The fast-moving wildfires in Colorado on Thursday that forced tens of thousands of people to flee and destroyed hundreds of homes were a sobering reminder that wildfires have become a year-round phenomenon in the American West.
It is never too early to plan for a potential evacuation, even if you are not in an area immediately affected by smoke or flames. Wildfires can spread very quickly, move erratically and travel great distances — especially when driven by the wind, as Thursday’s fires were, experts say.
Here are some suggestions to prepare for such an emergency.
Before the fire
Make a plan. Families should set a meeting point in case they get separated and map at least two evacuation routes.
Prepare an emergency supply kit. Think beyond a flashlight, batteries, and food and water. Cal Fire, the firefighting agency in California, a state that records thousands of wildfires a year, recommends gathering a three-day supply of nonperishable food and three gallons of water per person. Also pack a change of clothes, prescription medications and extra eyeglasses or contact lenses. If you have pets, do not forget about pet food and medication.
Keep important documents together. Gather birth certificates, property titles, insurance records and other crucial paperwork. In addition to being difficult to replace, some of the documents could be needed to file claims after the fire.
When the fire approaches
Prepare your home. If you have time, move flammable items like wood piles, brush and propane tanks at least 30 feet away from your house. Shut all windows and doors, but leave them unlocked once you evacuate, so firefighters can get in. Turn on outdoor lights so firefighters can see the house through the smoke. Shut off the gas at the meter, and turn off the air-conditioning.
Fuel up. Keep the family car topped off with gas to avoid any delays.
Go to the ATM. Cash is key after emergencies. Keep your credit cards handy, too.
Tune in to local media. There is no better source for information on evacuation orders, routes and shelters, said Brandi Richard, public affairs officer for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “Monitoring their websites is really important, because as things come in, they’re sharing them on social media.”
Once you decide to evacuate
You do not need to wait for an order. This is especially true in densely populated areas where there may be traffic jams.
Pack a “go bag.” Make sure you have the essentials, especially if you can’t get to your emergency supply kit. Denver’s Office of Emergency Management suggests you pack the following: medicine, important documents, clothes, cash, a blanket, face masks, hand sanitizer water and snacks.
Grab your electronics. Cellphones, personal computers, backup hard drives and chargers should all go into the car, along with the emergency kit, personal documents, family keepsakes, cash and credit cards.
Don’t forget the pets. They will be scared.
Be smart in the car. Close your windows and use recirculated air-conditioning. Tune in to local radio to hear about safe routes.