This wildfire season may be counted as the largest and worst fire disaster in working memory for West coast residents. As of this writing, the wildfires this season have claimed the lives of 15 people on the west coast, including 3 people in Oregon. Hundreds of thousands of people have already evacuated their homes in our great state, as the wildfires have burned approximately 900,000 acres so far.
As the wildfires along the West coast continue to burn, it can be daunting to know what to do next or how to protect you and your family. Let’s talk about some tips on preparing your home and property, as well as protecting yourself and being ready for evacuation.
Secure Your Property
Be proactive about protecting your property from wildfires before they’re at your doorstep. To do this you’ll need to limit the fuel sources around your home:
- Clear combustible materials like pine needles or dry leaves
- Examine your trees and remove limbs that are within 15 feet of the ground
- Ensure that the branches of neighboring trees or bushes are not touching each other
- Clear away any vegetation (including weeds) that are up against the side of your house
- Remove flammable patio furniture, storing them in a shed or garage
- Clean out your rain gutters and roof from any tree branches, dried leaves, or soil
- Make sure your garden hose can reach any part of your property
- Identify water sources and make them accessible to the fire department. These include pools, ponds, lakes, fire hydrants, and wells.
Protect Yourself From Smoke
Smoke from a wildfire can travel thousands of miles and affect the air quality in your area. Smoke exposure irritates the nose, throat, eyes, and lungs, making it difficult to breathe. Children, pregnant women, those with asthma, or those with COPD or heart disease need to be particularly careful about breathing in smoke. Here are some ways to reduce your exposure to smoke:
- When indoors, close all windows and doors and replace your air conditioner filter with high efficiency versions that can trap small particles.
- Designate a room that can be closed off from outside air. Usually this would be a room with as few doors and windows as possible, such as a bedroom.
- Use a portable air filter to reduce indoor air pollution. Place this air filter into your designated “clean room”
- Avoid activities that add to indoor air pollution such as, burning candles, using gas or propane stoves, or using wood fireplaces. Further, do not spray aerosol sprays, smoke tobacco, fry meat, or use the vacuum cleaner
- Stay indoors as much as possible to avoid the hazardous gases found within smoke. These gases cannot be filtered with any type of mask.
- If you have to be outdoors, a KN95 face mask is preferred to dust masks or fabric masks since they are most efficient at filtering out fine particles. KN95 face masks are certified in China and are the equivalent of N95 masks, which are in a shortage now. KN95 masks can be found on Amazon
Tips For Power Outages
With several thousand people out of power throughout the west coast, it is important to be prepared in the event that you find yourself in darkness one day. Finding yourself without power means busting out a generator and putting your outdoor grill to good use.
However, wildfires have the potential to create long-term power outages that can last several hours to several days. What then? Here are some action items to pay attention to:
- Power that is out for more than 4 hours will begin having an effect on refrigerated food. Throw away any food that has gone bad, particularly dairy products, eggs, and meat. In the meantime, keep fridge and freezer doors closed as much as possible to preserve cold temperatures
- Power outages can compromise water purification systems in your area. Call your city water company to check the status of water quality, and take steps to treat your water if necessary. Treating water at home can involve either boiling, filtering, or adding disinfectants like iodine tablets or chlorine dioxide tablets.
- If your air conditioner is out and the wildfire smoke is irritating your lungs, consider getting a hotel room until your power is back on. Air conditioner filters can trap smoke particles, so it can become dangerous if your AC unit doesn’t work.
- Keep in mind that if your water comes from a well, then your well pump likely won’t work during a power outage. Be proactive and fill several water containers including the bathtub. Consider buying gallon water also. Those on city water will likely not lose water.
- Tankless water heaters will not be operational when the power is out. Prepare for some cold showers!
Create an Evacuation Plan
As much as we don’t want to consider the possibility of evacuating our homes, it is wise to prepare for the worst while hoping for the best. Planning ahead will save you time when you need it most. It will also allow space for you to concentrate on getting out rather than worrying that you’re forgetting something. It is a good time to create an evacuation plan when you receive a level 1 alert through your cities emergency channels. Level 1 means your area has been put on alert and indicates a potential for evacuation. There are 3 evacuation levels for wildfires, which can be viewed here.
- Ask city officials about your area’s planned evacuation route so you can navigate efficiently to safety.
- Ensure there is enough gas in your tank to get to your evacuation destination. Plan on being behind traffic along your route.
- Know where you are going to go, whether a designated shelter or a friend or family members’ house who are not affected by the fire.
- Sign up for emergency text alerts
- Pack your emergency kit. Remember things like clothes, toiletries, bedding, medications, important papers, water, canned food, disposable plates and utensils, camping pots and pans, flashlights, batteries, and a first aid kit
- Consider your pet’s needs. Pack food, leash, and a crate or carrier
Okay, so your area has been elevated to a level 2 alert. Having already prepared your emergency kit and created a plan, you should now take steps to put it into action. Once you get a level 2 alert of a warning to evacuate, it’s time to either voluntarily relocate, or decide to remain while being ready to evacuate on short notice. This means making sure your car is packed and to review your evacuation route again. The level 2 alert is also when it’s wise to move family members with mobility issues to a safer place, as well as your pets and livestock.
A level 3 alert is the order to evacuate now if you haven’t already done so. A level 3 alert will give you a specified time period for you to evacuate. If you have time, you can do last minute preparations for your house:
- Close all windows and doors
- Shut off the natural gas from its source
- Move furniture to the center of each room and take down drapes and curtains
- Turn on the lights, both indoor and outdoor so firefighters can easily see your house through the smoke.
If you do not have time, do not do these steps. You need to evacuate when you’ve been told to do so. You should already have everything in place to get into your car and go. Drive slowly and with your lights on. Keep your windows and air vents closed so smoke does not enter your car. Lastly, be sure all your doors are unlocked. This is to help rescuers reach you in case something happens while driving.
With all the uncertainty this fire season, both in our state and across the west coast, it can be draining on us to adapt to yet another large-scale threat hitting this year. It can certainly be said that 2020 has been the most difficult year for this country, and indeed the entire world. But 2020 will not win. We have adapted to life during a pandemic, and we have had to adapt quickly before to unforeseen weather in Oregon. We know we can do it again. While this year will be one for the books, our proactive preparations will get us safely to the other side. The team at Healthy Connections stands with all Oregonians to remind us to face challenges head-on, and above all to stay safe this wildfire season.