The risk of fire can be one of the biggest concerns of homeowners and landowners across the United States. Every year, acres and acres of wildland and dozens of homes are destroyed by fire. Unfortunately, fire can erupt at any time and for a variety of reasons. Arson, lightning, the burning of debris, negligently discarded cigarettes, and even accidental causes such as electrical malfunction and more can all lead to an unwanted fire that can quickly grow out of control. Adding to the risk of fire in Florida is the growing number of people living in new communities that have been built in areas that were previously wildland.
Why is summer the riskiest season for fire?
April and May are usually the driest months of the year for Florida. The hot weather and dry lightning that is common throughout Florida between the end of March and the middle of June creates quite the catalyst for wildfires too. There are two types of lightning. Cold lightning consists of a return stroke with a heavy electrical current but of a short duration. Hot lightning has currents with less voltage, but these occur for a longer period of time. Fires are usually started by significantly long-lasting hot lightning bolts.
And, adding fuel to the fire (pun intended) is that much of the southern part of Florida experiences abnormally dry conditions during this time of year, and the many downed trees are just primed and ready to burn, especially if they were subject to hurricanes the previous year.
When conditions are dry, the risk of fire is much greater, and homeowners, travelers, etc., all need to do their part to prevent contributing to an uncontrolled fire.
The link between droughts and wildfires
Drought conditions often develop after a period of above-average amounts of rainfall (such as a hurricane) over an extended area. After the heavy rainfall, the wet conditions encourage more plants and trees to grow and to gain nutrients.
These new plants and shallow-rooted trees are still young and less established and therefore, are more likely to wilt right away when dry conditions begin. If dry conditions linger, a drought can develop, which leads to conditions that are quite favorable for wildfires as the dried-out vegetation will provide the catalyst (fuel) for the fires.
Wildfires will ignite easily under dry conditions and will spread quickly if they are not taken under control quickly. Lightning, as mentioned above, is an excellent starter of wildfires, especially in dry conditions. Local fires are identified every year in the United States when the land starts to dry out, particularly in the states of Florida or California.
In drought conditions, a lack of precipitation from the drought will cause wildfires to get out of hand. Across the Southeast United States, controlled burning is often put in place as a precaution to contain wildfires. With these controlled burning efforts, the short, or younger brush in the forest is burned up on purpose to eliminate them as fuel sources for the fires. This practice successfully contains fires that do develop on their own and keeps them away from settled and more heavily populated areas.
Preventing wildfires is everyone’s responsibility
Wildfires are very dangerous for people who live nearby and for those that might be in the area visiting. Not only can fires create serious damage and destruction to nearby homes and communities, but they also wreak havoc on plants and animals in the area.
Though in some cases, a planned fire is good for the forest, unplanned fires that burn too hot can make it extremely difficult for the environment to recover. Though a forest can recover after a wildfire, it can take a long time for a forest to get back to how it was. Considering that the average forest is about 70–100 years old, and the trees in some forests are 4,000–5,000 years old, it goes to say that another fire could easily take place long before a forest recovers.
Many Americans and their children have heard of Smokey Bear. In fact, the concept of Smokey Bear was born on August 9, 1944, when the United States Forest Service and the Ad Council partnered together to create a fictional bear as the symbol for a joint marketing and safety effort to promote and advertise the need for forest fire prevention. Artist Albert Staehle was commissioned to paint the first poster of Smokey Bear – it illustrated a bear pouring a bucket of water onto a campfire, accompanied by a quote saying “Care will prevent 9 out of 10 fires.”
Before long, Smokey Bear became quite popular as his image started to appear on a wide array of forest fire prevention materials. In 1947, his slogan became what we know today as “Only YOU can prevent forest fires!” And still today, we leverage rules and guidelines from Smokey Bear as we educate ourselves and others on the best way to prevent a forest fire or wildfire.
Smokey’s five rules for wildfire prevention:
- Only you can prevent wildfires
- Always be cautious when in the vicinity of fire
- Do not ever play with matches, lighters, or other fire pieces and only use these items when properly supervised by a responsible adult
- Always keep a close eye on your campfire
- Make sure your campfire is thoroughly out before leaving the area
How to prevent the risk of fire near your home
Though most fires, as mentioned previously, are caused by accident from lightning, the burning of debris, negligently discarded cigarettes, electrical malfunction and more, home fires, especially those located in close proximity to a wooded area, can be extremely dangerous.
Thankfully, there are many things that homeowners can do to prevent a fire from occurring in their homes.
- Test your smoke detectors often. Get in the habit of testing the batteries in your smoke detector, at least once per month. If they are not working, replace them promptly. And, be sure to replace batteries at least once per year.
- Inspect your heating sources, regardless of the type of primary heating you have in your home. An annual inspection will reduce your risk of fire, and can be coordinated with the annual replacement of your smoke detector batteries.
- Change your furnace filters every few months (more if needed) to avoid a buildup of dust and lint that can easily catch fire if coming into contact with a spark. If you use a space heater, be sure to inspect them before and after each use carefully. Ensure space heaters are placed at least three feet away from anything combustible.
- Keep the stove and oven clear from clutter. Remember that kitchens are the most likely place for a fire to start. So, to prevent a kitchen fire, keep anything flammable a close distance away from the stove or oven.
- Do not leave the kitchen unattended when you are using a hot cooking surface. Regardless of if it is a pot of water on the stovetop or an electric griddle with nothing cooking on it yet, you need to be close by. If you have to leave the room, turn the stove or griddle off until you return.
- Inspect your gas gas-powered clothes dryer once a year to make sure all connections are secure. And, regardless of whether or not your dryer is gas or electric, always clean out the lint filter after your laundry load has finished drying.
- Regularly monitor the condition of your home’s electrical cords and be on the lookout for frayed wires. Replace damaged cords immediately.
- Know how to locate the power shutoff valves for all utilities, including gas lines, circuit breakers, appliances, and fuses. Even better, consider posting clear shutoff directions next to each of the utilities to make for easy reference if and when needed.
- Store flammable products properly. Remember that most household cleaners and cosmetic products are flammable. So, keep these flammable products away from the heat, including exposure to sunlight.
- Be careful with candles and never leave them unattended. If venturing outdoors for a picnic (especially in dry conditions and if you are in the vicinity of a forest or wooded area, keep candles away from highly flammable items like blankets, tablecloths, and curtains.
- If you smoke, be conscientious and refrain from smoking in bed or while lying on the couch. House fires are frequently started by smokers who accidentally fall asleep with a lit cigarette in hand.
- To keep sparks from escaping, install a metal fire screen in front of your fireplace. And even more so, do not leave your fireplace unattended.
- Prevent wildfires from outdoor fire pits, bonfires, and burn barrels. Make sure that your fire pit or burn barrel is built using non-flammable materials such as stone or concrete. And, do not light fires on windy days or after long periods of dry weather. Never, ever leave the fire unattended. Further, be sure that you have a bucket full of water (or a hose at the ready and connected to a water source), within easy access should sparks get out of the fire pit or barrel.
- Keep fire extinguishers handy. Fire extinguishers should be stocked in crucial areas of your home with one on every floor. In the least, keep one fire extinguisher in the kitchen and others near high-risk areas like a fireplace. Remember how to operate the fire extinguisher using PASS. Pull, aim, squeeze, and sweep.
- Close bedroom doors at bedtime. This can enable passive fire protection that will provide you and your family with precious seconds if you need to escape your home quickly.
- Make sure that everyone in your home knows their location and address. It is not guaranteed that emergency services will be able to trace your location, even if you call from a cell phone. Firefighters will need an exact address.
What to do if you are caught by a forest fire
If you are unfortunate enough to get caught in the midst of a wildfire or forest fire, you must know what to do to increase your chances of survival. Almost 4,000 people die every year in the United States from fires (residential, commercial, and wildfires combined), and that number can be driven lower and lower if people practice fire safety and know what to do in the event of a fire disaster.
- Your natural instinct will be to try to outrun the blaze. But, it is better to seek out a body of water such as a pond or river where you can crouch for protection. If you are in a residential area and there is a pool nearby, this is an excellent place to seek protection.
- If you are unable to find water, look for a depression in the ground or a cleared area with little growth and vegetation. Lie low on the ground and cover yourself with wet clothing, soil, or a blanket. Keep yourself low and covered until the fire passes.
- Breath the air closest to the ground, ideally through a moist cloth, which can help with smoke inhalation.
If you live in an area where a forest fire has broken out, it is important to follow the guidance provided by the authorities that are tending to the scene. If you are advised to evacuate your home, do not hesitate, and be sure to do this immediately. Make sure your family knows the evacuation/ escape route ahead of time. An excellent suggestion is to prepare emergency supplies and a fire evacuation (or severe weather) checklist and to take time as a family at least once per year to review the procedures. When evacuating, wear protective clothing (collared long sleeve shirt with cotton tee shirt underneath and long pants made with wool or denim) and footwear so that you are protected from flying sparks and ashes.
However, if you are given warning of a fire in the area but the evacuation has not yet been ordered, take advantage of the time to start preparing your home.
- Remove combustibles, including yard waste, barbecue grills, firewood, and fuel cans, from your yard
- Close all windows, doors, and vents
- Shut off natural gas, fuel, oil, and propane supplies
- Fill pools, yard ponds, hot tubs, garbage cans, large coolers (with lid left ajar) or tubs with water to slow fire and to help extinguish the fire in your area
If your life has been disrupted and your home damaged by a fire in South Florida, you need to reach out to a public adjuster. Bulldog Adjuster is the fastest growing public adjuster firm in South Florida and we get you the biggest possible settlement from your insurance company! Reach out today!