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How To Survive A Wildfire | A Wildfire Survival Guide

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How To Survive A Wildfire | A Wildfire Survival Guide

Our prepper news commonly covers wildfires. Wildfires pose dangers to modern societies all over the world. Many people underestimate the power and fury wildfires can cause. They also underestimate the potential for wildfires in regions where they live. You don’t need to live in California to have a wildfire evacuation plan. Below we will discuss what wildfires are, wildfire bug out plans, evacuating a wildfire on foot and in a car, hunkering down during a wildfire, how to use a wildfire map, and where wildfires are most common. My how to survive a wildfire guide should help anyone who wants to learn more about wildfires in general.

What Is A Wildfire?

survive a wildfireWildfires go by a variety of names, but they are most commonly referred to as “wildfire” by mainstream sources. In Australia, they are more commonly known as a bushfire. You might also hear grassfire, vegetation fire, hill fire, or peat fire. While the linguistics may vary, the absolute terror that can be imposed by these sometimes massive swells of flames can be apocalyptic and unfathomable. Wildfires can destroy buildings and homes and wildlife.

Wildfires are something that spread quickly and create their own micro-ecosystem. They are highly unpredictable, particularly during times of intense winds. Wildfires contribute to a handful of annual deaths and often cause states billions in damage.

The fact is, many people don’t take wildfire precautions serious enough. People who don’t keep their yards and roofs up to wildfire specifications often suffer consequences. People who choose to not follow county officials who ask them to evacuate place themselves in unnecessary dangers. Understanding the conditions which help fuel wildfire activity can also help people become more in tune with the dangers their natural environments may pose.

What Causes A Wildfire?

lightning wildfires

Lightning is a major cause of wildfires.
By Mircea Madau – Edited version of Image:Lightning over Oradea Romania 2.jpg., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5322846

The sad truth is, people cause a lot of the wildfires we experience through utter-carelessness. And sometimes, people cause wildfires through nefarious arson, whether it be associated with political statements or the taking of pleasure in chaos. Heatwaves and droughts are often recipes for increased wildfire activity. For the United States, El Nino conditions have commonly contributed to an increase in wildfires in places such as California and Florida. But in the end, 4 out of every 5 wildfires was caused by a human. In other words, if the human hadn’t nefariously or irresponsibly started the original fire, a wildfire outbreak never would have occurred.

We often confuse wildfire conditions with wildfire causes. Humans cause most wildfires, but they do so under ripe wildfire conditions. A drought means conditions for a wildfire are increased, however, something needs to start the fire in the first place (lightning, human intervention). Humans often leave campsites with campfires that still have smoldering embers. Those embers turn into little flames, which turn into larger flames, which lead to an unattended fire.

Lightning is a major cause of wildfires, although many people don’t realize such because, for many people, it seems counterintuitive seeing that lightning is often highly associated with rain.

Lava is a major cause of wildfires.

How To Survive A Wildfire On Foot

Being in a situation on foot during a wildfire isn’t exactly rare. Campers and hikers, or even people fleeing, or bugging out due to a wildfire, can end up on foot during a wildfire. Knowing wildfire survival skills can save your life. If you live in a wildfire-prone region, having bug out bag essentials ready to go is a good idea, however, fire is dangerous and you shouldn’t waste even a second evacuating a wildfire.

What To Expect During A Wildfire

A wildfire will develop its very own ecosystem due to the surge of rising heat into the atmosphere, as well as the smoke polluting the breathing air. Wind tunnels are likely to form low to the ground in the vicinity of the wildfire. This means ash, debris, and smoke will be forced into your breathing spaces. This also means the wildfire will have a propensity to spread exponentially across large swaths of land. You need to understand immediately such dynamics to prevent you from making mistakes that could have dire consequences.

Be Calm

You can’t panic if you are on foot during a wildfire. You need to reserve energy when and where you can, but also, you don’t want to make rash decisions which funnel you into a worse situation. If the air around you is not yet polluted, take deep breaths and find your inner-calm so that you can truly assess the situation and channel your inner-prepper’s mentality for survival.

Wildfire Smoke & Air Pollution

You are going to need to breathe to stay alive and a raging wildfire may just make that a difficult experience. Solving your current or potential breathing issues is first and foremost. While grabbing a bug out bag to flee a wildfire isn’t wise, you’d do you and your family a favor by getting some smoke masks. Hopefully, you already have smoke masks as part of your bug out plan. Each family member fleeing on foot could put them on. Here are some cheap smoke masks on Amazon. Again, beyond everything, time is your greatest enemy when dealing with a raging wildfire, so get out and don’t waste time.

You can create your own smoke mask by wetting cloth and using it to cover your mouth and nose. If you happen to be hiking, hopefully, you have some access to water and you should have some sort of cloth to use. If you are leaving your home, your water lines may already be compromised, so you will need to use bottled water and a cloth.

Remember, smoke rises, the lower you are, the better off you are. Obviously, if you are fleeing on foot, you will be in an upright position.

Wildfire Bug Out Plan

As a prepper, I always recommend having a bug out plan for any and all potential forces of nature. In wildfire country, it is important to have a wildfire bug out plan. That said, wildfires can start anywhere and depending on the wind and vegetation (wildfire fuel), they can go anywhere. They can be unpredictable because they create their own environment. So the best bug out plans may fail to be useful in terms of using them, but they are very useful because hopefully, they give you a variety of options. Knowing the lay of the land is going to be extremely important because you don’t want to outrun a wildfire and suddenly encounter impassable areas.

Determine the wind’s direction and evacuate the wildfire based on heading upwind of the wildfire. If the wind is blowing into the fire, just run into the blowing wind. If you find that the wind is blowing from the fire, you should consider a horizontal wildfire evacuation route. This is because running away from the fire with the wind at the fire’s back will keep you inside the ash and debris wind tunnels.

Be aware that burning embers in the wildfire’s wind tunnels and the natural environment’s winds can and will transport fire to new locations. Unfortunately, the path you choose may end up in a wildfire’s clutches. Understand that your wildfire bug out plans may need to adapt or change on the fly.

Look for areas that are less likely to be a source for wildfire fuel. If you know of water sources such as major creeks, ponds, rivers, lakes, etc. consider getting on the other side of them. If you see areas that lack vegetation such as brush or trees, that may offer a safe haven. This also means avoiding (if possible) areas that offer lots of wildfire fuel, like dry brush or trees. Clearly, you need to get away from the fire and if you can’t determine these attributes or your region lacks them, you have to take best case scenario and run with it.

You Are Trapped In Wildfire

how to survive a wildfireIf you end up trapped in a wildfire, you need to stay calm and find a place to ride it out. If you see a car or building or abandoned home, get in it. If you get in a vehicle or a home, remember to seal up as much as possible so that you can keep the smoke and debris out of your breathing spaces.If you are in a building and can shut down the gas lines or propane or whatnot, do so. Remove curtains or anything flammable from windows. Windows may break due to flying debris derived from wildfire winds. If it is safe to do so, remove any flammable objects from the lawn spaces. If there is time, cut down vegetation which might serve to fuel to wildfire if it approaches. If water is working and you have access to the sources, spray down the area outside the building or home. Again, this all hinges on your safety in working outside before the wildfire gets too close.

Do not lock the doors on your home or building so that firefighters can get inside for rescue operations. You are safer inside than you are outside, this is important to understand.

Fires have trouble crossing pavement, they require long branches or flying embers, so if you can get on the other side of the pavement, do so. You can lie down on the pavement or down in any associated ditches as a way to get low and create better breathing space. If there is mud, put it on your body. Anything wet can help protect your body from fire.

You need to wait and allow the fire to fully pass you before doing anything. If you leave too soon, you may end up back in the fire. Remember, wildfires are unpredictable.

How To Survive A Wildfire In A Car

Being in a vehicle during a wildfire isn’t the safest thing; but it may be your only option. Whether it is your vehicle, or you come across an abandoned vehicle while evacuating the wildfire on foot, this may turn out to be your best option.

Break the back window if you have to enter the vehicle through such means. You want to keep your airspace as healthy as possible and breaking the front windows may compromise that goal way too much.

Seal up the car as much as possible by closing all windows. If there is a break, do what you can to put a cloth or any materials you find over it. Close the air vents.

If the car starts, go ahead and start it and attempt to drive it. Make sure you turn on your headlights, there may be other fleeing vehicles and you don’t want to sustain damage to your car while using it as a means to escape a wildfire. Don’t drive reckless, your vehicle may be your last means to safety.

If you encounter dense smoke, you may need to choose to wait. Dense smoke will take away visibility of potential wildfire dangers. It will also seep into the car and given time, you can die from carbon monoxide poisoning.

If you decide to park and wait out potential danger, make sure you aren’t parking in brush or near trees if at all possible.

If you are stuck and realize you are going to have to wait out the wildfire where you are parked, do not attempt to siphon gas from the car. Most gas tanks don’t truly explode in fire, they are made from metals. If you siphon gas, you will get gas on you and in the area of the car.

Make sure the car is sealed and lay on the bottom floorboard covered in a blanket, or cloth (all preferably wet if possible).

No matter how hot it gets inside of the vehicle, understand that it is hotter outside of it. Don’t make the mistake of evacuating the vehicle because it seems too hot in the car. The car may shake some due to the extreme winds associated with the wildfire, this also shouldn’t cue you to evacuate the vehicle.

Where Are Wildfires Most Common?

santa ana winds wildfires

Santa Ana winds in the Southern California and northern Baja, Mexico are commonly attributed to fueling wildfires.
By NOAA’s National Weather Service – http://www.noaawatch.gov/2008/santa_ana.php, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13259489

A wildfire recipe is a simple formula: you need an area that brings in enough moisture to allow for the growth of dense vegetation, but enough dry air to allow for droughts and dry vegetation that can be used for wildfire fuel. The western United States is an example of a region in the world that presents a perfect environment for wildfires. California has moisture which comes in off the Pacific Ocean, allowing vegetation to thrive (think wineries). But, it also has an arid, desert influence known as Santa Ana winds which fan flames. For California, the wind most commonly is a light breeze that comes in from the Pacific ocean. This breeze is what keeps California tempered in terms of annual temperature (never too hot, never too cold, and a little morning fog along the coastlines). But every so often, particularly in late summer months such as August, September, and on into early fall, the wind changes directions and blows in from the east. Just east of Los Angeles is the Mojave Desert. This funnels dry, hot air across the landscape and creates higher winds, warmer temperatures, and drought conditions. Any flames caused by lightning, human irresponsibility, arson, or otherwise, are present in central or southern California, the potential for a horrific wildfire is amplified.

The wind will often fan the flames to spread. The lack of rain will offer no assistance in squashing the flames. The dry winds and high pressure will keep vegetation in a dry condition perfect for wildfire fuel.

Oregon, northern Califonia, western Canada, and Mexico are also regions where wildfires are common. Australia is notorious for massive scale wildfire activity.

But a wildfire only requires conditions be right for the growth of flames, the region can be irrelevant. Florida is a state with an extreme amount of vegetation density. They are also one of the top destinations to experience lightning strikes. Small, massive storms tend to rise from the warm ocean or everglade waters and inundate wildlife areas with lightning. The lightning can cause a small brush fire. But once the fast-moving storm exits, the small fire can be left with wind and drier air and spread into the uninhabited brush. Once it grows enough, those afternoon storms will do little to put the fire out and it can continue to thrive.

It is important to focus on causes of wildfire beyond the regions they are most likely to occur. Wildfires can truly happen anywhere given the rivht conditions and most places in the world experience those conditions on an annual basis (some more than others).

Wildfire Map

Below is a wildfire map of all active wildfires in the world. You can use a wildfire map to determine if you are potentially going to be traveling to a wildfire warning or watch zone. Using wildfire maps are critical for those who want to remain safe during high wildfire activity times.

California has been working on a utility to provide information on high-risk wildfire areas all over the state (here). At the time of this article, the wildfire map utility was extended until next summer (2018). This will help the state with wildlife safety regulations. It is always important to carry a wildfire map if you plan to visit forest areas.

What Is A Fire Tornado?

fire whirl

Picture of a fire whirl, sometimes inaccurately called a fire tornado.
Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1413152

When it comes to apocalyptic images, nothing beats a good old-fashioned fire tornado picture. These are also known as a fire whirl, fire devil, fire twister and so on. The fire tornado is composed of ash and flames and debris and its appearance strikingly resembles a traditional tornado’s shape and form. The vortex activity in a fire tornado or fire whirl tends to consume debris around it in a similar fashion to that of a traditional tornado.

Fire tornados are not, scientifically, traditional tornadoes. Their appearance is the main reason they have acquired the legendary naming. This is where things get a bit confusing. A fire tornado could and has existed. Meaning, the fire tornado was scientifically acting similar to a traditional tornado. But most fire tornadoes do not truly possess the require prerequisites, such as the vortex of the tornado extending from ground to the base of the clouds, which eliminates them from tornado classification. This is why most fire tornadoes are really fire whirls. But that doesn’t mean fire tornadoes can’t exist; they can, but they are incredibly rare.

How Do Firefighters Put Out Wildfires?

Firefighters will typically create fire lines and try to hold the fire in place and allow it to burn out whatever fuel source it is feeding on. They will also set backfires if they have a good idea which direction the fire may burn in so that when the wildfire encounters these areas, there is nothing to burn. Plane missions will drop fire retardant on the fire from above.

Winds are largely a cause of major concern for firefighters fighting major wildfires. If the winds are too intense, firefighters may opt to mass evacuate areas and hope to semi-contain only specific, reasonable portions of the area.


Wildfires are a dangerous modern threat to people living all over the world. Having a bug out plan is always essential. It is important to understand that when evacuating a fire, time is of the essence and there may not be time to grab any bug out bag supplies. Monitor wildfire maps and always follow the instructions of city, county and state officials. If you are asked to evacuate, get out as soon as you can. Make sure that you have a plan for you and your family before anything happens. Knowing the terrain and all its evacuation routes is half the battle.

Author: Jim Satney

PrepForThat’s Editor and lead writer for political, survival, and weather categories.

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