Safety Note: Follow the guidance of your local fire authority about the Wildfire preparation requirements in your region. The information in this article is provided for general purposes only and may not best represent your particular needs.
The threat of wildfires is increasing. Climate change is causing extreme weather conditions to occur more regularly than any time in modern history. And with that threat, a wildfire preparation checklist is necessary for people living in or near rural areas.
A wildfire preparation checklist will help you to know that your house is as well-protected as possible and that you have a plan when fire starts coming your way.
Rosie and I know this all too well. In Christmas 2019 I flew from my home in Canada back to Australia to help my father and mother protect their property from the ferocious ‘Megablaze’ that burned through the state of New South Wales.
The fire came so close to our home that we stood and watched it sneaking toward us:
Helicopters borrowed from California hovered over our heads dropping water on the fire front:
During these fires, we implemented every step of our evacuation checklist.
Here’s our checklist on how to prepare for a wildfire. It’s based on a collection of different checklists made online by FEMA, Cal Fire, the Canadian authorities, and Australian authorities. Make sure your own checklist also adheres to local requirements.
Wildfire Preparation Checklist
1. Every Year Before Wildfire Season
- Buy a High-Pressure firefighting Pump: A high-pressure firefighting pump can help you fight spot fires that can fly 2-3 miles ahead of the fire front. If you choose to stay and fight, the pump could be your life saver. If you get a pump, you will need a reliable source of water such as a water tank, pool, or lake from which your pump can draw water. If you don’t have a reliable water source, then it will not be possible to buy a pump. Most rural properties do have this water source, though. With a quality high-pressure firefighting pump, you’re much more prepared to fight the fire from your home. As the old Australian saying goes: “You can’t fight a bushfire with a garden hose.”
- Stockpile N-95 Masks: N-95 personal protection masks could help protect you if you’re stuck in thick smoke, up to an extent.
- Create a 30 Foot ‘Defense’ Zone Around your House: There should be as few flammable objects and vegetation within 30 feet of your home as possible. This buffer zone should be in place to prevent close flames from having an easy fuel path to your home: (1) Clear vegetation, vines, and surrounding outdoor furniture. (2) Remove highly flammable or tall plants that might help a fire reach your roof. (3) Remove mulch and bark chips from the ground. (4) Clean your gutters of leaves and fill them with water if a wildfire is less than 7 days away.
Here’s my father cleaning out our gutters during the recent fires (I do wish he wore a safety harness):
- Create a 100 Foot ‘Fuel Break’ Zone Around your House: The fuel break zone is realistically likely to have some light vegetation and wildfire fuels. To minimize risk, do the following: (1) Trim all tree branches that hang less than 6 feet from the ground. (2) Thin out vegetation as much as possible. (3) Create fuel breaks such as driveways, gravel paths and stretches of open un-vegetated space that will impede the fire’s path. (4) Mow your lawns and remove the lawn trimmings.
- Create a 200 Foot ‘Thin Vegetation’ Zone Around your House: If you live on a large rural property, the zone outsize of the 100 foot zone may be relevant. In this zone, tips include: (1) Trim tree branches that touch one another to prevent a flammable canopy. (2) Stack all firewood racks as far from buildings as possible, and preferably at least 200 feet from your home.
- Discuss when you will Evacuate if a Wildfire Comes: Sometimes your state will make forced evacuation orders, meaning you’re obligated to evacuate. But this isn’t always the case. In Australia, for example, it is commonplace for people to remain in place and prepare to defend their property. It is always safest to evacuate early if you do plan to leave. Wildfires are fast and unpredictable. Spot fires can start miles ahead of a fire front and may block your exit.
- Identify your Escape Routes: You should have two possible escape routes. People who live down cul-de-sacs are particularly vulnerable, and may agree to leave early due to this vulnerability.
- Create an Emergency Kit: According to Cal Fire, an emergency kit should contain: (1) A 3 day supply of food (non-perishables) and 3 gallons of water per person. (2) A supply of all necessary prescriptions. (3) Spare clothes for several days for each family member. (4) Financial documents including credit cards, debit cards and cash. (5) Spare sets of keys. (6) A basic first aid kit. (7) A wind-up battery powered flashlight and radio with spare batteries. (8) Copies of your personal documents including birth certificates and passports. (9) Any necessary supplies for your pets.
2. Seven Days before the Fire is Expected to Arrive
- Place your Ladders: Firefighters may need ladders to get to the roof to put out spot fires. Place ladders at the front corners of the house (or another smart, logical place) for firefighters to easily access. You may also want to place ladders at manholes to attic space for easy access if spot fires start in the attic.
- Place your Sprinklers: Sprinklers can be placed on the roof of the house and turned on to ensure there is a build-up of preventative water on the roof. Sprinklers can also be placed in the 30 foot zone surrounding your house to wet the area. However, do note that some fire authorities ask that water taps be turned off before you leave so they can access the taps with maximum water pressure. Check with your local fire authority.
- Place your Hoses: If you have a firefighting pump, set it up by your water source and run the hose to your house. If you have garden hoses, connect them to outdoor water mains so firefighters can use them quickly. The hoses should be long enough to reach around the building.
- Remove Flammables Near Windows: Curtains and flammable window shades should be removed from windows and placed in the center of the room so the fire does not have fuel at entryways.
- Cover Vents: Any open vents or windows that cannot be closed should be covered with duct tape, plywood, etc. to prevent drafts.
- Place Furniture in the Center of the Room: The further you can place furniture from windows and doors the better. This will help prevent fuel build-up near fire entryways.
- Fill your Buckets and Sinks with Water: Sinks, bath tubs and buckets can be filled with water. This might prevent fire spread, but also means spot fires could easily be put out by tossing a bucket of water onto the flames.
- Pack your Car: Pack your car with all emergency supplies and important valuables. You should already have that emergency kit prepared (see ‘1. Before Fire Season’).
3. As the Wildfire Approaches
- Close Windows and Doors: Shut windows and doors. This can help work as a fire block to prevent fire from spreading room to room. It can also prevent indoor wind drafts that can fan a flame. Your windows and doors do not necessarily need to be locked.
- Leave your Lights, Electricity and Water On: Firefighters may need to use your home electricity and water to protect your home. Leaving both indoor and outdoor lights on will allow firefighters to see your house through smoke.
- Face your Car to the Street: Your car should be packed with an emergency supplies kit and ready to go. Park your car facing out toward the street, ready to go at short notice. Have your keys ready.
- Turn off Gas Mains: If you use propane or natural gas, turn all taps off. Your barbecue propane tank should be placed as far from structures as possible.
- Leave Earlier than you Think you Should: Many people choose to stay to defend their home. Depending on your local authorities, this may or may not be allowed. In Australia, many people choose to stay behind and fight. I personally do not stay to fight. But, if you want to (or must) leave, do it early. You may also be caught by a “shelter in place” announcement – which basically means “If you haven’t evacuated yet, it’s too late.”
Your wildfire checklist may look different to ours. It all depends on where you live, the expectations of your local fire authority, and of course your risk tolerance. But this is ours – and we think it’s pretty sound. It’s based on the recommendations of authorities in the United States, Canada and Australia.
Don’t forget that preparations for home fires are very different to preparations for wildfires. You can often put out a home fire early if you catch it before its growth stage. Things like smoke detectors, fire extinguishers and fire blankets are necessary around your home for those sorts of fires.