Capable of destroying forests, homes, and critical infrastructure, wildfires pose an increasing threat to countless Americans. Across the country, the number, severity, and duration of wildfires have increased in recent years. Additionally, human development into areas susceptible to wildfires has also increased. These areas, known as wildland-urban interface areas, pose not only an increased risk to individuals living in them but also to the firefighter’s tasked with protecting them. As a direct result of both upward trends in wildfire severity and an increasing number of citizens inhabiting wildland-urban interface areas, an increasing effort has been put forth by a number of local, state, and government agencies to control and manage wildfires. Additionally, these agencies have also begun to focus on educating the public about this devastating natural hazard and how to best mitigate the risks associated with wildfires. One agency working to inform the public of wildfire risk is the National Weather Service.
Currently, the National Weather Service (NWS) informs the public of times of increased wildfire risk by issuing notices when weather conditions favor the ignition and rapid growth of wildfires. One such notice issued by the NWS is the Fire Weather Watch. A Fire Weather Watch is issued to alert land managers and the public that weather conditions developing in the next 12 to 72 hours could result in critical fire weather conditions. The NWS, in conjunction with land management agencies, also issues Red Flag Warnings. These notices are issued when currently existing weather conditions or conditions expected to develop in the next 24 hours are favorable to rapid fire growth. In addition to alerts issued by the NWS, some communities may also utilize the National Fire Danger Rating System.
The National Fire Danger Rating System (NFDRS) takes into account a number of factors, including fuels, weather, topography, and local risk. Considering these specific factors, fire managers estimate the daily fire danger for a specific area. Consisting of 5 different color-coded levels, the NFDRS functions to clearly inform visitors and residents of current conditions and help mitigate their actions to reduce wildfires resulting from human causes. Each level of the NFDRS is described in more detail in the table below.
|Fire Danger Level||Color||Description|
Updated daily, fire danger ratings can be found posted outside local ranger districts as well as on the Lakeview Interagency Fire Center website. This website has other helpful information such as fire restrictions, industrial fire precaution levels, and local fire information. Information on local air quality and burn restrictions is available on the Klamath County Air Quality Advisory website.
Before a Wildfire
Wildfires can completely change directions in seconds and destroy entire areas in a matter of minutes. Consequently, officials and law enforcement may not always have time to carry out evacuation orders. Being prepared will ensure that you and your family are ready to evacuate even if you do not receive advanced warning of an approaching wildfire. Actions you can take to prepare for the occurrence of a wildfire include assessing your risk, preparing an emergency plan, building a basic disaster supplies kit, and creating a defensible space around your home.
One of the first steps to take when preparing for a wildfire is to assess your risk. One tool you can utilize to help assess your risk from wildfires is the wildfire risk assessment tool available through the Klamath County Ready, Set, Go! Program. This searchable map allows you to locate your property and generates a wildfire risk score for your home. This score can then be used as a reference point for you to begin preparing your home.
Once you have assessed your risk, you can then begin to prepare an emergency plan. A well-thought-out family emergency communications plan will help to ensure that you and all the members of your household understand what to do and where to go in the event of a wildfire. Your wildfire emergency plan should clearly identify multiple evacuation routes from your home to a safe meeting place or shelter. After you have composed your emergency plan, it is important that you make it readily accessible to all family members and that you practice your plan on a regular basis. In addition to a wildfire emergency plan, it is also important that individuals living in areas susceptible to wildfires build a basic disaster supplies kit.
A basic disaster supplies kit should include enough food, water, and other supplies to last at least 72 hours. In addition to these basic supplies, it is also recommended that individuals living in areas at risk from wildfires include a few extra items in their kit to better prepare them for the harsh conditions associated with fires. These items include N95 respirator masks to offer some protection from smoke and ash, a first-aid kit designed for treating burn injuries, heavy-duty boots, and leather gloves. Once you have adequately prepared yourself and your family, you can then begin to prepare your home.
Contrary to popular belief, home survival during wildfires is not random, but rather the result of careful preparation by responsible homeowners. Research has repeatedly shown that properties where mitigation actions have been performed are significantly more likely to escape high-intensity wildfires unscathed or with only minimal damage. One of the best ways to mitigate your home’s risk from wildfires is to create a defensible space around your home.
Defined as the area surrounding your home where vegetation has been managed to reduce wildfire risk, a defensible space acts as a buffer between your home and the fire. To construct a defensible space around your home, you must first determine the appropriate size of the space. The size of a defensible space depends on a number of factors, such as the type of vegetation surrounding your home, and can range anywhere from 100 to 200 feet around your home. Once you have determined the required distance for your defensible space, you can then begin to prepare the area. This includes removing any dead vegetation, creating separation between native trees and shrubs, and removing lower tree branches from trees. Finally, you can then begin to focus on preparing the area within 30 feet of your home.
The area immediately surrounding your home should be kept lean, clean, and green meaning that vegetation in this area should be kept to a minimum, be kept free of any dead vegetation, and be well irrigated. Keeping this area lean, clean, and green serves two purposes. First, it helps to prevent embers from igniting a fire close to your home and secondly, if a fire does start near your home, it helps to keep fire intensity low. For more information on how you can further prepare your home review the Fire Adapted Communities: The Next Step in Wildfire Preparedness booklet produced by the Oregon State University Extension Service. You can also visit the Klamath County Ready, Set Go! website for more information on how to prepare for a wildfire.
During a Wildfire
If you see a wildfire and haven’t received any emergency information, call 911 and be prepared to evacuate the area on short notice. Do not assume other individuals have already alerted emergency services of the wildfire. If you feel it is unsafe to remain in the area or receive an evacuation notice, immediately evacuate, making sure to tell someone where you are evacuating to and when you have arrived. The best way to ensure the safety of both you and your family during a wildfire is to evacuate as soon as possible.
While evacuating the area is almost always the best option to stay safe during a wildfire, this is not always possible. Wildfires can move rapidly and you may not receive an evacuation notice in time to evacuate to a safer area. As a result, you could be trapped in your home, in your vehicle, or outside. If you are trapped by an approaching fire front, it is recommended that you follow a few safety precautions to better your chances of survival.
If you are unable to evacuate, your home will provide the most protection from the intense heat and smoke generated by a major wildfire. Consequently, it is important that you stay in your home until the fire front has passed. If time permits, make sure all doors, windows, and vents are shut to prevent the entry of embers into your home. Additionally, you can stuff wet rags or towels under doorways and other openings to further prevent smoke and embers from entering your home. Keep all doors unlocked so that if your home catches fire you can quickly exit and seek refuge elsewhere. Fill sinks and tubs in your home with water and move flammable materials away from any windows or sliding glass doors. As the fire front passes, drink plenty of water and make sure to stay away from any windows or exterior walls. Taking these precautions will better your chances of surviving a catastrophic wildfire.
Currently, researchers are still determining the best guidelines to follow if you are trapped in your vehicle during a wildfire. While not the best place to be trapped during a wildfire, vehicles can provide adequate protection from intense heat and smoke in certain cases. If you are trapped in a vehicle, you should take into account your circumstances, environment, and the approaching fire front when deciding if you should remain in your vehicle or take cover outside. If you choose to stay in your automobile, park your vehicle off the roadway in an area clear of vegetation. Make sure to close all the windows and vents in your vehicle and lie on the floor, preferably covering yourself with a wool blanket or jacket to further protect yourself from intense heat. Call 911 and alert them to your situation so that they can dispatch firefighters to your location as soon as it is safe to reenter the area.
If you choose to exit your vehicle or are on foot when a fire front is approaching, stay calm and attempt to find an area clear of all vegetation. A ditch or depression in the ground is an ideal place to take cover if you are on foot. Lie face down and cover your body. If possible, lie with your feet toward the approaching flame front. Staying low during the passage of a wildfire will protect you from the most intense heat and smoke. If you can, call 911 and advise them of your situation. For more information on what to do during a wildfire, visit Readyforwildfire.org.
After a Wildfire
Both during and in the immediate aftermath of a wildfire, it is crucial that you closely monitor local news outlets for the most accurate, up-to-date information. If you have evacuated, wait until local officials lift evacuation orders for your area before you return to your home. When you do return, keep in mind that a number of hazards can be present both in your home and on your property in the immediate aftermath of a devastating wildfire.
Areas struck by wildfire can be extremely hazardous in the hours and days following its passage. When returning to your property, keep an eye out for overhead hazards. Intense fires can burn away the bases of power poles and large trees, creating potential overhead hazards that could fall at any time. If you see a downed power line, maintain a safe distance and contact 911 or the power company immediately. In addition to overhead hazards, keep in mind that sparks and embers can still ignite your home under favorable conditions. Immediately inspect the roof of your home for embers and, if possible, put out any smoldering materials by wetting them down with water. Once you have made a complete assessment of your property and the outside of your home, you can then consider reentering your home.
Wildfires generate intense heat that can significantly compromise the structural integrity of buildings. As a result, it is recommended that you use extreme caution when reentering your home after a wildfire. If your home sustained any major damage during the wildfire, contact an expert to assess the damage and ensure that your home is safe to inhabit. If your home is safe to enter, use extreme caution as a number of hazards may still exist in your home. Wear leather gloves to protect your hands from broken glass or other sharp object and thick-soled boots to protect your feet. Make sure to check the attic for any signs of fire. If you see flames or smell smoke coming from the attic space, immediately exit your home and contact 911. Make sure to throw away any food exposed to heat or smoke and refrain from using any tap water until it has been deemed safe to do so by the appropriate authorities. Visit Ready.gov for more information on what to do after a wildfire.
Wildfires in Klamath County
A vital component of ecosystems throughout the local area, wildfire has shaped much of the landscape that makes up Klamath County. Historically, Klamath County has had frequent, low-intensity wildfires that thinned out excess vegetation and reduced the buildup of pine needles, leaves, and other dead organic material. Much of the vegetation found throughout Klamath County has adaptations allowing it to not only grow but thrive in the presence of frequent fires. As a result, many of the healthiest forests in the county are those that see frequent, low-intensity fires. Not recognizing the beneficial effects of fire on local ecosystems, early settlers of Klamath County sought to reduce and ultimately eliminate wildfire risk in the area.
As a result of the beliefs of early settlers and national policies on fire management, aggressive fire suppression practices were employed for much of the 20th century. These practices resulted in the buildup of vegetation and ultimately created the unnatural conditions necessary for the large, high-intensity fires seen across much of the United States today. Since the early 20th century, fire management principles have changed drastically and fire is now recognized as an important element of healthy forests, deserts, and grasslands. Despite this drastic shift in both fire management principles and policies, the aggressive fire suppression efforts put forth by numerous agencies throughout the early 20th century have created a fire-prone landscape across much of the county.
With an increasing number of homes being built in areas previously subject to intense fire suppression efforts, local fire management agencies and officials face a major challenge; how to best reduce wildfire risk for individuals living in these areas. With such a significant portion of the county at risk, local officials, fire management agencies, and other experts composed an extensive plan to reduce wildfire risk throughout the area. This plan, the Community Wildfire Protect Plan (CWPP), was composed with the hopes that its implementation would ultimately help to preserve life and property from catastrophic wildfires. In addition to the Klamath County CWPP, a number of both public and private efforts aimed at reducing the risk of high-intensity wildfires are taking place throughout the county.