It finally happens; the disaster you’ve been waiting for… you’ve got to grab your family and your bug out bag and get out. You’ll be safe once you make it to the woods. Nobody will be able to find you, and you’ll be able to make it to that broken-down cabin you spotted. A little work and it will be as good as new. The main thing is that you’re safe.
Then you see it. High up on the ridge opposite you, you see a forest fire. Now the woods aren’t safe anymore. In fact, they’ve turned into a death trap. Can you survive?
Every year, literally thousands of forest fires burn millions of acres of forest; at times, trapping and killing people whose only crime was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. They got in the path of that wildfire and they couldn’t find a way out.
Dangers from a Forest Fire
Forest fires aren’t limited to only one way of killing you, they actually have several. If one way doesn’t get you out, another could. In most cases, it’s actually a combination of these different dangers that kill people. For example, they could pass out from lack of oxygen and then be burned to death while unconscious.
A forest fire can create temperatures in excess of 1000° F. That temperature is sufficient to burn the skin, without contact, cause severe dehydration and induce heatstroke (damaging organs). Loss of water from the body can bring on heart attacks. Lungs can become scorched by the high temperature, keeping them from absorbing life-giving oxygen.
The burning of the fire produces smoke, which is a combination of carbon dioxide and ash. The ash can clog the lungs, burning the tissue as well. Carbon dioxide prevents absorption of oxygen into the lungs, leaving the body without oxygen. This affects the brain, more than any other part of the body.
Finally, the fire itself can burn the body, destroying cells and killing the individual. Usually, before that happens, the person is either dead due to smoke inhalation or has passed out due to the high temperature. If anything, that would probably be a mercy over being burned to death.
Plan A – Get out of there
The best thing to do is avoid the fire all together, getting out of there as fast as possible. As soon as you have warning about the fire, you should start moving, getting out of there before it is too late. If you can’t strike camp and go in five minutes, leave your gear there.
Your first notice of the fire will probably not be seeing it, but hearing or smelling it. The smell of the smoke and the crackle of the fire can give you an indication much farther than the flames themselves. Perversely enough, you can actually see the flame or glow from the fire farther at night, than you can in the daytime; increasing your warning time. You should also keep an eye on the wildlife. If birds and animals are running away, there’s a reason. It could be a very strong indication of a fire.
Before leaving, determine the direction of the wind and the direction of the fire. You don’t want to end up running towards the fire. In most cases, the fire will be blown along by the wind, rather than moving in any other direction. Nevertheless, forest fires can affect wind patterns and at times this will affect the direction they are blowing.
If the fire is close, move directly away from it, in the direction the wind is blowing. Avoid going uphill, as the fire will move faster going uphill and you will move slower. Also avoid being down in the bottom of canyons or draws, as they can become a chimney, funneling the deadly heat up towards you.
If you are far enough away to allow, try to move laterally across the face of the fire, seeking to find the end of it and get past it into a safe zone. Ultimately, this is your safest course of action.
Traveling in a car can help you move much faster than the fire does. But keep in mind that the fire may trap you and prevent you from following the road. If that’s the case, be willing to damage your car’s bodywork, in order to go off road. The car is replaceable, your life isn’t.
Plan B – Find a safe spot
There may be times when you can’t outrun the fire. If that’s the case, then you need to find a safe place to hold out, allowing it to pass you by. Safe places would include any body of water, an area that is already burned over or a rocky area where there isn’t any fuel to burn. Check overhead and make sure that the tree branches aren’t overshadowing your safe area. If they are, then the area isn’t safe after all.
Water is the best safe area. Not only can it protect you from the heat of the fire, but you can drink it to avoid dehydration. Be careful though and only drink the water after you have purified it. Water won’t burn, so as long as you are in the water and far enough away from shore to prevent the fire from being blown to you, you are safe.
Try to stay in water that is shallow enough for you to touch bottom. Cold water can lead to hypothermia and if that hits while you are treading water, you could forget to keep moving your limbs, ultimately dying. Make sure that your whole body and clothing is wet, to the point of putting on extra clothing and wetting it down as well. Be careful, as you have to find the balance between not being hurt by the fire and not falling prey to hypothermia.
Creating a Backfire
If you can’t find a safe haven from the fire, you might be able to create one. You will need a large grassy meadow, without brush or tree cover. Light a fire along the upwind edge of the meadow and allow it to burn across to the far side, putting it out as it reaches the far side. You can then stay in the middle of this area, allowing the fire to burn its way around you. The fire won’t burn you, as the grass will already have been burnt.
While backfires are used as a common firefighting technique, you face the risk of being accused of lighting a forest fire, if you do this. Taking care to only burn the meadow, creating your safe haven, and putting out the fire before it can spread will help in your defense of your actions.
If at all possible, douse yourself and the ground you are standing on with water. This will both lower your temperature (and that of the ground) and make it harder for any sparks to catch fire in your clothing.