Kevin Whelan
Rifle, CO Colorado

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June 27, 2012
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Caught in a wildfire

With words like "explosive" and "historic" used to describe the very dry and high fire danger throughout Colorado, it is extremely important to know what to do in the event of a wildfire.

First and foremost, everyone needs to take steps to create a defensible space around their homes and property. This is not about "clear cutting" everything around your home. It's more about thinning and mitigating areas where fire can spread and come in contact with your home.

There are lots of resources out there, and contacting your local fire department is a good first step. Just as important is to have awareness and to do all you can to eliminate any ignition sources that could cause a fire.

Our living trees are currently drier than the lumber you buy in the lumber yard and, as one local wildland firefighter said the other day, "It's not a matter of if we will have a major wildfire in Garfield County, it is just a matter of when."

Prepare now, know what to do and also what not to do. Do you have a plan on what to take with you, two ways to drive out of your community and are you signed up to receive emergency evacuation orders? If your home is threatened by a wildfire, you may be contacted by a fire or law enforcement official and asked to evacuate. Be prepared in advance and follow their directions. If you are safe, don't enter or re-enter an evacuated area. It may sound harsh, but a wildfire has no conscience and, in reality, you and I are just another piece of fuel.

As you've seen, heard or read in the news, notifying everyone within the path of a wildfire is difficult, so there are some things everyone should know if you do become caught at your home in a wildfire.

• It's important to be properly dressed to survive the fire. Cotton and wool fabrics are preferable to synthetics, which can melt when exposed to heat. Wear long pants and boots and carry a long sleeved shirt or jacket, gloves and a dry handkerchief to shield your face. Goggles and a hard hat would be added protection, if available.

Outside your house

• Remove all combustible items from around the outside of your house. This includes lawn furniture, barbecues, wood piles and anything else that, if it catches fire, could add heat and possibly contribute to starting your house on fire.

• If possible, close outside attic, eve and basement vents. Sparks and embers could enter your house through these or any other openings.

• Have your garden hose ready with enough hose to reach any place on the house. Use a spray-gun type nozzle and turn your faucet on so it's ready to go when needed. If you have a portable gasoline-powered pump to take water from a tank, pond or irrigation ditch, make sure it operates and is ready to go.

• Place large plastic trash cans or buckets around the perimeter of your house and fill them with water. Soak burlap sacks, rags or small rugs to use in beating out burning embers or small fires. Needless to say, every home should have a working fire extinguisher.

• Place a ladder against the roof of the house opposite the side of the approaching fire. A lawn sprinkler set on a combustible roof is more effective than just using your garden hose. Conserve water, as wetting down wood too far ahead of time wastes water and is ineffective.

Inside your home

• Close all your windows and doors, but don't lock them. Firefighters may arrive and need instant access.

• Close all doors inside your home to block the circulation of air and help prevent fire from going room to room.

• If you have a fireplace, open the damper to help stabilize outside and inside pressure, but close the fireplace screen so sparks don't ignite the room.

• Turn off gas at the meter, but turn on a light in each room of the house, on the porch, in the garden and in the yard. This will make the house more visible in heavy smoke at night.

• Fill bathtubs, sinks and other water containers with water. Don't forget that toilets and water heaters are important water sources.

• If you have time, take down flammable drapes and curtains. If you don't have time, leave them open. Close all fire resistant window coverings to reduce the amount of heat radiating into your home.

• Move overstuffed furniture away from windows and sliding glass doors and into the center of the room.

• If you have a garage, park your car in it, facing out for a quick departure. Close the car windows and leave the keys in the ignition. Place valuable documents and mementos inside the car and don't forget the pets. Close the garage door, but leave it unlocked. Disconnect the automatic garage door opener.

If the fire comes

OK, you are not able to escape and the fire is coming at you. You have done all you can. Get inside your home with your family, closing but not locking the doors. Keep your family together and remain calm. Stay inside the house as the fire passes. It takes time for a fire to burn from the outside into the interior of the house. But leave the house if it becomes apparent the fire is burning inside the house. Consider using the house to block you from the outside radiant heat.

Once the fire passes, check the roof immediately. Extinguish any sparks or embers using a garden hose, barrels of water, or your gasoline-powered water pump. Then, check inside the attic for hidden sparks. Check under and on combustible porches and decks for embers and fire. Keep the windows and doors closed in the house. Continue checking for at least six to 10 hours after the fire is thought to be out.

I hesitate to put this information out, because it may encourage some to stay in their home. It may also create "panic" for others. That's not my intent or purpose.

Creating a defensible space and early evacuation are the keys to giving yourself, your family and your home the best chance of surviving a wildfire. These are the right individual choices, so when a wildfire happens, you have already taken steps to mitigate the fire.

Wildfire has been, and will continue to be, a part of living in Garfield County. We will not avoid wildfire, but we can prepare for it.

Please be safe, and my thoughts and prayers are with those individuals and communities currently experiencing a wildfire.

- Kevin Whelan has been a firefighter and emergency medical responder for 32 years, the last decade with the Rifle Fire Protection District and the last six years as the department's fire marshall.

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The Post Independent Updated Jun 27, 2012 05:28PM Published Jun 27, 2012 05:27PM Copyright 2012 The Post Independent. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.