Survival strategies to help you escape a forest fire

Survival strategies to help you escape a forest fire

16 April 2016

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USA–Emergency Situation: While hiking through Kings Canyon National Park in California, you notice the ground crunching audibly underfoot — the result of the state’s severe drought. As you travel up a small rise in the terrain, you begin to smell smoke and hear a loud rushing sound. Then you see it: a line of flame racing through the bone-dry brush not far ahead of you. Suddenly the wind picks up. Embers float your way, and … goodness, gracious, great balls of fire!

What should you do?

Solution: Let’s back up a minute. Part of your pre-hike planning should include assessing risks in the area. Check with local park rangers to learn more about conditions before heading into the wild. Smokey Bear is all about prevention, which is great, but what about surviving forest fires?

Forest fire survival strategies are complex and will differ based on any number of factors: the severity of the fire; your location and proximity to the fire and to roads or other potential escape routes; weather; and the terrain.

In general, forest fires are driven by two factors: wind and terrain. In both cases, it is critical to move upwind (that is, into the wind) when attempting to escape wildfires. You can determine general wind direction by viewing which way the smoke is moving, assuming there’s reasonable visibility. Look high up in the sky, where the smoke direction is less affected by the terrain. You should also travel downhill. This is because the hot air masses created by the fire tend to move up, making higher elevations more prone to ignition.

Once you’ve determined your direction of travel, search for a natural firebreak: an area without combustible material. This may be a road or a clear-cut area of woods, or it may be a boulder field or body of water.

In general, large trees retain more moisture than, say, dry fields, so if you must seek protection in an area without a firebreak, avoid open areas and ones with small, dry scrub brush. Such areas are extremely dangerous during a forest fire. Flames also tend to travel uphill, and running uphill will slow you down anyway.

Can you — or should you even attempt to — outrun a forest fire? Again, wildfires are unpredictable. Researchers have been perplexed by recent California fires with flames that have spread at incredible speed, mostly due to unprecedented levels of drought. The short answer is that a wall of flame can move at 20 mph or faster and easily overtake a runner. Plus, embers might travel in unpredictable directions via updrafts or so-called “chimneys,” igniting new flare-ups ahead of you as you try to outrun the fire. If you must run, try to make it through the leading edge of the fire into an area that has already burned.

In a situation where you cannot escape the flames and cannot make it to a safe location, your best option is to locate a trench or deep gulley. Dig a hole in the side, cover the opening with a tarp or blanket, and then crawl into the hole. Alternatively, dig a trench and lie down in it with your feet facing the direction of the flames, and cover yourself with dirt. Make sure you can breathe, and wait for the fire to travel over you.Students at Mississippi State University successfully tested a new chemical that could potentially stop wildfires from ruining homes on Saturday.

Anna Barker came up with the idea after she saw news footage of a man trying to save his house with a garden hose.



“So we just created a system that would release this polymer in an event of a wildfire, and hopefully protect any kind of residential property if a wildfire were coming through,” she said.


Barker met with several engineers about the idea, and chose to partner with Kagen Crawford on the project.


“Engineers and business partners coincide in the real world,” Crawford said. “So this really brings the university feel of every major being separated to the real world of every major works together to make something happen.”


The team created a sprinkler system to go on a dog house. Then, the chemical was sprayed onto the house. They used a blowtorch on the wood, and the house did not catch on fire.

“We’re super excited it didn’t catch fire and that we think it’s actually going to work,” Barker said.


A diluted version of the chemical was used during the test. The actual polymer will be three times as strong.


If the chemical does become a household item, homeowners won’t have to worry about it hurting the environment or themselves.


“It is nontoxic, noncorrosive, and biodegradable. It is OCEA and EPA approved and the only fire polymer substance to ever be approved by the U.S. Forestry Service,” Barker said.


The Starkville Fire Department watched over the trial run. The team thanked the city for letting them use their services.


Graphic Design major McKinley Ranager is also helping the team with promotions.


They also demonstrated the chemical’s ability in other ways throughout the day. They soaked their arms with the substance and attempted to light it on fire. They also soaked one piece of cardboard with it. Then, lit that piece and another on fire. Only the cardboard without the substance burned.

Barker has had this idea for around a year. Between research and development, the engineering department, the chemistry department, and other supporters, the polymer is now ready for testing. She credits them for helping her idea come to life.

“We were a little nervous,” Barker said. “Working with student grant funding and doing everything small scale, you’re a little bit nervous on if this tiny prototype can really pertray what a large scale system would be like.”

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