Understanding Forest Fire Safety, Preparation and Survival

Fire can keep a person warm, allows them to cook freshly killed meat, and provides light and comfort. At the same time, fire is one of the most destructive forces on the planet, destroying millions of acres of forest every year and leaving thousands homeless. It can rapidly spread at an alarming rate as it engulfs fuel along the way, feeding itself and growing exponentially.

And no other version of a raging, out-of-control blaze is more damaging to civilization, nature’s creatures, and specifically to human life than the forest fire. Forest fires are created by nature or by human intervention—either accidentally or controlled and, in rare circumstances, intentionally— creating blazes that destroy thousands of acres of woodland, homes, and businesses.

Although the idea of a raging wildfire consuming incredible amounts of forest throughout several states may seem like something that a single person cannot control, the truth is a person can make a difference.

By understanding proper forest fire prevention, stocking the proper emergency goods, and preparing for the worst if a raging fire finds its way to your doorstep—every single person can assist in reducing this surreal and incredibly frightening calamity of nature.

What’s causing the ignition?

what’s causing the ignition

Natural or manmade causes often start forest fires. Lightning is the natural world’s igniter of dry vegetation. Because lightning is up to five times hotter than the sun’s surface, it easily creates fires throughout the United States and the world.

It’s estimated that lightning strikes Earth’s surface around three billion times a year—yes, three billion. This staggering number, in itself, can explain why lightning has started some of the most destructive wildfires of our time, including the fires at Yellowstone National park in 1988 and, more recently, the wildfires in Greece and Italy.

In the United States alone, specifically the Southeast and Southwest regions, nearly 2.1 million acres have burned within a decade’s time. However, as ubiquitous as lightning is worldwide, humans unintentionally cause the majority of forest fires.

Using the same 10-year period, nearly 88 percent of all wildfires were started by man, while only 12 percent were caused by sky-to-ground lightning strikes.

Carelessness, or the lack of attention of campers, hikers, or other outdoor travelers to properly extinguish or control their campfires, is another primary way a small flame can expand rapidly and transform into a raging forest fire.

Fores fire types

The image most people have when they think of a forest fire is one of a roaring blaze engulfing trees and vegetation as giant clouds of smoke fill the skies. The truth is that there are three major types of forest fires that can affect woodlands in different ways, some easy to contain and put out, while others seem to take control of the land and never let go. Here’s a breakdown of the main culprits:

TLW2b2Surface forest fire:

This is the easiest to put out because it affects only a small portion of the forest floor. Surface fires burn litter and surface debris without affecting the large surrounding trees. They also cause the least amount of damage, and firefighters often say that this is the most preferred if any fire is to occur.

Ground forest fire:

This type of fire could be called underground fire because of its primary characteristic of burning under the forest floor in deep accumulations of dead, dry vegetation. These fires travel slowly and burn in an almost random pattern, so it’s difficult to fully extinguish.

Also, ground fires have the ability to smolder in a near-dormant stage, only to reemerge after the cold season during the early stages of spring. Not the best fire to battle, but definitely not the worst out there.

Crown forest fire:

Intense, dangerous, and nothing to mess with, a crown fire is the most destructive of the bunch. It burns the entire length of the tree and can pass from crown to crown, leaving nothing behind but remnants of charred wood and piles of ash.

This bad boy is not to be messed with, and at the first sign of incoming danger, it’s time to evacuate the scene.

Fire prevention in the outdoors

fire prevention in the outdoors

The responsibility of proper fire safety falls on anyone venturing into nature and creating a campfire, emergency fire, or open-flame cooking fire.

When constructing a fire pit, always be sure to position it properly. This entails building it at least 15- or 20-feet away from vehicles, tents, flammable gear, and natural materials such as wood, bushes, or wild grass.

Be sure clearance extends upward at least three or more times the height of your intended fire. The thermal heat from the fire can, in some instances, ignite overhanging dry branches or intertwined vegetation.

Also, the wood you burn matters. Softwood often pops and throws sparks, which can land on flammable materials and possibly start a fire downwind of your campsite. Avoid wood covered in paint, varnish, or other coatings, which can be unhealthy for you and burn unevenly and sometimes intensely.

Never start your fire with gasoline, kerosene, or other flammable liquids. This only invites trouble. A few drops on the ground or dripped down the can start a blaze and possibly cause burns to your body or worse.

Before, during, and at the end of your campfire, always have a fire extinguisher or source of water nearby, just in case things get out of hand. Fires can go from 0 to 10 in an instant, so scrambling to find a way to put out an uncontrollable fire will not turn out well if you’re unprepared.

Finally, when it’s time to break camp and move on, be sure to extinguish the campfire properly. Burn down your fuel as much as possible and saturate the site with water, carefully stirring the ash until the sizzling and hissing sound stops and the residual material is cold to the touch.

How about controlled burn?

One way we can assist in reducing wildfires is to start a wildfire. As contradictory as this may sound, the idea is that a controlled burn will consume fuel that would normally feed an “out of control” fire.

Then, should an unintentional wildfire occur, it will be less powerful and easier to confine and control. Basically, if you deplete the fuel, you take away a fire’s power.

Controlled burns, also known as prescribed burns, help to manage weeds and other growth while restoring nutrients to the soil and allowing healthy plants to take root and flourish.

Lesser-known benefits of prescribed burning involve controlling disease in affected plants and reducing the number of invasive or destructive insects throughout the target area.


Forest fire safety

Whether started naturally by lightning or created by man, a wildfire on a direct path toward your home doesn’t play favorites. If the conditions are favorable for advancement toward your land and home, fire must be met with certain precautions well before the blaze makes its appearance.

First, remove any combustible debris from around your home, out at least 30 feet or more, if possible. Combustible materials include tall, dry grass, brush of any kind, firewood, and even wooden fences or decks.

Cleaning your yard and the exterior of your home of these hazards gives you a fighting chance against the fire—and increases the odds that firefighters will be able to save your property.

Also, secure any vent openings that lead to the interior of your home. These passages allow embers floating on the heated air to gently descend and enter your home and, as such, can start a fire from the inside.

Making your home as fire-resistant as possible begins when you first choose the site—sitting it near a clump of trees or on a hilltop only increases the chances of loss if a wildfire occurs. If your house was already built when you purchased it, you could upgrade the windows to ones with higher fire resistance. The heat from a fire can actually go through glass and ignite the interior drapes or curtains.

Make sure the roof is class “A” rated with asphalt shingles or, even better, topped with tile or steel. Suffice to say, a wood-framed or log-cabin-style home is a combustible target for a traveling wildfire; stucco, brick, or concrete block are the much safer choices.

When it’s time to bug out

when it’s time to bug out

No material objects are worth your life or a loved one’s life, and this includes your home. When an evacuation order is given or conditions worsen to a threatening degree, it’s time to secure your home to the best of your ability and pack some vital gear and supplies for your exodus out of the area.

First, close all windows and doors (leaving them unlocked) and move all flammable furniture to the center of the rooms. Turn off pilot lights and turn off the gas at the meter. Experts recommend that you keep your interior lights on, so firefighters can see your home through the thick clouds of smoke.

Clear your yard of propane grills, loose propane tanks, and any flammable objects around your home.

Preassemble a 72-hour bugout bag for such an emergency. Have it ready at a moment’s notice with all the gear you need and nothing you don’t, allowing you to easily carry it when evacuating.

Necessities include all family medications, vital documents (either hard copies or scanned onto a portable flash drive), clothing, food, and water. If you’re in an area of any possible wildfire danger, place fire extinguishers throughout your home, as well as smaller, portable units that you can carry with you when you evacuate.

In addition, you need a plan for the family pet or any animals kept outside in a barn or other structures. Keep your house pets, such as cats, dogs, birds, or small mammals, close to you, while larger animals should be moved to a safer location well before the threat of a wildfire is in your backyard.

Evacuation procedures for your area and bugout supply lists are available on the Internet. Be sure to do your homework and prepare early, long before the dreaded evacuation order is given.


Fire is an enigmatic force of nature. It helps in myriad ways, but it can be extremely destructive and a killer. If your home is located in a possible danger zone for wildfires, you have a responsibility to acquire all the information available to secure your home and fight the raging blaze; or, second, if bad turns to worse, have a detailed plan to evacuate and reach safe ground elsewhere.

No personal belongings can replace a human life. Mother Nature is not to be challenged because when push comes to shove, she always wins.

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