Wildfire: When it's too late to evacuate, experts explain how to survive the flames

Skye Kinkade
Mount Shasta Herald

We all know to stay safely indoors during a lightning storm. If there is an earthquake, we’ve been told to brace ourselves in a sturdy doorway. But what do you if you begin to smell smoke and find yourself in the path of a wildfire?

The Boles Fire tore through the town of Weed in 2014.

It’s a terrifying question that has become more important to consider in the past years, since wildfires have been so destructive in Northern California. The 2018 Camp and Carr fires, for example, claimed dozens of lives as they tore through communities faster than people could outrun them.

The best thing to do if there is a wildfire moving in your direction? Evacuate, said Siskiyou County Sheriff Jon Lopey. 

More:Extreme fire conditions prompt closure of Forest Service campgrounds, day-use sites statewide

“You need to have the mindset, ‘what would I do if a fire swept through my community?’ You need to be ready for that,” He said.

Lopey urged Siskiyou County residents to sign up for CodeRed alerts, which keep the public informed of any emergencies via phone calls, phone alerts, or text messages. However, he also acknowledged that wildfires can move at surprising speeds. If you see smoke and/or flame, you need to assume it is not safe to stay in your home. 

Stay calm, Lopey urged, but get out immediately. If you are unable to escape in a vehicle or on foot, call law enforcement and let them know your situation.

Last-ditch survival efforts

Tim MacWelch, author of "Prepare for Anything" and other survival books.

If you find yourself in the path of a wildfire and find yourself trapped, there are some last-ditch efforts that may be life saving, said Tim MacWelch, a survival expert and the New York Times bestselling author of “Prepare for Anything.”

One of the most important things to consider is which way the wind is blowing. Determine the wind direction and then choose a route that’s upwind for the best chance of escaping a fire, MacWelch said.

Fire moves faster uphill due to updrafts; the most dangerous places to be are uphill from the fire and downwind from the flames.

Head toward bodies of water, such as rivers or lakes, or large level spots out in the open away from combustible material, according to the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. You may also select areas without fuel for the fire such as plowed fields, riverbeds, open meadows, ponds, or rocky areas – or an area that has already burned with less combustible materials, though you should be aware of your surroundings in these areas; look for downed power lines, tree snags, or other dangers.

If the flames are upon you, seek low ground, such as a ditch or a notch that will allow the hot convective current to pass overhead, the NWCG suggests. The lower you are the better your chances.

To avoid being overwhelmed by smoke, get low to the ground where there is more oxygen, said Lopey.

The Slater Fire pumps smoke into the air in this photo, taken from the Happy Camp Forest Service station on Sept. 8, 2020.

You may also find a culvert or drainpipe to crawl inside, if you fit. Lay low and curled up. Cover any exposed skin, including your face, to keep thermal burns at a minimum and help reduce smoke inhalation, the NWCG said.

To avoid damaging your lungs, hold your breath as the fire passes overhead.

If you can find a body of water, submerge as much of your body as possible and cover your face with a wet piece of clothing to block heat and filter smoke.

If you have time to think about it, make a conscious decision regarding what you wear. Avoid baggy clothing and flammable materials, Lopey said. Do not wear nylon, which has a low melting point and can melt onto your skin if near intense heat, the NWCG warns.

CAL FIRE urges evacuees to cover up as much as possible to protect against heat and flying embers with long pants, a long sleeve shirt, heavy shoes/boots, a cap, a dry bandanna for covering the face, goggles or glasses. Clothing that is 100 percent cotton is preferable.

“I would consider having emergency blankets. I would consider wearing gloves. I might have masks available,” Lopey said.

MacWelch pointed to a relatively inexpensive smoke escape hood, which is a one time use respirator for emergencies.

“There are adult and kid versions, and they allow the user to see and breathe for 60 minutes or more in smoky conditions,” MacWelch said. “Of course, it won’t protect your body from the heat but the majority of fire fatalities come from smoke inhalation – not heat.”

As a last resort or when escape is no longer an option, firefighters use a fire shelter, according to the NWCG. The dome-shaped foil covering creates a place to shelter under as the fire passes over. These shelters claim to reflect 95% of radiant heat, but they are not foolproof or completely safe. The cost on Amazon is about $400.

The aftermath of the Klamathon Fire in 2018, which destroyed some of the town of Hornbrook.

Sheltering at home

MacWelch reiterated Lopey’s main point: evacuate immediately if law enforcement tells you to.

“Don’t test your skills at firefighting by trying to protect your home,” he said. “Get out! By turning on outdoor water sprinklers (like the kind you’d use to water the lawn), you may buy your home some margin of protection from fire – but unless you can get the sprinklers to spray on the roof and all exterior walls (and the water keeps flowing), your home can still catch fire. The intense heat of a wildfire, coupled with the flammable nature of most modern building materials, is recipe for disaster. Unless the home is nothing but pure concrete, and you can control your own air supply inside (unlikely), you need to get out while you can.”

If you are trapped in your home and are surrounded by flames, Lopey said to run hoses and douse yourself and surrounding shrubs with water. Keep your family together. Fill sinks and tubs with cold water. Keep doors and windows closed but unlocked. Stay inside, away from walls and windows, NWCG advises.

What about cars?

A vehicle can serve as a makeshift shelter in many types of disasters, but it’s little help in a fire, said MacWelch. Several victims of the 2018 Camp Fire in Butte County were found inside burned vehicles.

“No vehicle cabins are airtight, and the toxic smoke and gasses of a wildfire can creep inside,” MacWelch said.

However, if you are in your vehicle, park in an area clear of vegetation. Close all vehicle windows and vents. Cover yourself with a wool blanket or jacket. Lie on the vehicle floor and use your cell phone to call 911, CAL FIRE advises.

Have a plan

Lopey said it is of utmost importance to have a plan.

Think about evacuation routes. If you get a CodeRed notification, follow the routes given, as they will be coordinated with state and federal agencies such as Caltrans, California Highway Patrol, the U.S. Forest Service and others.

Those who are elderly, disabled, or who lack transportation should network with family, friends and neighbors to create an evacuation plan in case of emergencies such as wildfire.

Lopey said it is important to realize that children and the elderly will be more susceptible to smoke and other factors and “cannot move like an adult” in an emergency situation.

Lopey also suggested a “go bag” be prepared for people to grab when they evacuate. This bag would contain important paperwork, as well as food, water, first aid supplies, a flashlight, a phone charger, some cash and a change a clothes, said MacWelch.

CAL FIRE's Go Bag checklist

“Think about if you only had five, three, two minutes to escape. What would you take?” Lopey said. He reminded residents to consider medications, necessary medical devices, and animals.

Lopey pointed out that heeding evacuation warnings and leaving earlier than necessary makes for less congestion when speed really counts. It also relieves the workload for those who are working to evacuate the public. If law enforcement is overwhelmed, Search and Rescue volunteers or members of the Sheriff’s Posse can fulfill these rescue functions, Lopey said.

Prepare, prepare, prepare

The takeaway? “Fires are unpredictable, and they can move quickly in the wind,” said Lopey, so it is important to know what you would do if faced with such a dire emergency.

Mentally rehearsing actions may make it easier if the situation actually arises.

To learn more about fire preparedness, including what to pack in your “go bag” and ways to make your home more fire safe, go to www.readyforwildfire.org

To sign up for CodeRed, go to www.co.siskiyou.ca.us/content/codered-emergency-alert-system