Health & Safety

July 5, 2013

Surviving a wildfire: the aftermath

Despite your best efforts and preparation, you may still be the victim of a wildfire. Of course, your primary concern is survival. If you and your family have made it to this point, you breathe a sigh of relief and utter a silent prayer of thanks. However, now you must deal with the aftermath of a truly devastating event, an occurrence that will change your life in ways you cannot imagine. Knowing where to begin and who can help you is vital. Putting your life back together will seem an insurmountable task, but with patience and over time, you can rebuild what you have lost. Listed below are some issues that you may face after this horrific episode:

1) Go to a designated public shelter if you have been told to evacuate or you feel it is unsafe to remain in your home. Text SHELTER + your ZIP code to 43362 (4FEMA) to find the nearest shelter in your area (example: shelter 12345).

2) If you are with burn victims, or are a burn victim yourself, call 9-1-1 or seek help immediately; cool and cover burns to reduce chance of further injury or infection.

3) If you remained at home, check the roof immediately after the fire danger has passed. Put out any roof fires, sparks or embers. Check the attic for hidden burning sparks.

4) For several hours after the fire, maintain a “fire watch.” Re-check for smoke and sparks throughout the house.

5) If you have evacuated, do not enter your home until fire officials say it is safe.

6) If a building inspector has placed a color-coded sign on the home, do not enter it until you get more information, advice and instructions about what the sign means and whether it is safe to enter your home.

7) If you must leave your home because a building inspector says the building is unsafe, ask someone you trust to watch the property during your absence.

8) Use caution when entering burned areas as hazards may still exist, including hot spots, which can flare up without warning.

9) If you detect heat or smoke when entering a damaged building, evacuate immediately.

10) If you have a safe or strong box, do not try to open it. It can hold intense heat for several hours. If the door is opened before the box has cooled, the contents could burst into flames.

11) Avoid damaged or fallen power lines, poles and downed wires.

12) Watch for ash pits and mark them for safety-warn family and neighbors to keep clear of the pits also.

13) Watch animals closely and keep them under your direct control. Hidden embers and hot spots could burn your pets’ paws or hooves.

14) Follow public health guidance on safe cleanup of fire ash and safe use of masks.

15) Wet debris down to minimize breathing dust particles.

16) Wear leather gloves and heavy soled shoes to protect hands and feet.

17) Cleaning products, paint, batteries and damaged fuel containers need to be disposed of properly to avoid risk.

18) Discard any food that has been exposed to heat, smoke or soot.

19) Do NOT use water that you think may be contaminated to wash dishes, brush teeth, prepare food, wash hands, make ice or make baby formula.

20) Remain calm. Pace yourself. You may find yourself in the position of taking charge of other people. Listen carefully to what people are telling you, and deal patiently with urgent situations first.

Develop a checklist for yourself to follow that will enable you to put some order into your attempt to get back to normalcy. Look at the following areas:

a) Contact your local disaster relief service, such as the Red Cross. They will help you find a place to stay for a while and find food, medicines, and other important things.

b) If you have insurance, contact your insurance company. Ask what you should do to keep your home safe until it is repaired. Find out how they want you to make a list of things that were lost or damaged in the fire. Ask who you should talk to about cleaning up the mess. If you are not insured, try contacting community groups for aid and assistance.

c) Check with the fire department to make sure your home is safe to enter. Be very careful when you go inside. Floors and walls may not be as safe as they look.

d) The fire department will tell you if your utilities (water, electricity, and gas) are safe to use. If not, they will shut these off before they leave. DO NOT try to turn them back on by yourself. This could be very dangerous.

e) Contact your landlord or mortgage company about the fire.

f) Try to find valuable documents and records. See the information in the FEMA brochure “After the fire; Returning to Normal” about how to get new copies if you need them. (downloadable from the internet)

g) If you leave your home, call the local police department to let them know the site will be vacant.

h) Begin saving receipts for any money you spend related to fire loss. The receipts may be needed later by the insurance company and to prove any losses claimed on your income tax.

i) Check with an accountant or the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) about special benefits for people recovering from fire loss.

As we deal with life’s daily challenges and commitments, surviving a disaster may be the farthest thought from our minds. But, taking a little time to develop a plan, obtain some basic education and ensure you have accomplished some key preventative measures will go a long way in giving the best opportunity to survive and recover. Ironically, this article is being written in the middle of heat wave in southern California which exacerbates all those conditions leading to wildfires. The season is far from over. The time to act is now. Be involved, be vigilant and, above all, be prepared. I conclude this series on wildfires with some food for thought and a reiteration from a previous article-”If I had known this was going to happen, I would have….” Don’t let those words be yours.




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