Wildfires and Heat Waves: How To Protect Your Home and Life

The year 2015 set new wildfire records in the United States. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, almost 10 million acres burned. Many thousands of homes burned in these fires, each one full of memories - now reduced to ashes. Over seventy fire fighters perished in their efforts to combat wildfires in the US in 2015, not to mention citizen deaths.

If you live in a seasonally dry climate with abundant flammable vegetation, your residence is vulnerable to wildland fire. Lightning, accidents, and criminals ignite these fires every year. Fire is unpredictable. If there are weaknesses in your home's fire protection scheme, fire can gain the upper hand because of some overlooked or seemingly inconsequential factor. Don't let that happen to you.

As a homeowner, you can take a number of steps to protect your property and reduce the spread of wildland fires. This guide provides information and lists clear action steps you can take to avoid becoming a statistic. Keep reading for more information.

WildfireSurviving a Wildfire

Two factors have emerged as the primary determinants of a home's ability to survive wildfires: choosing fire-resistant roofing material and creating a wildfire defensible zone. First, it is important to choose a fire-resistant roofing material that is rated a minimum of class C when building a house in or near forests or grasslands. (Class B and A offer progressively better protection.) Avoid flammable materials such as wood or shake shingles. Second, create a fuel free zone around your home where fire has nothing to burn - this is called the defensible space. By creating a wildfire defensible zone, homes are less vulnerable from this naturally occurring phenomenon and the chance of spreading wildfires is greatly reduced.

If you are a homeowner and you are interested in protecting your home from wildfires, follow the FireWise guidelines. While you may not be able to accomplish all of these measures, each will increase your home's safety and survival during a wildfire. Start with the easiest and least expensive actions. Begin your work closest to the house and move outward. Keep working on the more difficult items until you have completed your entire project.

Choose surrounding vegetation wisely: maintain a greenbelt (irrigated if possible) immediately around your home using grass, a flower garden and/or fire-resistant ornamental shrubbery. An alternative is rock or other non-combustible material, which may be preferable if your house is made of wood or other flammable materials. Avoid using bark or wood chip mulch in this area.

Read the following list for practical steps you can take to protect your home and property and preserve life.

1. Fire facts related to rural living (Keep these facts in mind when buying or building a home):

  • Once a fire starts outdoors in a rural area, it is often hard to control. Wildland firefighters are trained to protect natural resources, not homes and buildings.
  • Many homes are located far from fire stations. The result is longer emergency response times. Within a matter of minutes, an entire home may be destroyed by fire.
  • Limited water supply in rural areas can make fire suppression difficult.
  • Homes may be secluded and surrounded by woods, dense brush and combustible vegetation that fuel fires.

2. Ask fire authorities for information about wildland fires in your area. Request that they inspect your residence and property for hazards.

3. Be prepared and have a fire safety and evacuation plan:

  • Practice fire escape and evacuation plans.
  • Mark the entrance to your property with address signs that are clearly visible from the road.
  • Know which local emergency services are available and have those numbers posted near telephones.
  • Provide emergency vehicle access through roads and driveways at least sixteen feet wide with adequate turnaround space.

4. Tips for making your property fire resistant:Defensible Space

  • Keep lawns trimmed, leaves raked, and the roof and rain-gutters free from debris such as dead limbs and leaves.
  • Stack firewood at least thirty feet away from your home.
  • Store flammable materials, liquids and solvents in metal containers outside the home at least thirty feet away from structures and wooden fences.
  • Create defensible space by thinning trees and brush within one hundred feet around your home. Beyond one hundred feet, remove dead wood, debris and low tree branches.
  • Remove tree limbs below fifteen feet within the first one hundred feet around your home, and branches within six feet beyond that.
  • Landscape your property with fire resistant plants and vegetation to prevent fire from spreading quickly. For example, hardwood trees are more fire-resistant than pine, evergreen, eucalyptus, or fir trees.
  • Make sure water sources, such as hydrants, ponds, swimming pools and wells, are accessible to the fire department.

5. Protect your home:

  • Use fire resistant, protective roofing and materials like stone, brick and metal to protect your home. Avoid using wood materials. They offer the least fire protection.
  • Cover all exterior vents, attics and eaves with metal mesh screens no larger than six millimeters or one-quarter inch to prevent debris from collecting and to help keep sparks out.
  • Install multi-pane windows, tempered safety glass or fireproof shutters to protect large windows from radiant heat.
  • Use fire-resistant draperies for added window protection.
  • Have chimneys, wood stoves and all home heating systems inspected and cleaned annually by a certified specialist.
  • Insulate chimneys and place spark arresters on top. Chimney should be at least three feet above the roof.
  • Remove branches hanging above and around the chimney.

6. Follow local burning laws:Burn Ban

  • Do not burn trash or other debris without proper knowledge of local burning laws, techniques and the safest times of day and year to burn.
  • Before burning debris in a wooded area, make sure you notify local authorities and obtain a burning permit.
  • Use an approved incinerator with a safety lid or covering with holes no larger than three-quarter inches.
  • Create at least a ten-foot clearing around the incinerator before burning debris.
  • Have a fire extinguisher or garden hose on hand when burning debris.

7. If wildfire threatens your home and time permits, consider the following:

  • Inside
    • Shut off gas at the meter. Turn off pilot lights.
    • Open fireplace damper. Close fireplace screens.
    • Close windows, vents, doors, blinds or noncombustible window coverings, and heavy drapes.
      • Remove flammable drapes and curtains.
    • Move flammable furniture into the center of the home away from windows and sliding-glass doors.
    • Close all interior doors and windows to prevent drafts.
    • Place valuables that will not be damaged by water in a pool or pond.
    • Gather pets into one room. Make plans to care for your pets if you must evacuate.
    • Back your car into the garage or park it in an open space facing the direction of escape. Shut doors and roll up windows. Leave the key in the ignition and the car doors unlocked. Close garage windows and doors, but leave them unlocked. Disconnect automatic garage door openers.
  • Outside
    • Seal attic and ground vents with pre-cut plywood or commercial seals.
    • Turn off propane tanks.
    • Place combustible patio furniture inside.
    • Connect garden hose to outside taps. Place lawn sprinklers on the roof and near above-ground fuel tanks. Wet the roof.
    • Wet or remove shrubs within fifteen feet of the home.
    • Gather fire tools such as a rake, axe, handsaw or chainsaw, bucket, and shovel.

8. If advised to evacuate, do so immediately.

  • Choose a route away from the fire hazard. 
  • Watch for changes in the speed and direction of fire and smoke.
  • Only return to your home when fire authorities have indicated that is is safe to do so.

For more information on how to prepare and respond to other natural and man-made emergencies, read our introductory disaster response guide.

Heat WaveHeat Wave Dangers and Precautions

The Entire U.S. is at Risk for Heat Waves

Heat kills by taxing the human body beyond its abilities. In an average year, about one hundred seventy-five Americans succumb to the demands of summer heat. Among the large continental family of natural hazards, only the cold of winter -- not lightning, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, or earthquakes -- takes a greater toll. In the forty-year period from 1936 through 1975, nearly 20,000 people were killed in the United States by the effects of heat and solar radiation. In the disastrous heat wave of 1980, more than 1,250 people died.

Those are the direct causalities. No one can know how many more deaths are advanced by heat wave weather -- how many diseased or aging hearts surrender, that under better conditions would have continued functioning.

North American summers are hot; most summers see heat waves in one section or another of the United States. East of the Rockies, they tend to combine both high temperatures and high humidity although some of the worst have been catastrophically dry.

NOAA's National Weather Service Heat Index ProgramHeat Index

Considering this tragic death toll, the National Weather Service has stepped up its efforts to alert more effectively the general public and appropriate authorities to the hazards of heat waves -- those prolonged excessive heat/humidity episodes.

Based on the latest research findings, the NWS has devised the "Heat Index," (sometimes referred to as the "apparent temperature"). The Heat Index, given in degrees Fahrenheit, is an accurate measure of how hot it really feels when the relative humidity is added to the actual air temperature.

To find the Heat Index, look at the Heat Index Chart. As an example, if the air temperature is 94°F (found on the left side of the table), and the relative humidity is 55% (found at the top of the table), the Heat Index -- or how hot it feels -- is 106°F. This is at the intersection of the 94° row and the 55% column.

Important: Since Heat Index values were devised for shady, light wind conditions, exposure to full sunshine can increase Heat Index values by up to 15°F. Also, strong winds, particularly with very hot, dry air, can be extremely hazardous.

Note on the Heat Index chart the shaded zone above 105°F.  This corresponds to a level of Heat Index that may cause increasingly severe heat disorders with continued exposure and/or physical activity.

Heat Index / Heat Disorders

  • If the Heat Index is 130°F or higher, then heat stroke is highly likely with continued exposure.
  • If the Heat Index is from 105° to 130°F, then heat stroke, heat exhaustion, or heat cramps are likely with prolonged exposure and/or physical activity.
  • If the Heat Index is from 90° to 105°F, then heat stroke, heat exhaustion, or heat cramps are possible with prolonged exposure and/or physical activity.
  • If the Heat Index is from 80° to 90°F, then fatigue is possible with prolonged exposure and/or physical activity.

Summary of NWS's Alert Procedures

The NWS will initiate alert procedures (advisories or warnings) when the Heat Index is expected to have a significant impact on public safety. The expected severity of the heat determines whether advisories or warnings are issued. A common guideline for the issuance of excessive heat alerts is when the maximum daytime Heat Index is expected to equal or exceed 105°F and a nighttime minimum Heat Index of 80°F or above for two or more consecutive days. Some regions and municipalities are more sensitive to excessive heat than others. As a result, alert thresholds may vary substantially from these guidelines. Excessive heat alert thresholds are being tailored at major metropolitan centers based on research results that link unusual amounts of heat-related deaths to city-specific meteorological conditions.

The alert procedures are:

  • Include Heat Index values in zone and city forecasts.
  • Issue Special Weather Statements and/or Public Information Statements presenting a detailed discussion of:
    • the extent of the hazard including Heat Index values,
    • who is most at risk,
    • safety rules for reducing the risk.
  • Assist state and local health officials in preparing Civil Emergency Messages in severe heat waves. Meteorological information from Special Weather Statements will be included as well as more detailed medical information, advice, and names and telephone numbers of health officials.
  • Release to the media and over NOAA's own Weather Radio all of the above information.

How Heat Affects the BodyHeat Index

Human bodies dissipate heat by varying the rate and depth of blood circulation, by losing water through the skin and sweat glands, and -- as the last extremity is reached -- by panting, when blood is heated above 98.6°F. The heart begins to pump more blood, blood vessels dilate to accommodate the increased flow, and the bundles of tiny capillaries threading through the upper layers of skin are put into operation. The body's blood is circulated closer to the skin's surface, and excess heat drains off into the cooler atmosphere. At the same time, water diffuses through the skin as perspiration. The skin handles about ninety percent of the body's heat dissipating function.

Sweating, by itself, does nothing to cool the body, unless the water is removed by evaporation -- and high relative humidity retards evaporation. The evaporation process itself works this way: the heat energy required to evaporate the sweat is extracted from the body, thereby cooling it. Under conditions of high temperature (above 90°F) and high relative humidity, the body is doing everything it can to maintain 98.6°F inside. The heart is pumping a torrent of blood through dilated circulatory vessels; the sweat glands are pouring liquid -- including essential dissolved chemicals, like sodium and chloride -- onto the surface of the skin.

Too Much Heat

Heat disorders generally have to do with a reduction or collapse of the body's ability to shed heat by circulatory changes and sweating, or a chemical (salt) imbalance caused by too much sweating. When heat gain exceeds the level the body can remove, or when the body cannot compensate for fluids and salt lost through perspiration, the temperature of the body's inner core begins to rise and heat-related illness may develop.

  • Ranging in severity, heat disorders share one common feature: the individual has overexposed or overexercised for his/her age and physical condition in the existing thermal environment.
  • Sunburn, with its ultraviolet radiation burns, can significantly retard the skin's ability to shed excess heat.
  • Studies indicate that, other things being equal, the severity of heat disorders tend to increase with age -- heat cramps in a 17-year-old may be heat exhaustion in someone 40, and heat stroke in a person over 60.
  • Acclimatization has to do with adjusting sweat-salt concentration, among other things. The idea is to lose enough water to regulate body temperature, with the least possible chemical disturbance.

Cities Pose Special Hazards

The stagnant atmospheric conditions of the heat wave trap pollutants in urban areas and add the stresses of severe pollution to the already dangerous stresses of hot weather, creating a health problem of undiscovered dimensions. A map of heat-related deaths in St. Louis during 1966, for example, shows a heavier concentration in the crowded alleys and towers of the inner city, where air quality would also be poor during a heat wave.

The high inner-city death rates also can be read as poor access to air-conditioned rooms. While air-conditioning may be a luxury in normal times, it can be a lifesaver during heat wave conditions.

The cost of cool air moves steadily higher, adding what appears to be a cruel economic side to heat wave fatalities. Indications from the 1978 Texas heat wave suggest that some elderly people on fixed incomes, many of them in buildings that could not be ventilated without air conditioning, found the cost too high, turned off their units, and ultimately succumbed to the stresses of heat.

Heat Disorder Symptoms and Treatment

  • SUNBURN is characterized by skin redness and pain. In severe cases, the skin will swell and blister. Such burns will be accompanied by fevers and headaches.
    • First aid: apply ointments for lesser burns, up to small blisters.
    • If blisters break, apply dry sterile dressing.
    • Severe burns, or extensive burning cases (head to toe) should be seen by a physician.

  • HEAT CRAMPS are painful muscle spasms, usually in the legs or abdomen. They will be accompanied by heavy sweating.
    • First aid: Apply firm pressure to the cramping muscles, or use gentle massage to relieve the spasm.
    • Give sips of water. If nausea occurs, discontinue use.

  • HEAT EXHAUSTION is characterized by heavy sweating, weakness, and skin that is cold, pale and clammy.The pulse will be be thready. Fainting and vomiting are possible.
    • First aid: Get victim out of the sun.
    • Lay them down and loosen their clothing.
    • Apply cool, wet cloths.
    • Fan or move the victim to an air conditioned room.
    • Give sips of water. If nausea occurs, discontinue use.
    • If vomiting continues, seek immediate medical attention.

  • HEAT STROKE is characterized by a high body temperature (104°F, or higher). The skin will be hot and dry - dehydration so severe there's no more liquid to sweat. The heart will be racing. Unconsciousness is possible.
    • First aid: Heat Stroke is a severe medical emergency. Summon medical assistance or get the victim to a hospital immediately. Delay can be fatal.
    • Move the victim to a cooler environment.
    • Reduce body temperature with cold bath or sponging.
    • Use extreme caution.
    • Remove clothing, use fans and air conditioners.
    • If temperature rises again, repeat process.
    • Do not give fluids.

People at High Risk for Heat-Related Illness

Elderly persons, small children, chronic invalids, those on certain medications or drugs (especially tranquilizers and anticholinergics), and persons with weight and alcohol problems are particularly susceptible to heat reactions, especially during heat waves in areas where moderate climate usually prevails.

Heat Wave Safety Tips

  • Slow down. Strenuous activities should be reduced, eliminated, or rescheduled to the coolest time of the day. Individuals at risk should stay in the coolest available place, not necessarily indoors.
  • Dress for summer. Lightweight, light-colored clothing reflects heat and sunlight, and helps your body maintain normal temperatures.
  • Put less fuel on your inner fires. Foods (like proteins) that increase metabolic heat production also increase water loss.
  • Drink plenty of water or other nonalcoholic fluids. Your body needs water to keep cool. Drink plenty of fluids even if you don't feel thirsty.
  • Consult a physician before increasing your consumption of fluids if you
    • have epilepsy or heart, kidney, or liver disease,
    • are on fluid restrictive diets, or
    • have a problem with fluid retention.
  • Do not drink alcoholic beverages.
  • Do not take salt tablets unless specified by a physician. Persons on salt restrictive diets should consult a physician before increasing their salt intake.
  • Spend more time in air-conditioned places. Air conditioning in homes and other buildings markedly reduces danger from the heat. If you cannot afford an air conditioner, spending some time each day (during hot weather) in an air conditioned environment affords some protection.
  • Don't get too much sun. Sunburn makes the job of heat dissipation that much more difficult.


Related information about Heat Waves from the Federal Emergency Management Agency

Related information about Heat Waves from the American Red Cross