12/13/2017 11:17 EST | Updated 11/12/2018 17:53 EST

How To Prepare And Stay Safe In Wildfires, According To Fire Chiefs

In addition to strong winds and dry foliage, human error can contribute to a fire’s damage, experts say.

California’s Camp fire is the deadliest inferno to hit California in 85 years. It’s being blamed for the deaths of more than two dozen people, the destruction of nearly 7,000 structures and the forced evacuation of 250,000 people.

Officials estimate the Camp fire has blackened approximately 113,000 acres since Nov. 8, with 31 confirmed deaths and at least 200 people missing in fire zones in Northern California. According to officials, the Camp fire now matches the Griffith Park Fire of 1933 as the deadliest wildfire in the state’s history.

The fire, only 25 percent contained, threatens an additional 15,500 structures as of Monday.

Some 4,500 firefighters have been battling the blaze, an effort that has reached a cost of $16 million, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

In addition to strong winds and dry foliage, human error can contribute to a fire’s damage, experts say.

Roads become congested with people waiting to evacuate, causing fleeing residents to tangle with emergency responders trying to get in. Cars abandoned by frustrated drivers add to that problem.

Justin Sullivan via Getty Images

In a previous interview with HuffPost, James McMullen, a retired California chief fire marshal, said strong winds can cause a fire to blow like a blast furnace.

“They can burn so fast and furious that they will incinerate trees,” McMullen said. “I’ve personally seen where these fires have incinerated pine trees up to 50 feet high ― nothing but blackened branches, and at the top a full-blown Christmas tree. It’s a remarkable thing to see.”

Following some basic guidelines can ensure the personal safety of residents and firefighters, however.

“In California, you have to take precautionary measures,” McMullen said.

In California, you have to take precautionary measures.James McMullen, retired California chief fire marshal

The “most important thing” a homeowner in a fire-prone area can do “is have a defensible, fire-safe landscape,” said McMullen, now president of The McMullen Company, a fire protection consulting firm. “Remove the natural vegetation and replace it with ornamental fire-resistant vegetation and keep it back 100 feet.”

Construction materials should also be fire-resistant, he said.

“People love huge decks and tend to build them out of combustible materials, like pine,” McMullen said. “Then they load them with other combustible materials, like chaise lounges and barbecue grills with propane tanks. All of that will burn.”

“We recommend houses in communities that are subject to wildland fires have fire-retardant roofs and siding,” he added. “Attic access vents should be no more than a quarter inch in diameter to prevent embers from floating in.”

According to McMullen, firefighters may choose not to defend houses that are completely surrounded by vegetation during a wildfire.

“It’s too dangerous, so they’ll look at the next house, and if it has 100 feet of defensible space, they’ll defend that one,” he said.

Wally Skalij via Getty Images
A firefighter battles a house fire as the Woolsey Fire burns in Oak Park, a community in Southern California, early Friday morning.

Experts say it’s important to prepare for an evacuation, readying pets and gathering medications and important papers. Residents should stack lawn furniture away from the residence and turn on all the lights to illuminate the home. Fires can cause blackout conditions even during daylight, and lights help firefighters identify the location of houses.

Time is of the essence, Contra Costa County Fire Capt. George Laing told HuffPost late last year during the Thomas fire, which affected Ventura and Santa Barbara counties and burned approximately 281,893 acres.

“It’s very important for people to leave even before the evacuation order is given,” Laing said. “Often, people will say, ‘No, I’m not leaving.’ Then they’ll get scared and leave too late, and that’s where they’re in danger of getting burned over. Those people will attempt to drive through flames, or try to find shelter. We’ve even heard stories of people who got into swimming pools. But at that point, it’s already too late.”

It’s very important for people to leave even before the evacuation order is given. Often, people will say, ‘No, I’m not leaving.’ Then they’ll get scared and leave too late.Contra Costa County Fire Capt. George Laing

Mike Driscoll, senior vice president of the fire and explosion division at the private firm Envista Forensics, advised people who encounter wildfire while driving to “remain inside their vehicle with the engine running, windows up and ventilation system closed to the interior of the vehicle, until the fire moves beyond the vehicle’s location.”

Laing, a former fire prevention technician and inspector, warned that radiant heat is a big danger for those who get too close to a fire.

“It is possible for vehicles to ignite if they get too close,” Laing said. “Fire can be very intensely hot, and radiant heat can cause tires to burn and alloys to melt. If you are in those conditions, you are really in a bad spot, and if you pull off the road, that’s it. You’re done.”

Justin Sullivan via Getty Images
The Camp fire moves through a car dealership on Nov. 8, 2018, in Paradise, California. Fueled by high winds and low humidity, the rapidly spreading wildfire has ripped through the town of Paradise, charring 18,000 acres and destroying dozens of homes in a matter of hours. 

Firefighters estimate they’ll be able to contain the Camp fire by Nov. 30. The fire’s cause is still under investigation.

According to McMullen and Laing, massive wildfires like last year’s Thomas fire have been increasing in frequency and duration because of global warming.

“We’re seeing hotter times than we’ve seen in the past,” McMullen said. “Temperatures have risen, and you can see where climates have changed. I’ve been around a long time, and I’ve fought fires for many years, and I can tell you that this type of fire in December is something I’ve never experienced before.”

Laing said the effects of climate change are obvious.

“These cycles of drought, combined with drought-stressed trees and bumper crops of fuel, create these kinds of intense fires,” he said. “Fires, in particular, seem to indicate the trends are serious.”

David McNew via Getty Images
Flames from the Woolsey Fire overtake the Reagan Ranch, once owned by President Ronald Reagan, at Malibu Creek State Park on Nov. 9, 2018, near Malibu, California. After experiencing a mass shooting, residents of Thousand Oaks are threatened by two nearby dangerous wildfires, including the Woolsey Fire, which has reached the Pacific coast.

Fires also take an emotional toll on survivors.

“You just sit here in a fog and think you’re going to wake up,” Shawna Howard, a Paradise resident, told The Associated Press.

Howard said fire and flames lined both sides of the roadway when she fled the area with her 12-year-old daughter.

Greg Woodcox, 58, told the Houston Chronicle he was wracked with guilt that he was unable to save a close friend, the man’s mother and three others he witnessed die when flames overtook their vehicle in Butte County on Sunday.

“I’m in shock,” said a tearful Woodcox. “Those poor souls. I tried to get them out, but we were trapped like rats.”

The Washington Post via Getty Images
A structure and a motorcycle burn at an RV park during the Woolsey fire in Malibu, California, Nov. 10, 2018.

For more information on fire preparation, visit the American Red Cross Prepare SoCal website, which provides valuable tips for responding to life-threatening wildfires. Experts agree: Being prepared is key to survival.

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