It’s easy to think of wildfires only happening “out there” — in rugged wilderness, far from urban areas. But keep this in mind: More than 25 million acres of California wildlands are considered at “very high or extreme” fire threat, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
And that puts 100% of us at risk for breathing in sooty, smoky air. All of us have reason to be concerned about wildfires.
”It can be overwhelming. It’s a very scary thought to be envisioning a wildfire,” says Rebecca Miller, an expert on wildfires in the state. “But unfortunately that is the reality that has come to be, living in California.”
Miller urges us all to take a hard look at what could happen — and how we’d handle it.
“Doing that for yourself now is going to save you so much in the future and it may also give you a sense of calm,” she says. “And the likelihood you have to use it will be extremely low, but you have at least taken care of it. It can be very empowering.”
The wildfire experts we’ve talked to all said the same thing:
But don’t be caught off guard, either.
Instead, be prepared.
In 2019, our newsroom brought you The Big One, a podcast aimed at helping you navigate a catastrophic earthquake in Southern California. Now, the team is back with The Big Burn, a podcast that looks at the surprisingly complex topic of wildfires in California: Over the course of the podcast we share what we’ve gleaned from the 2018 wildfire season, the deadliest and most devastating in history, and how all of us — yes, all of us — can prepare for whatever comes next.
To that end, we’ve asked experts to help us compile a beginner’s checklist for our new reality in the Golden State, and life in an age of increasing wildfires.
Wildfires aren’t necessarily increasing, but they’re burning more dangerously and destructively, Miller says.
Just over a third of the state falls into "fire hazard severity zones," a number that is expected to rise as state fire officials complete a statewide remapping project, said Daniel Berlant, deputy director of community wildfire preparedness and mitigation with the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. "It's not just an issue for rural areas anymore."
As Miller explained:
“What we have now are record-breaking fires every single wildfire season. We are seeing these fires all over the state, fires affecting urban areas, rural areas, suburban areas. This isn’t a problem that we can ignore anymore. This is an issue that affects all of California.”
That's what happened to Weed, California, where the Mill Fire started in a commercial building and picked up speed when embers met up with drought-dry grass and scrub brush. That fueled a conflagration that ripped through the historically Black community of Lincoln Heights, killing two and injuring three. The fire burned through nearly 4,000 acres in 10 days before being contained. By then nearly 150 homes and structures were damaged or destroyed.
“Wildfire is no longer in the wilderness,” Weed Mayor Kim Greene told the media. “It’s right inside the city limits.”
Wildfire causes are many— and complicated. Among them:
- Climate change
- Years-long drought
- Insect infestations that kill off healthy trees, turning them into fire fuel
- Downed power lines
- Housing development that pushes into new territories
- Disputes over the best way to manage our forests.
The costs of solving any one of these problems is budget busting. Tackling them all? Astronomical.
If this doom-and-gloom sounds like a hysterical call to panic, think again.
Your Simple Study Guide
Being prepared means being in the know. Prep you do now will pay off during the high tension of a fire alert.
So start by identifying the sites and news feeds that are local to your community — say, over a lunch hour or two — and share them with others in your household and neighborhood. That prep will pay off later.
OK, let’s get started.
Sign Up For Alerts
- Sign up for local alerts. They’re a reliable clearinghouse for up-to-date news, and early warnings.
- Be familiar with your reliable local news sources (we do our best here at LAist.com and 89.3 KPCC to stay on top of any Southern California fires that lead to evacuations.)
- Bookmark Fire.Ca.Gov/Incidents, which gives you an at-a-glance look at blazes in progress. This is especially important if you plan on traveling.
- Readyforwildfire.org is your friend to get everything prepped. It guides you through the three critical stages: READY (go bag prepped), SET (the ability to leave at a moment’s notice) GO (get out of there as soon as authorities give the word.) It’s a great starting place on how to prepare your home and family.
Want to know even more? Turn here for insider tips:
- This Twitter feed isn’t official but it has a devoted following of more than 132,000: @CAFireScanner
- For those who like to follow the big picture, and also know what is happening nationwide, there’s Wildfire Today.
Finally, it probably goes without saying but we’ll say it anyway: There will always be a lapse between what is happening on the chaotic front lines of a fast-moving wildfire and when news blasts are pushed out. So use common sense: If you find yourself looking to the horizon, debating whether it might be time to evacuate…grab what is dearest to you and go.
Staying Safe From Smoke
No one needs a Twitter feed to tell them when there’s a wildfire in the distance. Our noses know.
If you’re lucky enough to be far from danger when a wildfire strikes, you still need to grapple with the poor air quality that can extend hundreds of miles from the flames. So when the skies turn that eerie shade of orange and ash starts accumulating on car hoods, take these precautions:
- Head indoors, and keep doors and windows closed. Make sure those around you who are more vulnerable — such as the elderly, people who suffer from respiratory ailments, children and pregnant women — do the same.
- Once inside, limit activity — no burning candles or using every burner in the kitchen to cook up a meal — which all add pollutants to the environment you are trying to keep sealed, said Dr. Yifang Zhu, a professor of environmental health sciences with the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. This is also not the time to be running on a bedroom treadmill and sucking in big gulps of air.
- Run air purifiers. Zhu recommends shopping from this list of air purifiers compiled by the California Air Resources Board. (This list is massive. You might want to shop around at your favorite local store first, identify some options that fit your budget, and then check if they’ve made the CARB cut.)
- If that list feels overwhelming, here’s another resource that is more modest in size, but also quite helpful: Consumer Reports’ 2022 list of Best Air Purifiers for Wildfire Smoke.
- And yes, keep masks handy. Take the time now, before disaster strikes, to have a cache of N95 masks on hand, for their ability to filter out airborne particles. Yes, they can be uncomfortable, Zhu says. But they are absolutely what you want to use when the air is particularly sooty. (KN95s are considered a more comfortable alternative.)
- If you are with a group of people who cannot wear these kinds of masks for health reasons, such as asthma, relocating sooner rather than later is probably your best bet.
Prep For Power Being Out
People forget that power outages can go hand-in-hand with wildfires. Just one example: The second biggest fire in recorded history in California started with a power outage.
So being ready for wildfires means planning on the power being out. In fact, plan on the power being out for several days.
- Have flashlights and lanterns ready. If they’re battery powered, store batteries with (but not inside) the devices, so batteries last longer.
- Get in the habit of keeping phones as close to fully charged as possible, so you have a reserve if the power goes out. Have some backup phone chargers (and keep them fully charged!).
- Keep a physical grab-and-go list of key phone numbers. Old fashioned, yes. But do you know everyone’s phone numbers by heart, in case your phone charger dies and you need to let someone know you’re safe and sound?
- Keep a battery-charged radio on hand as well.
- Avoid opening fridges and freezers for as long as possible, to keep food from spoiling.
- One exception: Critical medications that need refrigeration, such as insulin. If power goes out, quickly get these medications into a smaller cooler, surrounded with some ice packs, and then open as little as possible. Packing medications up will also make them easier to grab and go if needed.
- If you have young kids, keep a new toy or two tucked away in the closet to break out for just such a moment, when a distraction will be sorely needed.
- Have a stash of favorite foods and snacks that don't require cooking or heating, like peanut butter and crackers, granola bars and canned goods. (Make sure you have an old-fashioned can opener available, and not just the electric kind!)
- Here are more tips from Southern California Edison, including these critical safety reminders: Never light a fire or charcoal inside. And never go near a downed power line.
Ready Your Home And Your Family
Long before there’s a wildfire, take the time to scrutinize your home and surroundings. You’ll find a great start at SmokeyBear.com and the National Fire Protection Assn. — here's their diagram for brush clearance:
Make a list of any repairs or improvements that can be made to your home and start knocking those out over time. Also, make a list of things that could be done if your home is within the range of a fire outbreak — but only if time and safety allow.
- Keep roofs, gutters, and patios clear of leaves, pine needles and brush. Remove flammable vegetation and mulch from within five feet of the home. Remove trees and shrubs that overhang within 10 feet of the home. That all is fuel for fire.
- Keep flammables from within 30 feet of the home. These might not be immediately obvious, but consider: Lawn mowers, propane tanks, and wood piles could fuel flames. Ideally, move wooden patio furniture, outdoor shade curtains, toys, door mats, and the like away from a home if fire threatens.
- Install mesh screens over openings and beneath decking to prevent embers from floating in.
- Replace or repair any loose or missing shingles or roof tiles that could give embers an entry point to your home.
- Indoor precautions include moving furniture to the center of the room, removing window curtains and window coverings, and leaving lights on, which can help firefighters who may need to enter the premises, according to ReadyForWildfire.org
- If your home may be in danger, hose down the roof and siding with water. (Again, only if time and safety allow.)
Prepare To Evacuate
The price we pay for living in paradise is that we need to be ready to deal with natural disasters. This requires frank conversations with family members about what role everyone will play in case of an emergency.
That starts with having an evacuation plan in place, according to Ready for Wildfire, which suggests: “Make sure you know your community’s emergency response plan and have a plan on where to go when it is time to evacuate, and best routes for leaving your location.”
Miller, the wildfires expert, agreed. She is an affiliated scholar with USC’s West on Fire Project, whose research focuses on how wildfires are reshaping policies and communities in California.
“The best tip I can offer someone who lives in an area at risk for wildfire is to check in with your local fire department,” she said. Some departments may even evaluate your home for you and provide very specific recommendations, she added.
Want to take a closer look at some of your potential risks? First Street Foundation, a non-profit research group, has a new tool, called Risk Factor: Input your address for data about the risk for fire and flooding in your area. (The website notes, however, that this should not be relied upon for in-the-moment details about "active events.")
- Miller also suggests working closely with neighbors. Be the one who sets up a neighborhood network. Exchange numbers with neighbors, and create a texting loop, to keep each other informed and lend help if necessary. If you work far from home, consider striking up an agreement with a trusted neighbor to evacuate your teenager or pet on your behalf if needed.
- Next up? Get in the habit of keeping your gas tank nearly full, advises the Red Cross. Sure, it’s a hassle to stop for gas every other day or so, but you’ll never regret the ability to drive your family hundreds of miles from danger, without stopping for gas.
- Evacuating also means having a “go bag” together for every member of the family, pets included.
- “The idea of a go bag is having everything you might need in an easily accessible bag so if need be you can grab it and run out the door,” added Miller.
Like the bag you pack for the hospital when you’re pregnant. Think of it as everything that you’d need if you can’t come back to your home for up to a week.
- Miller suggests starting by just jotting down a big long list of what that would mean, focusing on the basics, for every member of the house. Medications. Phone chargers. Toiletries. Laptop and charger. A few changes of clothing. Some bottled water and snacks. Identification. Cash. Pet food. Water and food bowls.
- Three-day supply of non-perishable food and three gallons of water per person
- Map marked with at least two evacuation routes
- Prescriptions or special medications
- Change of clothing
- Extra eyeglasses or contact lenses
- An extra set of car keys, credit cards, cash or traveler's checks
- First aid kit
- Battery-powered radio and extra batteries
- Sanitation supplies
- Copies of important documents (birth certificates, passports, etc.)
- Pet food and water
- Designate a corner of a closet or garage for all the gear you’re setting aside, zipped up and ready to be snatched up. If wildfires are on the horizon, you can even pack up your vehicle in advance, and be at the ready to leave.
- When those basics are done, it’s time to level up: Start thinking about the important paperwork you might need, documents that would be hard to replace. Insurance documents. Bank account numbers. Photos. Passports. The title to your car. The deed to your house. Birth certificates. Consider making copies of all these items and saving them to a USB drive -- and giving them to a trusted relative on the other side of the country. Then put that drive in the bottom of your go bag. Keep the real copies someplace safe where you could hopefully also grab them and go -- but the USB drive will help you replace those valuables if that is not possible.
- Miller also suggests that your advance planning include taking a video of everything in your home. Open drawers, closets and everything else. “It would be a challenge to remember all that info off hand” for insurance purposes, she said.
- All that said, if danger is within striking distance, just take your loved ones and go. Sure, it would be heartbreaking to lose original photos or a PITA to replace passports and other important paperwork, but none of that really matters in the face of fire.
Ready to get started? This checklist at Ready For Wildfire is super helpful to get the ball rolling.
Take It Step By Step
We also admit that this all feels a little daunting.
So we asked Miller for some parting words that will help us shake off procrastination and paralyzing fear.
Just realize this, Miller said:
If you go through a checklist little by little, within a few weeks, you will be in great shape in case of wildfire. Even better: Much of this work can dovetail with earthquake preparedness.
“Part of the idea of earthquake preparedness kits is to have it before an earthquake happens. The same is true of wildfires. You don't want to build that go bag when you are in the middle of a wildfire threat. You don’t want to be shoveling out cat food when you are also trying to evacuate.”
Do it now, Miller said, and the stress and fear and tension will melt away.
“You will rest easier,” she said, “literally.”