If you've lived in California long enough, you know that high and dry temperatures and gusting Santa Anas don't just mean another hot day--they're a sign of wildfire weather. It's not unusual to watch local news coverage of fires blazing through acres of vegetation, or drive down the freeway and see smoke rising in the distance from a blaze, but that doesn't mean you should be complacent about wildfire preparedness. In the first half of 2016, there have been more than 2,000 fires in the state, and more are sure to come.
"Wildfires are a fact of life in California, and like any natural disaster, they can be devastating," says James DeCock, MD, a board-certified family medicine physician at Mission Heritage Medical Group. "Not only are homes, businesses and open spaces at risk during a fire, but so is your health if you live near an active blaze. That's why it's so important to be prepared in case of fire, as well as know what to do during a wildfire-triggered emergency." Among Dr. DeCock's health-related recommendations:
- Have an emergency kit ready to go. "This is good common sense for any kind of natural disaster," Dr. DeCock says. "For wildfires, your kit should be easily transportable--unlike an earthquake where you may be stuck at home, you can be called to evacuate in case of fire. Put your emergency supplies in a backpack that's not too heavy to carry, or a small, wheeled bag or cart." See the checklist below for what to pack.
- Draw up an evacuation plan. Have more than one safety route leading out of your neighborhood or where you work in case you need to get out quickly. If members of your family are separated, arrange a meeting spot at a location out of the danger zone of the fire, such as a relative's home. "You'll want to get out of harm's way quickly, of course, but you also want to minimize the time you spend in a smoke-filled environment," Dr. DeCock says. "Especially if you are pregnant or have young children, you'll want to get out sooner rather than later."
- Keep lines of communication clear. In case you are separated from family members, it's vital to have a means of connecting with them to make sure they are OK. "Instead of having everyone try to call each other, set up a contact person who doesn't live in the area--he or she can be the point person everyone checks in with when they are safely evacuated, or if they are being treated for injury at a hospital. Your contact person's number and email address should be entered into every family member's cell phone and included with the emergency kit."
- Stay alert. You'll want to be in the loop if an evacuation is called for your area. "Counties and cities usually have programs where you sign up for alerts via text, phone or email in case of emergencies, as well as apps that cover many aspects of emergency preparedness," Dr. DeCock says. For helpful links, see the box at the end of the story.
DURING A FIRE
- Treat any burns. "In case you or a loved one suffers a minor burn during a fire, use the first-aid tools in your emergency kit. Soak the area with water for five minutes before applying the cream or ointment and loosely applying the gauze," Dr. DeCock says. "Call 911 as you'll also want to get medical attention as soon as possible."
- Don't let smoke get in your eyes or lungs. It's easy to get sick from inhaling wildfire smoke. "The gases and particulate matter in the smoke can irritate your eyes, sinuses and throat, and cause headaches, difficulty breathing and a runny nose," Dr. DeCock says. "People with chronic lung and heart conditions, seniors and pregnant women can also be adversely affected by wildfire smoke." Dr. DeCock adds that if your air quality is diminished by a wildfire in the area, it's best to stay inside as much as possible with the windows shut (if you don't have air conditioning, go someplace cooler where you won't overheat). "Don't rely on a paper face mask to give you proper ventilation, as they don't screen out particles in the smoky air," Dr. DeCock says. "The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state that surgical-grade N-95 masks are the only ones that can offer some protection from wildfire smoke."
- Keep your hands clean. If you do have to vacate your home because of a wildfire, ideally your evacuation location will have running water. "If it does, make sure to avoid sickness by washing your hands with soap and water," Dr. DeCock says. "If water isn't available, use the alcohol-based hand sanitizer from your emergency kit."
EMERGENCY KIT CHECKLIST
- First-aid supplies, including burn treatment items such as clean water, ointments and gauze bandages
- Nonperishable food and water (each person in your family should have three days' worth of rations)
- Prescription medication and eyeglasses
- Packs of sanitary wipes or a bottle of antibacterial hand wash
- Copies of personal records, such as driver's licenses, birth certificates and health insurance documentation.
Links for emergency alerts:
- Orange County: AlertOC
- Sonoma County: SoCoAlert
- Napa County: Nixle
- Humboldt County: Humboldt County Alert System
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.