West Coast Wildfires: What to Do If Your Home Is at Risk

Lena Borrelli
Updated Jan 29, 2021
2 min read

Ferocious wildfires are raging across California, Oregon and Washington. Each day, they continue across millions of acres, with hungry flames determined to scorch land and displace wildlife while threatening entire communities.

"Unfortunately, we're still in peak wildfire season here in California, and we will probably experience more wildfires to come in the next few months,” says Scott Laskey, President of California’s Sandbar Solar & Electric. “We're also seeing wildfires happening with greater frequency and strength each year, and this is undoubtedly accelerated by climate change.”  

The current devastation in California is nothing new. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) reports that 2018 saw over 58,000 fires that burned nearly nine million acres. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) reports that in 2004, wildfires burned over eight million acres across 40 states. “Wildfire severity has increased and fire frequency has decreased during the past 200 years,” the report reads.

“The current wildfire raging in California is something that reflects the state of our changing climate and how it impacts our day-to-day health,” Rohan Arora tells us. He is an environmental health activist and is the founder of the environmental health organization, The Community Check-Up.

With such a pressing threat to American homes, we spoke with industry experts and renowned experts at the (NFPA), the American Red Cross and the Department of Homeland Security’s Ready program to find the best tips to keep your home safe. 

Why Are Wildfires So Dangerous?

A wildfire is when an unplanned fire burns in a natural area. Sometimes, natural fires may be allowed to burn, but when there is a threat posed to communities, that’s when fires are no longer allowed to spread. Wildfires are a major contributory factor to the destruction of our natural forests, inducing loss of vegetation and severe damage to habitats and watersheds.

According to the U.S. Forest Service, nearly 85% of all wildfires are caused by humans. In the case of 2020’s El Dorado Fire, sparks started with one family’s gender reveal gone wrong. Lightning is the other natural cause of fires, and that is what is helping to fuel the raging fires, making containment impossible thus far. 

A wildfire can also be a monster, fueled by dry air, high winds and all too little moisture. It can cause flooding, downed power lines, and loss of gas, in addition to a severe threat of loss of human and animal life.

Wildfires can also cause:

  • Debris flows
  • Landslides
  • Smoke and air pollutants

Each of these risks is dangerous alone, but air quality has become increasingly important for your wildfire preparations during coronavirus.

How to Prepare Your Home for Wildfires

Prepare the Exterior of Your Home

The exterior preparations of your home will be your best defense against a wildfire. This is how you can keep your home safe.

  • Clean gutters and clear off your roofs. 
  • Maintain any exterior water sources, such as a pond, well or swimming pool, to help slow fire and offer an additional water source to fight the flames. 
  • Use sprinklers and garden hoses to your benefit, because a wet lawn can help keep fire away.
  • Keep your roof wet to lessen the likelihood of it catching fire.
  • Clear a fire-resistant line around your home, ensuring this area is free of any debris, leaves or flammable materials.
  • Ensure your home is clearly marked, and the house numbers can be easily seen from the street in case rescue vehicles need access. 
  • Check your hoses to ensure that they reach the full length of your property. 
  • The Red Cross also recommends installing at least two freezer-proof exterior water outlets on either side of your home and anywhere else that may be needed on your property.

Prepare the Interior of Your Home

  • Buy supplies.

You will need to purchase the usual items for a wildfire emergency preparedness kit, such as a first aid kit, non-perishable foods and drinking water.

Now, during the coronavirus pandemic, there are also COVID supplies that need to be included with your preparations. These include EPA-approved disinfectants COVID, sanitizers, soap and face masks. You will still have to practice social distancing if you go to a shelter or another public place.

  • Make emergency preparations.

Gather tools that will be useful in a fire, such as an axe, rake, chain saw, shovel and buckets. Post emergency numbers by the phones in your home is also an excellent precaution for children in case they need to call for help.

  • Keep essential documents ready.

Gather all of the important paperwork and documents that you will need if you must evacuate. Review your homeowners insurance policy to make sure that your coverage is adequate in case of fire. Contact your provider to make any necessary changes, and be sure to store a copy digitally. Secure any paperwork and printouts in a resealable plastic bag to protect from water damage. 

  • Develop an evacuation plan that incorporates pets.

Be sure to review the plan with the entire family, so they know what they need to do in an emergency. Don’t forget to incorporate your pets into your evacuation and shelter plans; they need to go with you! Keep all pets confined to a single room so that you can evacuate faster if required.

  • Stay plugged into the latest reports.

Do your best to remain abreast of developing conditions by following online NOAA radio reports from the National Weather Service. Every second counts when wildfires can move and change directions quickly and without warning, so the local reports can help you identify when it’s time to evacuate.

  • Consider an additional power source.

“In an effort to mitigate fire risk, utility companies are rolling out power outages across major cities in the state, which has already caused hundreds of thousands of people to lose power this year,” says Scott Laskey, the President of Sandbar Solar & Electric. Many of his clients have opted for his solar panels and solar battery storage to protect their homes with what he calls “complete energy resiliency.” Generators are another popular option if you may be forced to live without power for extended periods.

The Importance of Air Quality During a Wildfire

As an environmental expert, Arora gives us his best advice. “Besides listening to emergency officials and evacuating from the path of the wildfires, the biggest tip I would give to keep your home and those inside of it safe is to do your best to keep the air within your home clean,” he says. 

Air quality is something that is as precious as water during a fire, and something he urges that you do not take for granted. 

“Avoid activities that increase pollution within your home, such as burning candles, using gas stoves, vacuuming, and more,” he says. “In addition to this, it may be advisable to keep the air conditioner's fresh-air intake closed to prevent any outdoor smoke from entering your house and investing in an air filter or cleaner.” 

This is what Andy Graham does every day as CEO of Alen with customizable purifiers and filters that fight all major air quality concerns — including wildfire smoke. “Breathing safely within the comfort of our homes is a necessity most Americans expect,” he explains. “But for our neighbors in the West, the seasonal wildfires are adding harmful fine particles and VOC chemicals into the air that can cause acute trauma like asthma attacks as well as lasting respiratory damage.”

Many people also now have masks to prevent COVID, but these masks will not prevent smoke inhalation. That’s why respirators and N95 masks are recommended, but with COVID, these are in short supply. 

“To create an ideal refuge from wildfire smoke, which the EPA's safety recommendations call a 'clean room,' an air purifier should have enough capacity to completely clean a room's entire air volume at least twice an hour without generating a ton of noise,” says Graham. It’s why he made his own at Alen and guarantees them for life. 

What to Do if You Must Evacuate

With the 2020 fires devouring entire towns in three states, evacuation has become a reality for many living on the West Coast. 

"The number one priority if your house is in danger because of wildfires is to ensure the safety and health of your loved ones and yourself,” says Arora.

This is what you should do if you must evacuate.

  • Take your emergency kit and all documents with you.

Don’t forget your COVID supplies and any supplies your pets may need. 

  • Follow local radio and news reports. 

Proceed with care and follow directions from safety officials.

  • Find a shelter.

Your local American Red Cross can help provide you with temporary open shelter if needed during the storm. 

If you are trapped and cannot evacuate, call 911 immediately and provide your exact location. Help may be delayed, but keep the lights on to help responders find you.

Wildfire Resources

 The Bottom Line

As wildfires continue sweeping across the West Coast, homeowners must remain vigilant to protect their families and properties against the life-threatening hazards that these deadly infernos produce. Coronavirus has only intensified the need to prepare your home against wildfires, but with our help, you can make the preparations you need - both inside and outside of your home.

(Photo by Juan Silva / GettyImages)

Contributing Writer

Lena Borrelli

Lena Borrelli is a freelance journalist who has covered home security, safety, and other topics for Safety.com, TIME, Microsoft News, ADT, and Home Advisor.

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