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Coming Back to Your House After a Fire

Jul 29, 2008
This advice is controversial and should be followed with care and good judgment, but it may save your house.

If an evacuation has been ordered as a result of an impending fire, send your wife, kids, and pets to the safest possible place. That is usually a spot designated by police or fire authorities. You, however, may consider staying somewhere near your house with the objective of returning when the fire has passed through.

First, let's discuss fire and firefighting tactics. Fires sweep through areas. A fire may burn for several hours, days, or weeks, but not in the same place. This means that, if your home is in the line of fire, it will burn your house down or not, and move on.

I've mentioned the fire strike teams in an earlier article. These guys are working hard, and they're on the move, chasing or staying in front of the fire. This means that once it has passed by your home, they will move on.

The bad news is that your home can burn down hours after the main fire danger has passed. One of the common risks is that burning embers may have lodged in the eaves of your roof. They could be smoldering for some time before erupting into a fire, and four hours later your home could be on fire when the fire crews are a mile away. Similarly, there may be things smoldering in the ground nearby which could later start a fire at your house.

When a voluntary or mandatory evacuation is called, law enforcement officials will set up a perimeter and try to keep everyone on the safe side of it. In addition to assuring the safety of the evacuees, it will keep looters and unauthorized people away from unoccupied homes.

Here's the problem - once you are outside the fire perimeter, you cannot go back for the duration, which could be several days.

If you can find a safe zone within the fire perimeter, you may consider waiting there for the fire to come through. Fire officials do not encourage this, as their first concern is human safety and life, and they don't want you hampering the work of the fire crews. Second, understand that a firestorm may have flames 50 - 100 feet high. Embers from fires may blow up to a half mile, causing what are known as spot fires. Further, a phenomenon called "preheating" may cause an area to burst into flames in advance of the fire itself. For these reasons, you must be in a place of safety. Standing in someone's vacant lot is not going to protect you.

You must find a wide-open area that will not burn - a large shopping center parking lot, or the edge of the ocean or other sizeable body of water, or somewhere which is surrounded by cement or dirt. These areas will be safe. Standing in the middle of an open area of wildland grass is not safe, grass burns.

Also, note that you should keep a good dust mask in your car. These are the same masks that plasterers and other workers use, and can be bought at any hardware store. In the hours after a fire, the air is going to be full of soot and ash and you don't want to be breathing it.

Once the fire has moved through, go back to your house. In the first hours of a fire, if you are behind the lines, it is unlikely that anyone will stop you. Once you get to your home, no police or fire official is going to order you out. PS - watch for downed power lines on your way home. Getting electrocuted can ruin your whole day.

Start looking around the house for things which are still burning. When I returned to my home, railroad ties two feet from my back door were smoldering! Look around the roofline, under the eaves, and walk around the house several times to see if any stumps, wood, brush, patio furniture pads, or anything else could be burning. The odds are that your water pressure will have returned. Use your hose. If you have no water pressure, use a shovel. Throw dirt. Smack the embers.

Keep looking and watching. If you spend the night at your house and the power is out (it probably will be), you can see glowing spots where things are still smoldering. Sometimes fire in wildland areas can smolder under the brush for a day and then erupt. If your fire department is sophisticated, you will see them, 24 - 48 hours after the fire, flying over in helicopters doing aerial infrared mapping, looking for hot spots.

As I have said, this is controversial, but there are many, many people in Southern California who have returned home to find their decks or backyards burning after the fire crews have moved on and have saved their homes themselves. You may be the only person who can save your house.
About the Author
Kurt Kamm writes novels about fires and firefighters. A resident of Malibu, he has lived through several wildland fires. He is a regular visitor at the fire camps, stations and training academies of L.A. County Fire Department and CalFire. To learn more about his novels, One Foot in the Black, and Red Flag Warning, visit Kurt Kamm.
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