Here's what you should do if a wildfire threatens your home
Dry grass, wind and relatively low humidity means a fire can spread easily and be difficult to control. All it takes is a spark from a metal lawnmower blade hitting a rock, a loose chain dragging on the road behind a vehicle, a car idling in tall grass or a lit cigarette thrown out a window.
If a fire starts near your home and you are asked to evacuate, you may not have much time to prepare.
Kari Hines, a program coordinator with Firewise USA and the Texas A&M Forest Service, said while you may get a 15-to-30-minute heads up, Texans often just get a knock on their door from a local authority telling them to leave immediately.
“First and foremost, it’s all about life safety — protecting the public as well as protecting our first responders,” Hines said.
People in areas with a high fire danger — which is currently a large swath of Texas — should be ready to leave at a moment’s notice.
Here’s how you can be prepared.
Sign up for phone, text or email alerts at WarnCentralTexas.org. City and county officials in Travis and surrounding counties can send emergency alerts — including evacuation notices — to residents. You can add alerts from the National Weather Service, which include “red flag warnings” indicating that there is an increased risk for fire in your area. The service is free and takes a few minutes to set up.
Proactively check the risk of fire in your area from data provided by Texas A&M Forest Service here. If you are in an area of high fire danger, be prepared to evacuate.
Prepare your 'go' kit
Gather the things you want to take with you if you need to leave your home. Put items in a bag in an easy-to-access spot and let your family know where it is.
Consider the Five P’s when preparing your "go" kit:
- People and pets (including livestock)
- Prescriptions (including medical equipment, glasses and hearing aids)
- Papers (like insurance information, phone numbers, deeds or the electronic equivalent)
- Personal needs (clothes, food, water and toiletries)
- Priceless items (like photo albums and irreplaceable memorabilia).
Other P's include plastic (credit cards), passports (and other IDs) and personal devices like computers.
Pack comforting toys and activities for kids.
If you are asked to evacuate and haven’t packed a kit, don’t focus on material things.
“People can spend time worrying about things that don’t matter when it’s their lives that matter most,” Justice Jones, a wildfire mitigation officer for the Austin Fire Department, said.
Plan your evacuation route
Here’s what you need to know before you get on the road.
Know the turns of the roads well. Smoke can be thick and disorienting for drivers, Hines said. It’s important to be familiar with the road itself and not just rely on GPS.
Be prepared to change your route. Responders may put up barricades in the first few hours of an emergency, Hines said, but they may not have broadcast those road closures. If you get to a barricade, be prepared to turn around.
Know a couple of routes out of your neighborhood. If one road is impassable, you’ll want to know another option. If you live in a community with only one way in or out, Jones said, pay even closer attention to fire conditions, because seconds matter during an evacuation.
If you have tried to leave but are unable to do so, call 911 so first responders are aware of your presence and can try to protect you where you are. This guide contains information on how to try to stay safe in your home if you can’t leave — like filling tubs with water for emergency use and keeping wet towels under doors to keep out smoke and embers.
- Limit the number of vehicles you take to reduce congestion on the road.
- Inform family and friends where you are planning to go.
- Leave before you get an evacuation notice if you feel your home or evacuation route is threatened.
Protect your home
You can help protect your home against a fire in a few ways if you have time.
Remove any combustible plants or vegetation from within 5 feet of your home. That includes getting leaves out of your gutters. Hines said embers — those little pieces of burning material that fly ahead of a fire — can land in a pile of dead grass, dry leaves or firewood and build up enough heat to burn down a house.
Install a one-eighth-inch metal mesh to cover any openings into the structure — like under porches or into attics — to help keep embers from entering your home.
Bigger changes include using different building materials for your roof and siding that are more fire-resistant. Jones suggested an asphalt composite roof.
One thing Jones said not to do to protect your home is to leave sprinklers on before evacuating.
“If everybody did that, it could diminish the city’s ability to have adequate supply,” he said. “The key is to not have vegetation directly adjacent to your home. And then you don’t have to worry about that. Even if your grass is dry, it’s not going to act like a fuse to reach your home.”
You can find a detailed wildfire action guide from the Austin-Travis County Wildfire Coalition here.