How to Survive a Wildfire (2023 Update)

How to Survive a Wildfire (2023 Update)

by Samantha Biggers

Every year, it seems there’s news of another forest set alight. That’s because any vegetated, and especially arid, region has the potential to spark forest fires–so much so that in 2021 alone, the US experienced more wildfires than it had in the previous decade.

And as flames consume the woodlands of Central Canada, sending plumes of smoke across North America, the problem is only expected to worsen with time.

But all is not lost! Following decades of research, experts have delineated tangible, concrete steps that can be taken to enhance your odds of survival in a wildfire emergency. 

Today, we will be discussing all things wildfire, answering questions like: What causes them? How can you prevent them from occurring? How do you prepare and use fire evacuation supplies? What about treating burns?

And most importantly: If you find yourself amid the flames, how do you escape?

Let’s get started.

Table of Contents

  • 01

    What Causes Wildfires?

  • 02

    The Best Equipment for Wildfires

  • 03

    Creating a Wildfire Survival Plan

  • 04

    Defending Your Property from Wildfires

  • 05

    Additional Avenues of Survival

  • 06


  • 07

    Final Thoughts

What Causes Wildfires?

Typically, wildfires are the result of a culmination of factors, ranging from natural environmental factors to outright human negligence. Here are but a few of the most common ways wildfires can form.

Nature’s “Cleansing” Act

Cast your mind back to childhood, and you may recall posters with a bear that read, “Only you can prevent forest fires!” From 1944 to today, this slogan (since updated to “wildfires”) has managed to convince generations of Americans that fires of this kind are inherently caused by the actions of humans.

100 years of fire suppression efforts in national forests and parks

Fact is, however, that wildfires occur naturally as nature's way of clearing the dead plant matter on the forest floor. This, in effect, cleans the undergrowth, opening up plants to direct sunlight and nourishing the soil. Without Mother Nature fanning the flames, this can only be achieved via mechanical logging of the understory.

Lack of Forest Management

Another major source of wildfires is a simple lack of planning on the part of residents. In this vein, many towns and private property owners do not spend enough time or money on wildfire prevention. Because they view logging and mechanical removal as massive, eco-unfriendly expenses, they do not devise a forest management plan.

The end result? The shrubbery and trees near homes and businesses become latent fuel sources for future wildfires. In this way, the cost of beautiful landscaping and hedges becomes an increased risk of catastrophe, destroying homes and costing lives.

Irresponsible campers and drivers

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, many parts of the world saw a significant increase in outdoor recreation. After all, many traditional indoor activities had become impossible due to lockdowns and social distancing.

On the surface, there is nothing wrong with more people embracing the great outdoors.

It’s worth remembering, however, that the act of enjoying Mother Nature’s land comes with the responsibility to care for it, too.

Campfires, for example, are great fun, but one must also take care to ascertain that conditions are suitable for a fire, use a fire ring, and then put out the fire completely. When partying campers and hikers neglect these steps, or toss errant cigarettes on the ground, it’s easy for fires to get started.

People living a transient lifestyle

Naturally, fire risk increases when unhoused populations turn to the great outdoors for shelter. Shielding themselves from the elements in tents, abandoned homes, and outbuildings, they may inadvertently start fires whilst using candles and campfires to cook.

Meanwhile, on the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum, some choose to live a nomadic lifestyle in camper vans and RVs. Here, there is an increased risk of starting forest fires, too.


In recent years, the West Coast and Midwest of the United States have experienced a record number of droughts. This lack of rainfall, combined with massive amounts of natural fuel, other extreme weather conditions, and the continued growth of populated areas, has led to ideal conditions for wildfires.

When struck by lightning, dry vegetation such as dead trees and parched grass can spark massive fires. This risk is compounded by the previously mentioned problem of campers haphazardly flicking cigarettes outdoors, or leaving behind active campfires.

Case in point, a catastrophic fire consumed much of Gatlinburg, Tennessee in 2016. During a period of intense drought, two teens ignited an unrestrained fire by carelessly dropping lit matches on a trail–this in spite of a burn ban in the area. 

Due to high winds causing the fire to rage with frightening intensity, a number of victims were left with no time to evacuate. As a result, fourteen lives were lost–and hundreds more injured. 

It would take twenty-one days for the mayor to announce that all fires had finally been extinguished.

The Best Equipment for Wildfires

Now that we’ve covered what causes wildfires, let’s discuss what you’ll need to survive them.

A bag packed with essential supplies for each family member is a prepping basic. Useful for any type of disaster, a go bag ensures that you don’t have to waste time packing luggage if you find yourself needing to split on short notice.

(Image Courtesy of KQED)

Let’s say a wildfire breaks out.

Depending on the fire and how much warning you have, you might need to leave ASAP. If and when this occurs, do not make the potentially fatal mistake of trying to fill your car when danger is rapidly approaching.

Remember that others will be trying to get out of the area too, so it may take much longer to get to a safe location than you anticipate.

With this in mind, here’s a brief list of items to pack in the event of a wildfire.

  • Enough food to last at least 72 hours

  • Water and a water filter

  • Any prescription medications and glasses

  • Medical kit

  • Clothing, including outerwear appropriate for your region and weather conditions

  • Emergency blanket

  • Multi-tool kit

  • Tools for self-defense

  • Pet supplies

  • Infant supplies such as formula, diapers, etc.

Gas masks are essential

An often overlooked aspect of fire escape is personal protective equipment, or PPE.

Consider this: if there are multiple fires, air quality can deteriorate rapidly, especially if the wind changes direction. Over time, wildfires can burn and melt various materials in the immediate environment, creating toxic fumes that are dangerous to breathe in. Additionally, embers, smoke particles, ash, and other irritants can severely damage the eyes and other exposed areas of the face.

It is essential, then, to acquire a respirator or gas mask with an appropriate filter. This is because a full-face, chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear (CBRN) rated gas mask will completely shield the face from any harmful particles and irritants in the air. In addition, a high-grade filter will allow you to breathe for a period of time without being overcome by the toxic particles or noxious chemical vapors released during fires.

Keep in mind that all gas masks require oxygen to be present in order to function properly. That means that if there is no air to filter, then the user will simply suffocate. This brings us to a particularly dangerous aspect of fires: the release of carbon monoxide, as this will actively displace oxygen in the immediate area. Note that only a self-contained breathing apparatus, or SCBA system—the kind that firefighters don during firescan provide prolonged protection against scalding hot air and carbon monoxide.

Ultimately, all PPE gear in the context of the average civilian should be treated as an escape and evasion tool. As such, your priority is not to probe the upper limits of use for your equipmentit is to get you and your family out of the immediate area alive.

MIRA Safety CM-6M Full Face Gas Mask

If you're looking to prepare yourself from a wildfire, the MIRA Safety CM-6M is an ideal solution. This is, in part, due to its robust bromobutyl rubber construction, which completely shuts out any harmful wildfire particles from making contact with the eyes, nose, mouth, or face. Additionally, the antifog design and its large, panoramic visor afford the user a completely unhindered view of their surroundings, making it perfect for navigating hazardous environments and seeking safety.

For a detailed overview of all the top-of-the-line gas masks available today, be sure to check out our Definitive Gas Mask Buyer’s Guide.

(Image Courtesy of Andrew IPC)

Of course, no mask is complete without a filter that will allow you to breathe clean air. In the context of the various known and unknown chemical fumes you could be intaking, we highly recommend the NBC-77 SOF Filter. This is among the highest grade of CBRN filters available, with a multi-layer filtration system that is able to guard against particulates down to 0.2 microns, toxic industrial chemicals, chemical warfare agents, and even radioactive iodide.  (NOTE: The NBC-77 SOF is NOT rated to protect the user from smoke inhalation.)

If you wish to learn more about the various different types of filter grades, be sure to read our Gas Mask Filter Buyer’s Guide.

(Image Courtesy of Blue Line Syndicate Group)

For the easiest breathing experience, we suggest the MB-90 PAPR system. This is because a powered air-purifying respirator or PAPR can increase your endurance under the toughest of conditions, and they make it possible for those with limited lung capacity to wear a mask without risking their health.

Note that this blower system creates a positive pressure environment inside of the mask, meaning that even if your mask’s seal is slightly compromised, the device will continue to push out the air and contaminants away from your face. 

Without a doubt, this is the best field upgrade one could make for their gas mask.

Fireproof Clothing

Most commercially available clothing is made from polyester and other synthetic fabrics. Unfortunately, these materials present a serious fire risk, as they can melt into your skin when exposed to cinders, ashes, or high heat. Wearing cotton clothes, then, is a prudent everyday choice for those concerned about fires, as the material burns quickly without melting one's skin.

Flame-resistant clothing such as Nomex is another alternative to synthetic fabrics, making it a nice addition to a fire escape kit. With that said, readers should expect to pay substantially more for it than regular clothing. This is in part due to its heavy construction, which allows it to resist heat and the abrasions that can occur during a fire.

Finally, round your kit out with a pair of rugged leather boots. Because leather does not burn nearly as readily as synthetic material, this is a worthy—and stylish—investment. And don't forget overboots! Though they might not be quite as in vogue, you'll be glad you took the extra step to safeguard your stompers.

Fire Shelter

(Video courtesy of Public Resource Org)

During a wildfire, one tool that can potentially safe your life is the portable, tent-like structure known as a fire shelter.

Due to their ease of use and flexibility, wildland firefighters typically carry a fire shelter when battling fires of any significance. These shelters are designed to protect them from the direct heat coming from open flames. Since fires can move fast, it allows some time for the worst of the heat and flames to pass, hopefully providing enough reprieve for the firefighters to survive.

With that said, these shelters are considered an absolute last resort. In other words, they are only to be used when there is no way to escape the flames and survive. It can be difficult, therefore, to know when to deploy a fire shelter, or take your chances and run for it. On this basis, we encourage readers to do their due diligence before investing in one.

Creating a Wildfire Survival Plan

A crucial component in knowing how to survive a wildfire is understanding risk factors and escape routes. For example, downed trees can make roads impassable, blocking evacuations. They can also take out power lines, making an already dangerous situation even worse.

This is one reason why it’s so important to evacuate the area before conditions get too severe. And if your progress is halted, you need to decide quickly how to handle the situation. Ask yourself the following questions to better inform your decisions:

  • Is there an alternative escape route if I turn around or take a side street?

  • Can I safely go around the obstruction?

  • Is it possible (and wise) to abandon my vehicle and escape on foot?

  • Can I move the debris and continue on?

From this perspective, a GPS or an up-to-date road atlas is invaluable in identifying alternative routes. However, you will also need to rely on whatever relevant real time information is available to you regarding the immediate area, as well as the wildfire’s current path. For example, you may be able to simply go around some trees blocking the road, especially if you have an all-terrain or 4x4 vehicle.

In a worst-case scenario, however, you may have to abandon your vehicle and make a run for safety. How feasible this is depends on the gear in your bug-out bag

In this way, emergencies highlight the importance of having lightweight and easy-to-deploy vital pieces of equipment. A respirator with an advanced CBRN filter, for example, can drastically increase your chances of making it out of a compromised situation if you have to set out on foot. A PAPR, meanwhile, can help you make the most of your stamina and prevent fatigue if you have to keep a mask on for the entirety of your escape.

Note that while moving small debris may be possible, it’s important to take note of any hazards in your surroundings. This entails staying well clear of downed power lines, as well as any trees with the potential to fall. 

Avoid large bodies of water

While floodwaters may not, at first blush, seem like a concern during a wildfire, it’s important to remember that secondary disaster events can still occur.

For instance, you may be tempted to escape across rivers if a roadway is blockedbut remember that waterways are often unpredictable. As such, many people who have attempted to cross flood waters or swollen streams during an emergency have been swept away.

Of course, a small stream, in the absence of any electrical hazards, may be a safe enough prospect if you can cross it quickly. But if there are any signs of flooding, do not venture to cross any body of water, however unimposing it may look.

Preventing and Treating Burns

When you're in the midst of a wildfire, it is important to exercise caution when touching anything. As such, wearing a good pair of leather gloves is helpful. And if you want to be really prepared, add some Kevlar fire-resistant gloves to your kit.

Note that a serious burn can happen nearly instantaneously, depending on the temperature. And while minor burns can be treated with medical supplies that you carry in your wildfire bug-out bag, anything moderate to major requires professional medical attention.

(Image Courtesy of Healthgrades)

To treat burns, follow these steps:

  • Cool the burn as quickly as possible. To do this, keep something cool on it for at least one minute. Cold running water works, if available. Disposable ice packs that feature shake activation are also a great option.

  • Remove any tight-fitting items near the burn. For example, if you burn your finger and have a ring on it, be sure to remove your jewellery before the burned area has a chance to swell up.

  • Apply aloe vera, or another very mild lotion, to the burned area, but only after it is completely cool.

  • Though it may be tempting, never break blisters on purpose. If a burn blister breaks, wash it with mild soap and water and apply a protective layer of antibiotic ointment.

  • Use sterile gauze and loosely bandage the burn.

Note that burn dressings should be changed regularly to keep the burn area clean. Apply antibiotic ointment regularly, too, until the risk of infection has passed.

And as previously stated, one should seek medical treatment for severe burns as quickly as possible to prevent long-term health risks. Severe burns, after all, can disrupt breathing and cause other serious issues.

Add a Burn Module to Your Fire Evacuation List

Some medical kits are more complete than others, and, as such, many lack the supplies needed to treat a burn properly. On this basis, make sure you have the following items in your medical kit:

  • Burn cream or aloe vera gel

  • Gauze and tape

  • Ibuprofen or other pain relief

  • Antibiotic ointment

  • Wound wash

  • Disposable ice pack

Prepare ahead of time

In any disaster scenario, especially during wildfires, time is of the essence. Having a pre-packed set of supplies as well as a proper rehearsed plan in place can dramatically reduce the time needed to make your escape.

As the saying goes, “Better to have it, and not need it, than to need it, and not have it."

For those with vehicles, it is always a good idea to keep your gas tank at least half full. In addition, keep an extra 5-10 gallons of fuel on hand, if possible. After all, no one wants to be worried about running out of gas or waiting in line at a gas station when they’re trying to get to safety. In this day and age of frequent shortages, it’s more important than ever to not let your gas level sink too low before topping off.

Prepping is paramount here, too. If you have a safe place to store a gas can or two, keep some extra fuel at home for emergencies. A fuel stabilizer can be added to the cans to keep fuel fresh and usable for 1-2 years.

Keep emergency funds on hand

Even if you typically avoid credit cards, it’s good to have one in case of an emergency. After all, hotels typically require a major credit card even if they take cash, and, besides, carrying enough cash for a hotel stay of unknown length is probably not desirable.

At the same time, keeping some cash on hand remains a good idea for the small expenses that arise when staying away from home. Remember that, during a disaster, banking systems might be down, or stores may have problems with their card payment processing systems.

How much cash you should keep on hand varies by region. In this regard, consider prices in your area and how many people you have to care for.

Plan your escape routes and possible destinations

In an emergency, it may be faster or even necessary to take a route you don’t usually use to get to safety. As such, it’s a good idea to have paper maps of your area in case your GPS fails.

An equally prudent step is to consider ahead of time where you’ll go to take shelter. Remember that hotels and motels tend to fill quickly during a disaster, so you may have to travel farther to find a vacancy. Luckily, with a working cell phone, you can book a place while en route rather than driving around looking for accommodations.

Maintain all vital documents

Something many people leave off their fire evacuation list is ID and important documents. This includes a copy of your insurance policies, ID, birth certificates, social security cards, health insurance info, and so on. Note that replacing these items can be difficult without at least a paper copy. 

To make things simpler, you can also take pictures with your phone or scanner and save them to a USB drive.

Inform and prepare your family for the worst

It’s a serious mistake not to brief every family member on a comprehensive escape and evasions plan—especially in the case of a wildfire. Accordingly, make sure that you include a plan for regrouping and staying in touch if you have to evacuate separately.

For older kids and adults, let them know where supplies are so they can acquire them during an emergency. Ideally, you should type up your plan and keep a laminated copy where anyone can access it.

Be sure to create an easy-to-understand fire evacuation list as part of the plan. That way, packing can start as soon as you’re aware of potential danger.

Another good idea is to have pre-made binder of emergency plans that can be kept in a kitchen drawer or cabinet where anyone can reach it.

Defending Your Property from Wildfires

Preventing wildfires from encroaching on your property is possible, but that doesn’t mean you should take a foolhardy approach to staying. With this in mind, this section discusses measures you can take to fireproof your property and reduce the risk that your home or property is damaged or lost.

Clear brush out any dry vegetation

Though it can take years to get a wooded area in good shape for withstanding fires, it is well worth the effort. After all, clearing out any shrubbery or dead wood from the understory of any woodlands effectively rids your property of the major fuel sources for wildfires to start.

Since this may prove to be a difficult and time-consuming undertaking, it can be worthwhile to hire professionals to help out, if possible.

Once that is done, you're going to want to keep the area clear. In this regard, consider keeping grazing animals or leasing grazing rights to others, which might, as an added bonus, provide you with additional income.

Create fire lines

A fire line interrupts potential sources of fuel for fires, like vegetation. An example of this would be a gravel road or path. Note that even a path that’s just three feet wide or so can halt the progress of a wildfire.

Bare earthworks are another option, but they must be kept clear, so covering it with something to prevent regrowth is best if possible.

Make your structures fire resistant

To decrease any potential fuel for wildfire to burn, consider building your home from concrete fiberboard siding and metal roofing. Fire-resistant building materials, after all, can make a big difference in how easily a fire can destroy your home.

Note that metal roofing lasts a lifetime with little to no maintenance. The same is true of concrete fiberboard sidings such as Hardie Board or Certainteed.

Avoid too much landscaping close to your home

Though hedges and plants are beautiful, bear in mind that too much plant material close to your home increases your fire risk. In this regard, ivy and other plants that creep up your house are particularly risky. Large trees, too, are another common hazard.

On this basis, it is wise to take a good look at the trees closest to your home, and decide whether you’re comfortable with the risk of them potentially falling and causing property damage.

Precautions when Leaving Your Home or Sheltering In Place

Time permitting, here are some things you can do to protect your property from the worst damage.

  • Disconnect any fuel lines on your property. This means shutting off natural gas, propane, and oil. If possible, move any tanks as far as possible from your home and any outbuildings. For example, gas grill tanks can be picked up and moved, but a 250-gallon propane tank is not going anywhere.

  • Remove any firewood that’s close to your home.

  • Use a sprinkler or garden hose to wet the exterior and roof of your home and any nearby outbuildings.

  • Cut vegetation. This can mean weed eating or mowing your yard as close to the ground as possible to create a firebreak.

Sheltering in Your Home

Ideally, you should evacuate rather than sheltering in your home, as you’re risking your life by staying. However, fires can happen fast, and timely evacuation may not be possible for people who live off-grid or in very remote areas.

(Image Courtesy of

If you have to shelter in your home, here are some things you need to know.

  • Close all windows, doors, and vents. This prevents drafts from encouraging the fire to spread in your home.

  • Make sure doors are unlocked so that you can get out and any emergency workers or firefighters can get in.

  • Shelter in interior rooms. Note that if the fire gets close, the outer rooms will be the hottest.

Additional Avenues of Survival

What to Do if You Have to Escape on Foot

While vehicular evacuation is an ideal way to escape fires, it is not always possible. Preparing to transverse on foot, therefore, is a vital consideration in surviving wildfires. Here are some steps to take to make it out safe and sound:

  • Stay calm. This is critical to your survival. The calmer you are, the more capable you are of making rational decisions under pressure and analyzing the situation as it unfolds. Remember that if you’re the leader or responsible for others, keeping your composure is even more critical.

  • Observe the wind. Note that it's safest to stay upwind of fire. Flames travel uphill too, so try to stay below a fire if possible. If the wind is blowing toward you and the fire, run into the wind. If the wind is blowing the fire in your direction, on the other hand, travel perpendicular to the fire to make your escape.

  • Inventory your surroundings and look for places that are the least likely to catch fire. In this regard, wet areas, such as rivers, lakes, and streams, are options that offer some protection. Paved, gravel or dirt roads or paths and areas that have already burned are also safer spaces, as well as routes of travel to find safety and shelter away from the fire.

  • Consider the abilities of everyone in your group if you have to escape on foot. Small children, for example, may have to be carried, or you may have to avoid certain routes because of the terrain. All in all, make the best decisions for everyone.

  • If you’re surrounded by fire, you may need to find the best place you can to avoid the flames. As such, covering your body with mud or a wet blanket or taking refuge in water until the fire passes can save your life. A roadway can also provide a buffer from flames, especially if it’s wide.

How to Survive a Wildfire in a Car

Being trapped in a car during a wildfire is the stuff of nightmares. Thankfully, it’s entirely possible to survive such a nerve-racking situation.

Note that there are two ways of surviving a wildfire in a car. One involves sheltering in place within a car, and the other is driving away or through fire.

Sheltering in a Vehicle

If you're in your car or the keys are in it, try to position your vehicle in a spot without a lot of fuel nearby. For example, a parking lot or road is preferable to a field. Parking behind a solid structure, especially a concrete or metal one, can also provide some protection.

Other tips to consider include the following:

  • Keep the car running if possible. Though you may be tempted to save fuel, bear in mind that vehicles can be hard to start after a fire.

  • Roll up all the windows and turn off and block the air vents. Plus, if the air conditioner works, set it to recirculate the air. Closing everything off reduces smoke and helps keep the interior cooler.

  • Lay as close to the floor of the car as possible to reduce the heat you’re exposed to.

  • Use a cotton or wool blanket to protect your skin. Wool in particular is a great choice for a car emergency kit because it’s less likely to burn than other natural materials. And of course: never use anything made of synthetic materials.

  • Drink as many fluids as you can while sheltering near the floor. This will help to keep you cool and prevent severe dehydration due to heat.

  • Do whatever you can to stay calm and collected. Think about the good things in your life, or try breathing and meditation exercises if that is soothing to you. Above all, avoid panicking and exiting the vehicle while the fire is still a threat. Remember that conditions are even worse outside and that even if the outside of the car starts burning, it’s still worse for you to get out.

  • Wait for the temperature to drop outside before exiting the vehicle. Keep on any respirators you have, and if you don’t have one, use a cloth to cover your face. Remember to use caution when touching door handles because they can remain very hot, even after air temperatures go down. Finally, use a glove or other protection to open the door.

Should you have to drive away from or through a wildfire:

  • Pay attention to emergency broadcasts via your radio. That way, you have the most up-to-date fire information.

  • Drive away from the direction of the flames. Additionally, pay attention to where the fire is moving. If you’re driving and someone else is in the vehicle, ask your passenger to act as your flame spotter. By describing conditions to you, they will allow you to concentrate on driving everyone to safety.

  • Avoid driving erratically or quickly out of panic and fear. Pay attention, too, to hazards like downed trees, power lines, or disabled vehicles.

  • Keep the lights on and windows closed. As always, wear a respirator if you have one. If not, a cloth to cover your nose and mouth is better than nothing.

  • Drink plenty of fluids.

  • If flames block your exit or you become surrounded, consider following the steps provided above for sheltering in a car.


Where can I find out where wildfires are burning?
How do I know if there’s a burn ban in effect?

Final Thoughts

With wildfires more common than ever, there’s good reason to believe this trend will continue. Simply put, there are too many factors at play that contribute to the propagation of wildfires. Thankfully, however, surviving a wildfire is possible if you take the adequate time to prepare and exercise common sense whilst evacuating.

This means that ensuring that your family knows how to survive a wildfire is vital, especially if you live in an area prone to such a disaster. In this vein, creating a fire evacuation list and having the information available to your family is one of the best courses of action to take.

Remember: even if you find yourself trapped in the midst of a wildfire, your odds of survival can be greatly enhanced with the right gear, mindset, and preestablished escape plan.