallest portion of the firewall into the area that has already been burned. That’s ambiguous at best. A raging fire, it’ll be suicide trying to run through it, but a tall grass fire with sporadic flames, quite possible.

Should fleeing be impossible your only option is to find a gully, deeper the better, slide to the bottom and dig a hole into the side. Crawl inside, face first and wait for the fire to pass. Should you suffer from uncontrollable claustrophobia, go into the hole feet first, cover the face of the hole with a jacket, etc or dirt. If you’re lucky the fire may not turn downward into the gully if there is sparse fuel available, it may jump over it. However, the heat will still be intense and dangerous. Stay hidden until positive the fire has passed by.

Understanding the Nature of a Forest Fire

Every survivalist should know the phrase “situational Awareness.” By having a good knowledge of the terrain you are in and how a fire would routinely react in such terrain, gives you a head start of surviving a forest fire. One fact to remember is fire travels uphill and at a much faster speed than if it is going downhill. Knowing this fact, the terrain you’re in and the location of a possible safe area, could allow you to run downhill at an angle until reaching a lake, river or stream. Knowing your trees could also save your life. Evergreen trees, those with needles, burn much faster than trees with leaves, deciduous trees as they are known. Faced with a choice of which path to take, take the leafy trees, they offer more protection of a slower burn.

Warning of Fire

A forest fire can wreak an incredible amount of pure devastation in a very short time period and have been responsible for hundreds of deaths of people being trapped or waiting too long to try and escape. The sooner you realize a potential danger, the more time to escape. If you’re in a remote area, whether hiking or camping, the likelihood of you knowing a fire is approaching is remote. Again, situational awareness. Is there a faint smell of smoke in the air? Do you have a campfire burning or do other people close by? Look closely at smooth items, such as a tent, tarp, car in the area. An approaching forest fire will send fine particles of ash into the air which will settle and be visible on these types of surfaces. Look into the sky to see if there is one hazy area which does not resemble the rest of the sky, indicating smoke and heat rising into the air. If you see these signs do not wait for the smoke to become pungent or increased ash thickness before escaping. While you’re gazing around, what is the wildlife doing? Notice unusual panicked behavior? Animals don’t wait like humans, first sign of danger and they’re gone.

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Steps to take in order to escape a forest fire

Forest fires are deadly serious business which requires quick reactions in order to survive being caught in one. Here are some pointers:

  • Fire moves fast uphill due to updrafts… travel downhill at an angle to the firewall.
  • Know your area. Where are barren areas, plowed fields, riverbeds, rocky areas, anywhere where fuel for burning is non-existent or scarce;
  • Leafy trees burn slower than evergreen trees. When choosing an escape path try to select a path that contains less flammable materials. Eucalyptus contains an oil that when catching fire will intensify the heat. Don’t enter a pine tree grove.
  • Stay away from dry fuel such as piles of dead leaves, dead trees, dry brush. Forest fires have been known to burn so hot dry fuel will explode into flames before being reached by flames.
  • This is terrifying, but if it becomes obvious there is no chance of escape, seek shelter in the ground. Find a cave, drainage pipe, underground hole and lay low and curled up. Place any clothing over your face to reduce thermal burning and to reduce smoke inhalation.
  • As an absolute last resort, dig a trench, lay flat, and cover yourself with as much dirt as possible. Dig a hole beneath your face in order to trap a pocket of oxygen to breathe, as the fire with suck out all the oxygen in the area as it burns. Hold your breath as the fire passes over you. This method sounds crazy and it is, but there are recorded cases of a person surviving using this method. Never rule out anything that may save your life.
  • A few additional tips. Immediately discard any clothing made of nylon as it has a very low melting point and will sear (melt) directly into your skin. If you’re lucky enough to find water, stay submerged as long as possible to let the fire pass over. The intense heat can sear your lungs.
  • Seek medical attention immediately. You may not realize how injured you may be. As thermal burns, dehydration, shock and smoke inhalation is quite common and deadly if not treated.

Forest Fire Prevention

Nine out of ten forest fires are due to someone’s negligence. It’s important to follow proper safety rules regarding campfires, constant monitoring and the ability to extinguish it quickly and properly. If there is a fire band in effect, use only designated fire pits or fire rings. Keep your fire small, there is no need for a 10 foot high blaze in the woods. Be sure the fire burns to ashes, pour water on it, stir, pour more water on it. It must be cold to the touch before leaving. One last thing. Cigarettes carelessly thrown from a car window or flipped along a trail is a huge contributor to starting wildfires.

There is no safety substitute for early evacuation. Be ready to leave promptly, you don’t have to wait for the authorities to advise it or not. The best way to survive a wildfire is avoiding being trapped by one to begin with. However, if in a bad situation, and firefighters are present, listen to their instructions and react quickly. Don’t question their judgment. They are trained and are there by choice. Do what they say immediately.

 

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