Experts reveal their wildfire survival tips

Fill bathtubs with water, lie face down in a ditch….. or if all else fails, just run: After a series of deadly wildfires around the world, experts reveal their top tips for surviving in different scenarios

  • Communities around the world have been ravaged by wildfires in recent weeks
  • With temperature records tumbling and more communities coming under threat, MailOnline asked experts: How can you survive a wildfire?

Communities across the world have been ravaged by wildfires in recent months and years, forcing people to flee their homes, leaving everything behind.

Last week, a ferocious inferno on the Hawaiian island of Maui – fuelled by strong winds – claimed more than 100 lives, with the toll still rising.

Meanwhile, over 1,100 firefighters had to tackle a blaze in Portugal, hundreds of wildfires are raging across Canada and bearing down on a city of 20,000, and another has been described as ‘out of control’ on Tenerife, the Spanish canary island.

These fires came after thousands of Britons had to escape the Greek island of Rhodes as a wildfire engulfed more than 20 percent of the island in July.

The deadly blazes come during a period of extreme global temperatures, with people in communities previously unaffected by such natural disasters now facing the possibility of losing their homes, their livelihoods and their lives to the flames.

As seen in Maui – where early warning systems failed to sound and officials said flames raced as fast as a mile every minute (60mph) in one area – wildfires can give little or no warning to those who lay in their path.

Now more than ever, people should be prepared for wildfires. Here, MailOnline spoke to experts and asked: How do you survive a wildfire?

US: An aerial image shows destroyed homes and vehicles after a wind driven wildfire burned from the hills through neighborhoods to the Pacific Ocean, as seen in the aftermath of the Maui wildfires in Lahaina, Hawaii, on August 17

SPAIN: Military firefighters battle a forest fire on August 17, 2023 raging in the northeastern part of the Canary island of Tenerife

CANADA: The McDougall Creek wildfire burns on the mountainside above a lakefront home in West Kelowna, Canada on Friday, August 18

Wildfire knowledge and preparedness

The most important piece of survival advice is knowledge and preparedness, says Carrie Berger of Oregon State University.

As Fire Program Manager at the university’s Forestry & Natural Resources Extension Fire Program, Berger has done extensive research into wildfires, how communities can adapt to the risks of fire and smoke, and how to be ready.

While authorities in areas at risk of wildfires will have plans in place, she says that it’s vital that individuals are prepared themselves.

‘The reality is when wildfires happen, they can happen so quickly and abruptly that there is no time for officials to give emergency or evacuation orders,’ she says.

Citing the 2020 Labor Day Fires in Oregon as an example – when five simultaneous ‘megafires’ and 12 smaller fires burned across more than one million acres – residents can often be told to evacuate immediately with little advance warning.

‘In the 2020 Labor Day Fires in Oregon, there were many instances where residents got the GO NOW! order (the US state’s fire warning level three of three) or no evacuation order at all,’ she said.

‘That’s why knowledge and preparedness of community members is so important.’

Pointing to the fires in Maui – where anger is mounting over a lack of warning given by Hawaii’s supposed-world leading emergency warning system – Berger said that while it’s easy to assign blame, it’s also vitally important to learn from such events.

US: The hall of historic Waiola Church in Lahaina and nearby Lahaina Hongwanji Mission are engulfed in flames along Wainee Street on Tuesday, August 8

People watch as smoke and flames fill the air from raging wildfires on Front Street in downtown Lahaina, August 8

‘It’s easy to place blame when devastating events like this happen and we are hurting’ she said. ‘[But] I think instead we need to focus on and learn from what didn’t work so we can be better prepared in the future.’

With this in mind, Berger has outlined to MailOnline a series of survival tips, as well as advice for people living in fire-risk zones on how they can prepare themselves.

First and foremost, she says, ‘people can sign up for their local emergency alert system and understand the evacuation levels’ of the local region.

Emergency alert systems can vary from state to state in the US, and from country to country elsewhere. In Oregon’s case, there are three levels.

Level One evacuations means ‘be ready’ for potential evacuation, Level Two means ‘be set’ to evacuate’ and Level Three means ‘GO’, or ‘evacuate NOW.’

There are also differing evacuation plans that residents in fire risk zones should be aware of, including local evacuation, partial evacuation, full evacuation and – in some extreme cases – orders to ‘shelter in place’ (finding a safe location indoors and staying there until given the all clear, because it’s too dangerous to go outside).

GREECE: Smoke rises from a wildfire on the island of Rhodes, Greece, July 22

Locals watch the wildfires near the village of Vati, just north of the coastal town Gennadi, in the southern part of the Greek island of Rhodes on July 25

However, Berger says, ‘understand that depending on the situation, orders might not be given and community members should use their own situational awareness and do what they think is right, like leaving an area if they sense danger.’

She also says it’s important to understand the conditions, and whether the area you are in is at high risk of a fire due to factors such as high temperatures, drought conditions, low humidity and high winds.

In the US, such conditions can lead to a ‘red flag’ warning – a warning issued by the National Weather Service to alert residents that the risk of fire is high.

‘It’s my understanding that a red flag warning was issued in Maui on August 7,’ Berger says. ‘Because of the 2020 Labor Day fires in Oregon, safety measures designed to help protect communities in high fire-risk areas are in place.’

One such measure, she says, is ‘public safety power shutoffs.’

This is because downed or damaged power lines that are still active can keep sparking fires, causing flames to spread further in dry conditions. Power lines are often damaged in high winds, which then in-turn spread flames further.

Wildfire action plan 

The next piece of advice Berger gives is for individuals and families to create their own wildfire action plans.

Such plans should include emergency meeting locations, escape routes, a plan for pets and animals, plans for communication, emergency supply kits, fire-fighting equipment, and knowing where power and gas shut-off controls are.

The action plan should include an emergency go bag, Berger says, that is placed in an easily accessible location and so it is easy to grab as you evacuate.

‘Go bag contents could include water, medications, money, phone chargers’ Berger says – essentially anything you might need when fleeing a wildfire and living away from home for an uncertain amount of time. A checklist has been compiled below.

In order to protect your home or business, Berger says you should create a defensible space and clear the ignition zone. 

ITALY: A burnt house is seen following a wildfire in the Sicilian village of Romitello, near Palermo, July 25, 2023

By doing so, you make it more difficult for the flames to spread to your property.

Checklist: What should I put in my go bag? 

The American Red Cross recommends each individual has an emergency go bag that includes the following:

  • Face masks or coverings (for smoke)
  • Three-day supply of non-perishable food and three gallons of water per person
  • Map marked with at least two evacuation routes
  • Prescriptions or special medications
  • Change of clothing
  • Extra eyeglasses or contact lenses
  • An extra set of car keys, credit cards, cash or traveler’s checks
  • First aid kit
  • Flashlight
  • Battery-powered radio and extra batteries
  • Sanitation supplies
  • Copies of important documents (birth certificates, passports, etc.)
  • Pet food and water

Other items to take, but ONLY if time and capacity allows: 

  • Easily carried valuables
  • Family photos and other irreplaceable items
  • Personal computer information on hard drives and disks
  • Chargers for cell phones, laptops, etc.

Read more here

There are three zones of defensible space: Zone 1 – the structure ignition zone (a property and its immediate vicinity); Zone 2 – the firebreak zone (5 – 30 feet around a property; and Zone 3 – the reduced fuel zone (30 – 100 feet).

While experts are not advocating for the cutting down of all trees and vegetation around homes, it is important to keep Zone 2 as clear as possible of flammable material to prevent (or slow) flames from jumping from Zone 3 to Zone 1.

For example, it is wise – if possible – to keep woodpiles 30 feet (in Zone 3) away from structures. 

Burnable material, such as grass, should be kept trimmed in Zone 2.

In Zone 1 (the property) it’s important to keep the roof clear of flammable debris such as leaves and pine needles, and from around the base of the structure.

A 100-foot garden hose should also be connected at all times, the chimney should be cleaned and screened, and fuel tanks should also be protected or kept away from the property.

An escape route should also be established, such as a driveway, and kept clear of anything that could ignite and block the path to ensure there is a clear route to evacuate quickly.

‘On your home structure,’ Berger says, ‘clean the roof and gutters of debris, remove overhanging vegetation, don’t put wood piles up against your home and use fire-resistant building materials.

‘Next to your home, the area should be comprised of non-combustible materials like stone, pavers, concrete sidewalks. 

‘Do not plant vegetation up against your home!’ she adds.

Further away from the home, ‘keep your grass mowed and watered, clean up dead vegetation, create space between vegetation and trim up branches.’

In neighbourhoods where properties are closer together, it is important to work together to create fire safe zones around them, she says. 

Escaping a wildfire 

In the event that fires are encroaching, Berger says, people should not hesitate to follow emergency orders. ‘If you’re feeling unsafe, get out and leave,’ she says.

This is when the action plan comes in, she says. Grab the emergency go bag if there’s time, and get to safety as quickly as possible.

‘The biggest mistake is not being prepared,’ Berger says. ‘Not understanding evacuation orders, not understanding what a red flag warning means and what you should or should not do, not having a wildfire action plan, not having a go bag.’

Another mistake people make is feeling unsafe – and knowing that they are in danger – but waiting for someone to tell you to leave, she says.

If you are feeling unsafe, trust your instincts.

However, it is also important not to panic. ‘People should try hard not to panic, but instead remain as calm as possible,’ Berger says.

GREECE: Tourists are evacuated as huge wildfire rages across Rhodes island on July 22, 2023

A damaged house is seen inside a burnt forest in Mandra, west of Athens, Greece, on Wednesday, July 19, 2023

‘We tend not to think straight when in a panic state.’

If you are fleeing a fire and a wildfire is closing in on you or your property – Berger laid out a series of survival advice to follow.

‘While in your vehicle,’ she says, ‘park in an area clear of vegetation, close all windows and vents, cover yourself with a wool blanket (non-synthetic) or a jacket, lie on the vehicle floor and call emergency services if you are able to.’

‘While on foot, stay calm, go to an area clear of vegetation – a ditch or depression on level ground if possible – lie face down and cover your body,’ and again, she says, ‘call 911 [or other emergency services] if you are able to.’

If you are still at home, it is important to stay calm and keep your family together, she says. ‘Call 911, fill sinks and tubs with cold water, keep doors and windows closed but unlocked, stay inside the home and stay away from outside walls and windows.’

Experts recommend a number of other survival tips if you are escaping a wildfire on foot, although no matter what you do, this  can be highly dangerous.

It is important to keep your clothes dry as in high heat, wet clothing can scold. 

Putting your shirt – or better yet a facemask – over your mouth can keep you from inhaling too much smoke and particles. 

PORTUGAL: Smoke billows in the sky in a forest fire as pictured from the A1 highway in the locality of Cardosos caused the motorway to be cut off this afternoon, Leiria, August 7, 2022

When running away from a fire, head downhill if possible, as fire moves uphill faster because of updrafts. Smoke also rises.

It is also important to consider wind direction. If the wind is blowing towards the flames, run into the wind as it is less likely to travel in that direction. 

If the wind is blowing from behind the fire, try to run perpendicular to the wind and fire to escape from the side. 

Another key point is to avoid canyons and chutes, as these can funnel heat like a tunnel, and try to move through an area that has already been burned as it is less likely to re-ignite again than an area yet to be affected by the flames.

It is also vital to stay hydrated.

Wildfire smoke and the health risks 

Another dangerous factor of wildfires that people should be aware of is smoke.

While fires present the most immediate danger to life, the vast amounts of smoke pumped into the air by the huge infernos seen in recent years can have a detrimental long-term impact on a person’s health, causing both respiratory and heart problems.

For this reason, experts say anyone fleeing a wildfire and living close to one should take precautionary measures to reduce how much smoke they inhale.

SPAIN: A combination of satellite images shows the island of Tenerife before and during the wildfire, Spain August 13, 2023 (left) and August 16 (right)

Speaking to MailOnline, Dr Gabriel Lambert – Head of Clinical Operations at TidalSense (a medical tech manufacturer) and formerly a doctor working for the NHS in the UK – he says wildfire smoke ‘contains a nasty cocktail of different substances’.

READ MORE: Is climate change causing the world’s wildfires? Why Maui, Portugal, Greece and others are experiencing extreme fires


‘Particulate matter (tiny particles of soot) irritates the lining of the airways in people’s noses, mouths, throats and lungs and can trigger exacerbations of asthma or Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).

‘The impact isn’t restricted to the lungs – exposure also increases the risk of heart attack and stroke,’ he warns. Smaller molecules called volatile organic compounds and toxic gasses like carbon monoxide also cause respiratory irritation and can have an impact throughout the body.’

As a result, those living in a region affected by an active wildfire need to minimise their exposure to these harmful substances.

Those who haven’t been told to evacuate should ‘stay indoors with windows and doors closed and consider using an air purifier to reduce the level of particulate matter,’ Dr Lambert says.

Depending on which country you live in, apps are available to monitor air quality, he says, and people should take extra precautions when air quality is poor.

‘If you have to go outside, wear a mask such as an N95 to reduce inhalation of particulates and avoid any activities that would require you to take lots of deep breaths like strenuous exercise,’ he says. 

‘Those with a chronic respiratory condition should take extra care and ensure they have a good supply of their medication. Unfortunately, many people (especially former or current smokers) have an undiagnosed lung condition called COPD that could manifest itself when exposed to an irritant like wildfire smoke.’ 

In addition to respiratory problems, Dr Oliver Guttmann, a Consultant Cardiologist at The Wellington Hospital (part of HCA Healthcare UK), says that breathing in wildfire smoke can also harm a person’s heart.

‘The fine particles and pollutants in the smoke can enter your bloodstream, triggering inflammation and oxidative stress, which can adversely impact your heart health, potentially leading to heart attacks, arrhythmias, and other heart-related issues,’ he tells MailOnline.

‘Individuals with heart problems face heightened risks during wildfires due to several reasons. Wildfire smoke contains fine particulate matter and harmful gases that, when inhaled, can lead to inflammation and oxidative stress.

For people with pre-existing heart conditions, this can exacerbate their cardiovascular issues. 

The decreased air quality can strain the respiratory system, making it harder for the heart to deliver oxygen-rich blood. This increased workload can trigger symptoms like chest pain, shortness of breath, and palpitations,’ Dr Guttmann says.

Dr Guttmann has also given advice on how to reduce the harm wildfire smoke can cause while evacuating, concurring with Dr Lambert on a number of tips.

‘During a nearby wildfire, safeguarding your heart health is crucial. First, closely monitor air quality updates and limit outdoor activities to minimise smoke inhalation. Keep doors and windows closed, and use air purifiers indoors,’ he says.

CANADA: A wildfire burns south of Enterprise, Northwest Territories, Thursday, August 17

Vehicles line-up for fuel at Fort Providence, Northwest Territories on the only road south from Yellowknife, Thursday, August 16

‘Stay hydrated to support cardiovascular function. If you have heart conditions, ensure you have an adequate supply of medications and follow your doctor’s advice.

‘Manage stress through relaxation techniques, as stress can strain the heart. Look out for any unusual symptoms like chest pain, palpitations, or shortness of breath, and seek medical attention promptly if they occur,’ he adds.

Continuous exposure to poor air quality, Dr Guttmann warns, can contribute to the development and progression of heart conditions. ‘Hypertension, atherosclerosis, and arrhythmias,’ he says can all be made worse through wildfire smoke inhalation.

‘Moreover, the stress and anxiety associated with living in a high-risk wildfire area can also negatively affect heart health. Chronic stress can lead to hormonal imbalances, elevated blood pressure, and an increased risk of heart problems.’ 

It is important for those caught in wildfire smoke to be aware of symptoms of both respiratory and heart problems, and to know when to seek medical attention.

Dr Lambert says ‘concerning symptoms after exposure to wildfire smoke include difficulty breathing which could make you feel as though you cannot speak, a severe persistent cough or chest pain.

‘Anyone who has worsening symptoms of a pre-existing condition, especially if their regular medication is not providing relief should also consider seeking care.

US: A person wearing a face mask takes photos of the skyline as smoke from wildfires in Canada cause hazy conditions in New York City on June 7, 2023

‘Many people bought oxygen saturation monitors that attach to the end of a finger during COVID,’ he notes. ‘Low oxygen levels would be worrying.’

As for what someone should do if their heart begins to feel unusual during a wildfire, Dr Guttmann says to ‘take immediate action.’

‘Sit down and focus on your breathing to manage stress. If the symptoms, like chest pain, palpitations, or shortness of breath, persist or worsens seek medical advice. 

‘Even if you’re unsure, seeking medical attention promptly is crucial. Don’t delay reaching out for help, as early intervention can prevent potential complications.’

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