Ask Brian: How can I prepare for a forest fire?

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Ask Brian is a weekly column by real estate expert Brian Kline. If you have any questions about real estate investing, DIY, buying / selling homes, or other housing inquiries, please send your questions to [email protected]

Lorrie’s question in ID: Hi Brian. My family and I recently made a big lifestyle change. After several visits, we went from a metropolitan area on the east coast to what I consider a wilderness area in northern Idaho. Over the past six weeks, I have learned that we are in an area considered vulnerable to forest fires. What I have been told is that drought conditions coupled with historic high temperatures have elevated the fire risk to a very high and extreme level in northern Idaho. They actually have a ‘forest fire season’ here which usually lasts from summer until the first heavy rains or snowfall in fall. I’m sure you’ll tell me that we should have done more research before making such a drastic change. But what I really want to know are practical steps we can take to protect ourselves and our home before a fire breaks out.

Answer: Hello Lorrie. There are three important steps you want to take to prepare for the possibility of a forest fire. The first is to take steps to make your home reasonably fire resistant. Second, have a plan and supplies in place before a wildfire becomes a threat. Third, evacuate when told that a fire could endanger you and your home.

Lorrie, since you are in the middle of fire season, you should prioritize having a plan and supplies ready before you spend time making your home fire resistant. One of the first things to do is to find several ways to leave your area. Drive the escape routes and find shelter. Prepare an emergency kit (one that you can carry in your hand). Suppose you won’t have time to research or purchase the supplies you need.

Here is a basic list that you may want to customize based on your family’s needs.

  • Face masks or blankets.
  • Three-day supply of non-perishable food and three gallons of water per person.
  • Map marked with your evacuation routes.
  • Prescriptions and drugs.
  • Special supplies for infants or other people with special needs.
  • Change of clothes.
  • Additional glasses or contact lenses.
  • An additional set of car keys, credit cards, cash or travelers’ checks.
  • First aid kit.
  • Flashlight with additional batteries.
  • Battery operated radio with additional batteries. (Do not rely on the ability to recharge the batteries.)
  • Sanitary supplies.
  • Copies of important documents (birth certificates, passports, etc.).
  • Food and water for animals.

Items to take if time and space allow:

  • Bedding supplies.
  • Easy to transport valuables.
  • Family photos and other irreplaceable objects.
  • Personal computer information on hard drives and disks.
  • Chargers for cell phones, laptops, etc.

FEMA provides an application for real-time alerts from the National Weather Service. You also want to have the contact details of the local authorities.

Here are the common steps you want to take ahead of time to protect your home from forest fires.

  • Hopefully your house was built with fire resistant materials, and you should always make repairs or modifications using fire resistant materials.
  • Install dual sensor smoke detectors on every floor of your home (which test for smoke and carbon monoxide).
  • Keep a wide strip of soil around your house (30 feet) clear of any flammable vegetation. Remove leaves, dead branches and twigs, trash, etc.
  • Remove tree branches protruding from the roof.
  • Remove limbs within 15 feet of the ground. (Strongly consider thinning trees near the house so that the treetops are no further than 15 feet away.)
  • Keep the roof and gutters clean.
  • Have the power company clear the branches of power lines.
  • Remove vines and any fire hazard from the walls of the house.
  • Mow the grass regularly.
  • Clear a 10 foot area around the propane tanks and barbecue.
  • Do not store old newspapers or other combustibles near the house. Keep firewood at least 100 feet and preferably upstream from your house. Store gasoline, oily rags, and other flammable materials in approved safety containers and away from home.
  • Follow all burning restrictions for your location.
  • Review your home insurance policy and keep an up-to-date list of your home’s contents.
  • Review all recommendations from local authorities annually.

When a forest fire is reported in your area, you may or may not have time to prepare to evacuate. If you see a forest fire and have not received an evacuation order, dial 9-1-1. Don’t assume someone else has already called. There is often more than one level of evacuation order. If time remains, you will be told to prepare to evacuate, the most urgent order being to GO NOW!

When an order is given, you must wear protective clothing outside – sturdy shoes, cotton or woolen clothing, long pants, a long-sleeved shirt, gloves and a blanket to protect your face . You may need a respirator that filters the smoke or ash before you breathe it.

If you have the time:

  • Go over your escape routes and load the car.
  • Arrange to stay with a friend or relative outside the endangered area.
  • Close exterior attic eaves, basement vents, windows, doors, cat flaps, etc. Remove flammable drapes and curtains.
  • Close all heavy non-combustible shutters, blinds and window coverings.
  • Close all doors inside the house to avoid drafts.
  • Open your fireplace damper but close the fire screen or the fireplace door.
  • Shut off all natural gas, propane, fuel oil or fuel at the source.
  • Install water sprinklers around the perimeter of the house. Especially on the roof and near the above ground fuel tanks.
  • Keep an eye out for pets.
  • Place a ladder against the house in plain sight to assist the firefighters.
  • Turn on outdoor lights and leave one light on in each room to make the house more visible in the thick smoke.
  • You can place valuables that will not be damaged by water in a swimming pool or pond.
  • Always take care of your family and your personal safety first.
  • If you are unable to evacuate, call 911, provide your location, and explain your situation, including the number of people in the house and if anyone needs further assistance.
  • Let your family know where you are going and remind everyone of the agreed meeting point (s).
  • Roll up the car windows and close the air vents when driving. Avoid driving in thick smoke if possible. Drive slowly with the headlights on. Watch out for other vehicles, pedestrians and animals. If possible, put pets in cages as they may be frightened by the smell of smoke. Wild animals will flee the blaze and may run away on the road.
  • Do not go home until the authorities have declared that it is safe for you to do so.

Lorrie, you can never be overly prepared for an emergency as serious as a wildfire. Hope these general guidelines will help you, but you should always consider your personal situation and make appropriate plans.

Please add your comments.

Our weekly Ask Brian column welcomes questions from readers of all levels of experience with residential real estate. Please email your questions or inquiries to [email protected]

Photo by Nikolay Maslov on Unsplash

Author Biography: Brian Kline has been investing in real estate for over 35 years and has been writing about real estate investing for 12 years. He also draws on more than 30 years of business experience, including 12 years as a director at Boeing Aircraft Company. Brian currently lives in Lake Cushman, Washington. A vacation destination, close to a national and the Pacific Ocean.


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