Wildfire Decisions

Reader Contribution by Bruce Mcelmurray
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Climate Change

Whether you believe in climate change or not we have definitely noticed a difference in our local weather patterns. It has been far more dramatic this year than we have noticed in the past 20+ years. We usually receive on average around 265” of snow each snow season. This year we have only received 95”, and we have been in red flag warnings for wildfire more than we have been out. While it is not unusual to have high winds in the mountains, this year and last year there have been regular high wind warnings. In addition our temperatures seem to have been higher than usual. These conditions make us acutely more aware of a potential wildfire threat than usual.

Common Sense Prevention

We have chosen  to be proactive in wildfire prevention and over the years have taken significant precautions to give ourselves the best opportunity to survive a wildfire should we be unable to evacuate. The exterior of our home is native stone (see photo), our trees have been thinned or removed the required distance from the structure, limbs have been trimmed 18-20’ high, undergrowth has been removed or trimmed low to the ground and we have a high pitch metal  roof. We have also invested in a misting system for the exposed wooden deck. Some are inclined to put a sprinkler on exposed wood but that will drain a well dry in short order. A mist system slowly mists the exposed wood and doesn’t drain a well while still keeping the wood damp.

Propane tanks in our community are required to be out of sight and many use wooden fences around them to be in compliance. We chose to surround our tank with a masonry stone enclosure with a metal top – neither which are flammable.  In addition we maintain two 55 gallon drums of water and we purchased a hand pump that will pump a gallon a minute as a backup defensive measure. Does taking all these measures mean we would survive a wildfire? Not necessarily but they do give us a better chance than most. When a wildfire is bearing down on you is not the time to be thinking of prevention.

Multiple Factors To Consider

 No two communities are the same and different challenges confront each wildfire prone community. Our community is approximately 15 miles long and 5-6 miles wide with one entry/exit which is gated. The leaders within our community have struggled for years to develop a safe and viable evacuation plan in addition to doing tree mitigation. The mitigation has proceeded slowly but no evacuation plan has been developed that seems plausible. To establish a flawed plan that has a high danger of putting residents at risk is worse than no plan at all in my estimation.

The proposed  evacuation route over several miles of jeep trail through the forest is fraught with potential disaster especially for those in small cars with 13” wheels or large RV’s. We have hiked the mostly unmaintained two rut roads and they present a serious hazard; therefore it is good to have a personal plan in case evacuation presents more of a danger than hunkering down in place.


There are several websites which provide useful information but there are two that I have found to be the most useful. The first is www.wikihow.com/Survive-a-Wildfire which provides good information on survival techniques when on foot, in a vehicle or taking shelter in a structure. The other is a U.S. Government site that has very good information regarding any natural disaster, including wildfire. Being informed with practical and useful information ahead of time greatly increases your chance survival. Most of the sites I read had one common denominator: stay calm so you can think clearly when in danger.

Staying Calm

When you are faced with a wildfire staying calm can be hard to accomplish. Everything in your being tells you to flee but that rarely is the right choice. We live not far from the Great Sand Dunes National Park and I recall several years ago that a wildfire was rapidly burning toward the park. Some visitors went into full blown panic and took off running for the hills. Fortunately the park rangers were able to remain calm and round them up getting them onto the sand dunes because sand does not burn nor is it a fuel source. Thanks to the calm rational behavior of the rangers no lives were lost. Finding a large open area with no fuel source if one is available may just be the key to survival.

Personal Threat

The real threat from a wildfire is not so much being burned alive but instead asphyxiation from the carbon monoxide which replaces the oxygen in the burning process. It therefore stands to reason that the less fuel source available for a wildfire the less intense the fire. Evacuation in the face of a wildfire is clearly the smart choice and safest way to go and the recommended tactic. In the mountains where the wind can change direction instantly there may not be adequate time to evacuate or to do so safely. As has recently been seen in the California wildfires they can move rapidly and change direction easily. Testimonies of some of the victims said they were unable to evacuate and were trapped. It is therefore better to be informed and have a plan for that contingency in case rescue can’t reach you or you can’t evacuate.

Professional Advice

It is also advisable that property and personal survival plans be reviewed by wildfire professionals. We have had our plan and mitigation efforts evaluated by two such experts and both have given us favorable opinions on our actions. It was the State Forester who suggested a misting system as he had noticed using the hose or sprinkler sucked wells dry rapidly doing little good. Professionals who are experts on wildfire mitigation and survival are worth the cost of their professional advice and should be high on any list of mitigation. Wildfires are unpredictable but when proactive plans are developed ahead of time survival chances improve.

For more on Bruce and Carol McElmurray and their life in a small cabin with their three German Shepherd dogs go to:www.brucecarolcabin.blogspot.com

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