The West Coast has a long history of recurring drought, and in recent years, dry conditions have contributed to devastating wildfires, a few of which have blazed with unprecedented fury through populated areas.
In California, more than 8,000 wildfires of varying size and intensity occurred in 2021 alone, burning an estimated 2.5 million acres and causing billions of dollars in losses. The state’s most destructive wildfire of all time, the Camp Fire in the town of Paradise, killed at least 86 people and reduced more than 18,700 structures to ash.
Wildfires appear to be getting worse across the West. Eighteen of California’s 20 largest fires and 11 of the state’s deadliest broke out in the past two decades. Arizona experienced its most destructive wildfire on record, the Wallow Fire, in 2011. In Montana, the 10-year average for burned acreage from 2008 to 2017 was 366,282—more than one million acres burned across the state in 2017 alone. As climate change continues to warm the planet and disrupt meteorological patterns, scientists say these blazes will become more frequent, more fearsome, and more costly to tame.
“This climate shift, combined with inappropriate forest management and land-use policies in many areas, has greatly increased fire risk at a time when we are building closer to these fire-prone areas,” says Steven J. Jensen, a member of the American Red Cross Scientific Advisory Council. “It is possible to live in these areas, but we need to be wise and diligent stewards of these precious resources.”
For California residents contending with these tumultuous conditions, “it’s not a matter of if a wildfire will strike, but when,” says CALFire spokesperson Amy Head.
Here is how to best prepare for a wildfire—and what to do when one strikes—according to experts.
1. Craft an escape plan.
The experts we spoke with agreed that lacking a plan—or crafting a faulty one—is one of the biggest mistakes people make when preparing for wildfires. “Nobody has a plan because nobody thinks it will happen to them,” says Gary Reid, former manager of insurance operations and specialty products for AAA.
You should have at least two escape routes out of your home and neighborhood in case one route is cut off by fire, traffic, fallen power lines, or other obstacles, Reid says.
CALFire’s Amy Head stresses the importance of rehearsing your escape with the other members of your household—not just on your own. “When [a fire] happens, there’s going to be a lot of panic and a lot of emotions. Practice so you know what you’re doing when the time comes,” she says.
2. Pick a meeting place.
In the event that you and your loved ones are apart during a wildfire evacuation, select a meeting place and ensure that everyone knows where it’s located and how to get there. Ideally, the meeting spot should be located outside your neighborhood “in an expansive, wide open area with very little natural fuel,” says Scott McLean, deputy chief of CALFire.
Because the intensity and speed of wildfires vary, McLean says it’s important to examine the escape routes in your area, taking note of the direction and breadth of previous fires in the region, when selecting a meeting point.
“Unfortunately, there’s no concrete distance the meeting place should be located from your home,” he said. “It’s up to your family to decide.”
Family members should practice taking multiple routes to the designated location. If you have children, contact their schools to learn their emergency plans and disaster pickup protocol, McLean says. The location of their schools should be considered when plotting your evacuation route.
Your local emergency shelter can also serve as a meeting place. To locate your nearest shelter during a wildfire or other emergency, use the online Disaster Recovery Center Locator from FEMA, or text DRC along with your ZIP code to 43362. Shelter locations are determined by the position of the fire.
3. Develop a communication strategy.
Designate one person, located at least 100 miles away from your residence, whom every member of your household will call and check-in with in case you aren’t together during an emergency. Everyone should memorize this phone number, and one another’s.
If the fire is near your home and you cannot make contact with an immediate family member that you believe is at home, promptly inform your local sheriff’s department, who will dispatch emergency responders, McLean says.
If you do not believe the unaccounted person is in immediate danger, McLean says to “give it some time” before notifying authorities. Sheriff’s departments often set up hotlines for missing persons, but this might not happen until hours after the wildfire erupts.
Your nearest evacuation shelter is a good place to search for immediate family members who have not been accounted for. Shelters maintain running lists of those who have checked-in there, and local law enforcement keeps a running list of people who are not yet accounted for.
Reid also recommends keeping a satellite phone or satellite messenger in your evacuation bag—a trick he learned while living in Florida—in case phone lines are down.
4. Sign up for emergency alerts.
Emergency alert tactics vary from place to place. Most officials use the Emergency Alert System, reverse 911 phone calls, and other resources, depending on what works best in the area.
“It is best to connect with your local fire department and emergency management officials to learn how they will issue emergency notifications and keep you up-to-date on evacuation requirements,” Jensen says.
“Never forget to keep an eye on a fire for yourself,” Jensen adds. If you believe you are in imminent danger in your area, don’t wait on official alerts to begin evacuating.
5. Keep important documents and cash in a safe, fireproof place.
Reid recommends storing copies of essential documents, including passports and driver’s licenses, in a fireproof safe that you can quickly access while evacuating. Include copies of your insurance policies, which you’ll need to file any claims, as well as some cash and checks in case credit card machines and ATMs are down. Consider including copies of photos (prints, not digital) that you could share with shelters if a loved one ends up missing.
It’s also a good idea to store copies of your essential documents either on a password-protected, cloud-computing service or in a safety deposit box at a bank or post office.
6. Assemble an emergency kit.
Your emergency kit should contain supplies that will keep you covered in case of a fire, earthquake, or other natural disaster. The kit should be refreshed at least twice a year, especially in the spring before wildfire season begins. When going through your kit, check the expiration dates on all food, water, medications, batteries, and any other items with limited shelf life. Take some time to review the documents stored in your fireproof safe (see tip #5) to make sure they are up-to-date with current information too.
CALFire’s Head recommends reviewing your kit on the same dates each year, so you don’t forget. She personally devotes a few hours every Daylight Savings to this task.
Three-day supply of nonperishable food per person.
Three gallons of water per person.
Neighborhood map marked with at least two evacuation routes.
Change of clothing for each person.
Prescriptions and special medications.
Additional eyeglasses or contact lenses.
Extra set of car keys, credit cards, cash, and traveler’s checks.
Extra mobile phone charger(s), such as a USB one you can use with a car battery.
Flashlight (and batteries or charging cable).
Basic hygiene supplies, such as wet wipes and toilet paper.
Pet food and water (if applicable).
Smart Tip: AAA offers readymade kits for families of various sizes, pets, and roadside emergencies.
7. Craft and print an evacuation checklist.
Your list should note everything you need to grab and do before evacuating your home. For example, remind yourself to bring prescription medications, to shut all the doors and windows, and leave the lights on so emergency responders can see inside your home if needed. For help determining what needs to happen inside and outside your home, refer to CALFire’s multistep checklist, and see #10 and #11 below.
If time and circumstances allow you to safely collect nonessentials, you may also want to keep a supplementary list of those items. Consider laptops and other devices (and their chargers); easy-to-carry valuables (heirloom jewelry); family photos and irreplaceable items; and personal information stored on hard drives, key drives, or discs.
8. Designate a room you can close off from outside air.
Even if your home is spared from the flames, smoke from a wildfire can affect the health of people hundreds of miles away. Wildfire smoke can irritate eyes, injure respiratory systems, and worsen pre-existing heart and lung conditions, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. To check your area’s air quality, reference the federal Air Quality Index on AirNow.gov and sign up for air alerts provided by your local community. An AQI rating above 101 is considered unhealthy for sensitive groups.
If you live near a burning wildfire, or smoke from a fire has blown into your area, shut all doors and windows and choose a room in your home you can entirely close off from outside air. Keep indoor pollution levels low inside your home by closing the fresh-air intake on your air conditioner or portable unit and installing high-efficiency filters that can capture fine smoke particles.
Avoid outdoor activities and strenuous outdoor exercise as much as possible until the air quality improves. For necessary trips outside, CALFire’s Head advises wearing respirators with two filters on each side, or an N95 mask, both of which will protect you from most small particulate matter. (Your local health department can help you determine if you should be wearing a respirator or an N95 mask.) Bandanas and surgical masks will not properly filter the small particles, even when wet.
9. Prep your home and landscaping.
CALFire recommends creating a fire-resistant zone around your home of at least 100 feet. This “defensible space” should be kept free of dead vegetation, debris, and flammable materials. Grass should be cut to four inches or less, and all tree branches up to 10 feet above the ground or hanging over your roof should be trimmed, Head says. And don’t ignore the rain gutters: Head advises installing screens over gutters to prevent accumulation of debris, which can ignite and cascade flames into your home.
When designing your landscaping, leave ample space between shrubs and trees, which will allow emergency crews to easily access your home in case of a fire.
“There’s less of a chance of everything catching on fire all at one time if you don’t have a ton of ground fuel that can carry into trees and brush,” Head says. Ideally, the defensible space will enable a fire to smolder out before it reaches your home.
10. Harden your home.
Though fire-proofing—or “hardening”—your home can be a costly task, it can also mean the difference between returning to a pile of ash and a still-standing structure after a fire.
The roof is one of the most vulnerable parts of your home, Head says, and those constructed with wood shingles are at higher risk of destruction during a fire. Recommended materials for re-roofing include composition shingles, metal, and tile.
Additionally, exterior walls constructed of wood boards, panels, or shingles are combustible and not recommended for fire-prone areas. Common siding materials should be replaced with ignition-resistant materials such as stucco, fiber cement, wall siding, or fire-retardant-treated wood.
Decks, fences, and patio coverings should also be constructed of ignition-resistant or noncombustible materials, like wood lumber, shakes, and shingles treated with fire retardant.
Before a fire even reaches your home, windows can shatter due to heat. This forms an opening for flying embers to enter your home and start a fire. CALFire recommends installing dual- or triple-pane windows to reduce the chance of breakage, and limiting the size and number of windows that abut vegetation-heavy areas.
Vents and chimneys can also serve as portals for embers. To prevent this, use one-eighth- to one-fourth-inch metal mesh to cover vent openings, and noncombustible screens no thinner than three-eighths of an inch for chimney outlets.
Outside your home, make sure you’ve created conditions that make it easy for emergency responders to identify and access your property. Ensure your address is easily visible from the street, and install gates that open inward and can accommodate emergency vehicles. If applicable, consider maintaining access roads with a minimum of 10 feet of clearance on either side, which allows for two-way traffic.
11. Check your water supply.
To fight a fire on your property, emergency crews will require water. Installing multiple garden hoses long enough to reach all structures should be sufficient, according to CALFire. However, if your home is far away from a fire hydrant, AAA’s Reid strongly recommends installing a water tank or pumps in pools or wells. He’s also seen neighbors form cooperatives for water to support a local community tank.
Proximity to a water source affects your Insurance Services Office (ISO) rating, a number classification from one to 10 that evaluates your community’s fire department, water supply, fire safety control, and emergency communications. A Class One rating signifies superior fire services, while a Class 10 rating means the service level near your home doesn’t meet ISO’s minimum fire protection criteria.
Reid advises reaching out to your local fire department to determine your ISO rating, a number that will affect your insurance rates. “Any rating of five or less means insurance companies will insure you no problem,” he says. “Once you get above a five, it gets dicey.”
Something insurance companies often don’t tell clients, according to Reid, is the importance of keeping fire retardant on your property. “I always make sure I have a tank of fire retardant—and not just water—so I can spray my house down in case of a fire,” he says.
12. Review your insurance coverage.
Reid has seen it time and again: People who’ve just lost their homes not only can’t recall the name of their insurance company, but also are uncertain what their policies cover. This is something to investigate before wildfire strikes, he stresses.
All homeowners insurance covers fire, but the amount of coverage—and the expediency with which the provider will process your claim—varies from carrier to carrier.
For those living in California, especially fire-prone areas, Reid recommends investing in extra coverage. “The first thing people want to do with insurance is cheap out, especially on the things that matter most: homeowners, life, car,” he says. “I would invest in this insurance because when you need it most, you’ll be glad you did.”
There are three main classes of insurance: preferred, standard, and nonstandard. The quality of coverage decreases with each respective class. Some plans cover replacement costs for damage, while others cover only the actual cash value. Call your carrier to determine what—and how much—your plan covers.
If your car is damaged in a fire, comprehensive car insurance will cover its replacement cost, Reid says. If you have only minimum car insurance or just liability insurance, however, the insurance company won’t replace the vehicle.
For renters, Reid recommends taking out renters or condo insurance, which in some cases, provides coverage for your personal belongings and additional living expenses (such as long-term rentals or hotel stays).
Before you purchase a home, it’s important to determine its brush or FireLine score, a rating insurers use to determine the risk attached to the property. Brush or FireLine scores assess both individual risk factors and the overall wildlife hazard score, which is based on fuel conditions around the property.
Most companies aren’t insuring above a certain brush or Fireline score, and Reid recommends calling your agent or insurance carrier to determine the brush or Fireline score for your property.
13. Inventory your belongings.
It’s your responsibility to keep a detailed inventory of the current condition of your home, as well as your belongings. If you don’t have receipts for purchases, take video footage of everything in your house. In addition to your personal belongings, take video of your home’s walls, flooring, light fixtures, windows, and appliances.
Without video or photo evidence of your belongings, insurance companies will not always cover you. However, “most companies will do the right thing and pay policy limits for your personal property that’s damaged due to fire,” even without video or receipt evidence, Reid says. He recommends going from room to room while describing each item on camera, and storing the video in the cloud or a safety deposit box that will be accessible during times of need.
Coverage for personal belongings varies from carrier to carrier, with some requiring you to replace the items and submit a reimbursement claim, Reid says. If your plan includes replacement costs, the company will replace your items regardless of cost depreciation over time. In most cases, insurance companies pay for the actual cash value of your goods. In this case, the payment will decrease depending on the age of the item (that is, a payment for a five-year-old TV will be less than a payment for a brand-new TV).
14. If your home is destroyed, file a claim immediately.
If you can confirm that your home was destroyed in a wildfire, you should file a claim immediately to ensure you get your payment as quickly as possible, Reid says. Some insurance agencies will set up claim sites at emergency shelters to facilitate this process.
Once you file a claim, an adjustor will be sent to confirm that your home is indeed destroyed. This can take time. “In Paradise, they weren’t letting anyone into the fire zone for at least two weeks,” Reid says. The next step is to wait. The speed with which you receive your claim payments depends on the carrier.
If your home is uninhabitable, meaning it was destroyed by or is located near a burning wildfire, carriers will provide emergency provisions and disburse funds to cover a hotel or rental stay. This applies to people with renters insurance, as well.
15. Complete first aid and CPR/AED training.
Emergencies like wildfires require all hands on deck. Take a first aid and CPR/AED training course so you’ll have the skills to act in an emergency if help is delayed. Dozens of local and national organizations offer OSHA-compliant first aid certification courses in cities across the U.S, including the Red Cross, the American Heart Association, and the National Safety Council.