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How to Survive a Wildfire

Every year, it seems there’s news of another mass forest or wildfire. Practically anywhere with even a little bit of vegetation and dryness can have the potential for deadly wildfires to propagate, so much so that in 2021 alone, the US experienced more wildfires than it had in a decade.

But all is not lost, as decades of research and documented experiences have shown that there are 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, diving into what causes wildfires, how to prevent them from occurring, how to prepare and use fire evacuation supplies, how to treat burns, and most importantly how to escape should you find yourself in the thick of the heat.

So without further delay, let's discuss how to survive a wildfire.


  • 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


What Causes Wildfires?

Wildfires are typically 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

When many of us were kids, we saw a lot of posters with a bear declaring, "Only you can prevent forest fires!" The Smokey the Bear campaign instilled the belief in generations of Americans that all manners of forest fires were inherently caused by the actions of humans.

100 years of fire suppression efforts in national forests and parks

However, the truth is that forest fires occur naturally as nature's way of clearing the dead plant matter on the forest floor. This in effect, cleans the forest floors to open up plants to direct sunlight and nourishes the soil. Without fire, this can only be achieved via mechanical logging of the understory.

Lack of Forest Management

Another major source of wildfires is the simple lack of planning by residents. Many towns and private property owners do not spend enough time or money on wildfire prevention. More often than not, private property owners do not have a forest management plan. In fact, many want to preserve their land as it is. They see logging and mechanical removal as a huge expense that will destroy the ecosystem.

The end result? The shrubbery and trees near homes and businesses become fantastic fuel source for fires to occur down the line. The tradeoff for beautiful landscaping and hedges is an increased risk of a catastrophic wildfire destroying homes and costing lives.

Irresponsible campers and drivers

The advent of the COVID-19 pandemic led the way for more outdoor recreation as so many traditional indoor activities were impossible due to lockdowns and social distancing. On the surface, there is nothing wrong with individuals enjoying the great outdoors.

However, the act of using Mother Nature’s land comes with it the responsibility to care for it.

Campfires are great, but not everyone is careful about using a fire ring, putting the fire out completely, and knowing when it’s just not safe to build one. Add partying into the equation, and it’s easy to see how a fire can get started. Cigarette butts thrown out of car windows or tossed by hikers and day trippers are another cause of wildfires.

People living a transient lifestyle

Fire risk goes up when more people are sheltering wherever they can. Using candles and campfires to cook, especially in abandoned homes or outbuildings, can lead to a fire.

On the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum, those who can afford to do so are buying camper vans or RVs to live a nomadic lifestyle all across the country.


The West Coast and Midwest of the United States have been experiencing record drought conditions in recent years. Drought combined with the massive amounts of natural fuel, extreme weather conditions, and the continued growth of populated areas creates ideal conditions for wildfires.

Dry vegetation such as dead trees and parched grass when struck by lightning or scorched by sunlight can spark massive fires. Or, as we just discussed previously, campers recklessly ditching cigarettes or leaving behind active campfires can just as easily contribute to the problem.

Case in point, in 2016, a catastrophic fire consumed much of Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Two teens started the fire by carelessly dropping lit matches on a trail despite a burn ban being in effect. Lives were lost, and many had no time to evacuate because the high winds caused the fire to rage with frightening intensity. Firefighters and emergency personnel were powerless to stop it.

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. This bag is useful for any type of disaster. It ensures that you don’t have to waste time packing a bag if you need to leave immediately.

(Image Courtesy of KQED)

Depending on the fire and how much warning you have, you might need to leave as quickly as possible. Remember, you also need a bag or tote of supplies for any pets that will be evacuating with you. Most people will evacuate using a vehicle, so there may be some space for additional supplies. While taking items with you that will help get you through an emergency is nice, do not make the potentially fatal mistake of trying to fill your car when danger is rapidly approaching.

Remember, 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.

Here’s a brief family fire evacuation list.

  • Food for at least 72 hours

  • Water and water filter

  • Any prescription medications and glasses

  • Medical kit

  • Clothing including outerwear appropriate for your region and weather conditions

  • Emergency blanket

  • Multi-tool

  • 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 possessing the PPE that can adequately protect you from the elements. 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.

This makes owning a respirator or gas mask with appropriate filters absolutely essential. 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. If there is no air to filter, then the user will simply suffocate. A particularly dangerous aspect of fires is the release of carbon monoxide, as this will actively displace oxygen in the immediate area. Only a Self Contained, Breathing Apparatus or SCBA system, often seen used by firefighters, can provide prolonged protection against scalding hot air and carbon monoxide.

At the end of the day, all PPE gear in the context of the average civilian should be treated as an escape and evasion tool. Your priority is not to find out the upper limits of use for your equipment, it is to get you and your family out of the immediate area alive.

MIRA Safety CM-6M Full Face Gas Mask

The MIRA Safety CM-6M is an ideal wildfire escape respirator. This mask features a robust bromobutyl rubber construction that will completely shut 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. This is especially important when navigating hazardous environments and seeking safety.

For a detailed overview of 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.

If you wish to learn more about the various different types of filter grades, 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. 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. 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. This is easily 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 can melt into your skin when exposed to cinders, ashes, or high heat. Cotton clothing is a far better choice around flames due to the fact the material will burn quickly and without melting off your skin.

Genuine flame-resistant clothing such as Nomex is a nice addition to a fire escape kit, but expect to pay substantially more for it than regular clothing. It’s typically fairly heavy so that it can resist heat and the abrasions that can occur during a fire.

Another great addition to your kit is a pair of rugged leather boots. Leather does not burn nearly as readily as synthetic material.

Fire Shelter

(Video courtesy of Public Resource Org)

An incredible life saving tool to have during a raging wildfire is a fire shelter. Typically, wildland firefighters carry a fire shelter when battling fires of any significance due to their ease of use and flexibility. 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, and hopefully allowing the firefighters to survive. However, these shelters are considered an absolute last resort. They are only to be used when there is no way to escape the flames and survive—deciding when to use one and when it’s best to make a run for it is a tough decision, especially if you are not knowledgeable about wildfires.

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. Trees can also take out power lines and thus create make an already dangerous situation even worse. This is one reason why it’s so important to evacuate the area before conditions get severe. 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?

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, 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. Emergencies such as this highlight the importance of having lightweight and easy to deploy vital pieces of equipment. A respirator with an advanced CBRN filter can drastically increase your chances of making it out of a compromised situation if you have to set out on foot. A PAPR 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.

Moving small debris may be possible, but it’s important to observe your surroundings for hazards. Stay well clear of downed power lines, and if it looks like more trees could fall, don’t try to clear. Simply look for alternative options.

Avoid large bodies of water

While floodwaters may not 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 blocked but consider that waterways are often unpredictable. Many people have been swept away or forced to swim from their cars when they attempted to cross flood waters or swollen streams during an emergency. A small stream is one thing if you can cross it quickly and there are no electrical hazards, but any signs of flooding indicate that crossing is not safe.

Preventing and Treating Burns

Be careful when touching anything in an area affected by fire. Wearing a good pair of leather gloves is helpful, but if you want to be really prepared, add some Kevlar fire-resistant gloves to your kit.

A serious burn can happen nearly instantaneously depending on the temperature. Minor burns can be treated with medical supplies that you should have on hand, but anything moderate to major needs professional medical attention.

(Image Courtesy of Healthgrades)

To treat burns, follow these steps:

  • Cool the burn as quickly as possible. Keep something cool on it for at least 1 minute. Cold running water works, if available. Disposable ice packs that you can activate by shaking it is 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, remove it before the burned area has a chance to swell up.

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

  • 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.

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

As stated before, one should seek medical treatment for severe burns as quickly as possible to prevent long-term health risks. Severe burns 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; however, many lack some of the supplies needed to treat a burn properly. 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

As the saying goes, “Better to have it, and not need it, than to need it, and not have it”. In any disaster scenario, especially during wildfires, time is of the essence. Having a prepacked set of supplies as well as a proper rehearsed plan in place can dramatically reduce the time needed to make your escape.

For those with vehicles, it is always a good idea to keep your gas tank at least half full. Keep an extra 5–10 gallons of fuel on hand, if possible. 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 shortages, it’s more important than ever to not let your gas level sink too low before topping off. 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. Hotels typically require a major credit card even if they take cash, and carrying enough cash for a hotel stay of unknown length is probably not desirable.

At the same time, some cash is a good idea for the small expenses that arise when staying away from home. In 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. 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. It’s a good idea to have paper maps of your area in case your GPS fails.

Consider ahead of time where you’ll go to take shelter. 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. If you have to evacuate, it’s important to have a copy of your insurance policies, ID, birth certificates, social security cards, health insurance info, etc. Replacing these items can be difficult without at least a paper copy. You can also take pictures with your phone or scan 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. This is especially true in knowing how to survive a wildfire. Make sure you include a plan for regrouping and staying in touch if you have to evacuate separately.

Older kids and adults need to 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. Create an easy-to-understand fire evacuation list as part of the plan so that packing can start as soon as you’re aware of potential danger.

Another idea is to have premade 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 be foolhardy about staying. 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

It can take years to get a wooded area in good shape for withstanding fires, but it is well worth the effort. Clearing out any shrubbery or dead wood from the understory of any woodlands effectively rids of the major fuel sources for wildfires to start. If you can hire help, it can be done faster. To keep it clear, consider keeping grazing animals or leasing grazing rights to others, which might provide you with additional income.

Create fire lines

A fire line is a break in vegetation or other potential fuel for a fire. Gravel roads and paths are examples of useful fire lines. Even a path that’s just 3 feet wide or so can slow or stop fires from jumping and consuming the fuel on your property. 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

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

Hedges and plants are beautiful, but too much plant material close to your home increases your fire risk. Ivy and plants that creep up your house are particularly risky. Large trees that are close enough to hit your home are another common hazard. Consider how many tall trees are close to your home, and decide whether you’re comfortable with the risk.

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 and not shelter 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 Ready.gov)

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.span>

  • Shelter in interior rooms. 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 is a vital consideration one 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 to analyze the situation as it unfolds. If you’re the leader or responsible for others, it is even more critical.

  • Observe the wind. 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, travel perpendicular to the fire to make your escape.

  • Inventory your surroundings and look for places that are the least likely to catch fire. 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 all safer spaces and routes of travel to get away from a wildfire and to safety and shelter.

  • Consider the abilities of everyone in your group if you have to escape on foot. Small children may have to be carried, or you may have to not take a route because of the terrain. 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. 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 offer 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 sounds like a nightmare. It would be a lie to say otherwise, but luckily it’s entirely possible to survive.

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 it’s your car or the keys are in it, try to position it in a spot without a lot of fuel nearby. For example, a parking lot or road is better than a field. Parking behind a solid structure, especially a concrete or metal one, can also provide some protection.

  • Keep the car running if possible. It can be hard to start after a fire.

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

  • Roll up all the windows and turn off and block the air vents. 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 is a great choice for a car emergency kit because it’s less likely to burn than other natural materials. Never use anything made of synthetic materials.

  • Drink as many fluids as you can while sheltering near the floor. This will help 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 do breathing and meditation exercises if that is soothing to you. Avoid panicking and exiting the vehicle while the fire goes through. 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. Use caution when touching door handles because they can be very hot even after air temps go down. 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 so you have the most up-to-date fire information.

  • Drive away from the direction of the flames. Pay attention to where the fire is moving. If you’re driving and someone else is in the vehicle, have them be your flame spotter and describe conditions so you can concentrate on driving everyone to safety.

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

  • Keep the lights on and windows closed. Wear a respirator the entire time if you have one. 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?


Wildfires are more common than ever, and there’s no reason to believe they will not continue to become more frequent. Simply put, there are too many factors at play that contribute to the propagation of wildfires. Thankfully, surviving a wildfire is possible if you take the time to prepare and use common sense when it comes to evacuating.

Ensuring that your family knows how to survive a wildfire is vital, especially if you live in an area prone to such a disaster. 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.