I clearly remember the Oakland Hills fire in October 1991. It was truly one of the most frightening scenes I have ever witnessed. We watched on live television as house after house literally exploded from the heat of the fire. One minute there stood a gorgeous million-dollar home, and the next it was fully engulfed by the inferno.  Before the fire was contained, 25 lives were lost, and 3,354 homes and 437 apartments or condominiums were destroyed in this upscale community that overlooks Berkeley, Oakland, and the San Francisco Bay Area. The economic losses totaled 1.5 billion dollars.

Another San Francisco Bay Area community experienced a devastating fire caused by the explosion of a gas pipeline. Fortunately, there was a school open house at the time of the explosion, so many families were away from their homes. Eight people died and 60 were injured.

This year Operation Christmas Ornaments is serving survivors of the Marshal Fire in Boulder County, Colorado. It began on December 30, 2021 and destroyed over 1,100 buildings including 1040 homes.

Just as with wildfires, neighborhood fires can spread quickly and fast become overwhelming. They are propelled by accelerants such as gasoline from cars, explosions in propane tanks, or by gas leaks, as in San Bruno. Residential fires can quickly ignite brush, trees, outbuildings, cars, and homes. No household sprinkler system, fire extinguisher, or garden hose is up to the task of containing such fires.

During most natural disasters there will be an interruption of electricity and natural gas delivery. Can you imagine the number of fires that are possible in the event of a 7.5 earthquake? There are earthquakes of that magnitude possible in many areas including Seattle, San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Los Angeles, and along the New Madrid Fault in Tennessee. Earthquakes are not the only risk for precipitating fires. Hurricanes, tornadoes, even blizzards can create conditions which lead to firestorms in quiet neighborhoods, far from a wildfire area. Just a few weeks ago, we witnessed fires caused by hurricane Ian in Florida.

Neighborhood fires happen and no neighborhood is exempt. Are you prepared? Even more likely, are you prepared for fire in your own home?

Before Fire Threatens – Prepare your home and create a Family Plan 

  • Teach children about fire safety. Keep matches out of their reach.
  • Teach older children to use a fire extinguisher.
  • Teach your family to have a bucket of sand or water nearby when barbecuing, when using tools or toys that create sparks, or when using fireworks.
  • Teach children to use 911 for emergencies.
  • Plan several escape routes away from your home – by car and by foot – and practice them as a family.
  • Plan two exits from your home in case doors or windows are blocked by an exterior fire. Practice evacuating using both exits.
  • Practice evacuating your home in the middle of the night.
  • Choose a meeting place near your home if a fire occurs at night and you need to leave quickly.
  • Plan how your family will stay in touch if you are separated. All family members should know the name and phone number for your out-of-state contact.
  • Purchase an escape ladder if you own a two-story home.
  • Purchase fire extinguishers and keep one in the kitchen, one near the heater and water heater and one in the bedroom in case of a nighttime fire.
  • Purchase fire blankets. These are designed to throw over a fire, especially good for kitchen fires, to extinguish it.
  • Keep a whistle, glow stick and shoes near each bed in case of a nighttime fire.
  • Prepare a night flight kit. This should include your wallet or purse, prescription glasses and prescriptions medications and your cell phone, laptop, and chargers. These items can all be placed in one location each night to make them easy to grab in case of a house fire at night.

Neighborhood fire preparations:

  • Review with your family how officials will warn you if there is danger.
  • Create a plan in case you are not at home when the emergency arises, and your children need to evacuate.
  • Teach your family about the importance of keeping your property clean to help prevent fires.
  • Choose a meeting place outside your neighborhood in case you can’t return home. Hold a drill to practice gathering at this location.
  • Be sure your children know to go to your evacuation locations if you become separated. If children are home and you are not when the firefighters tell them to evacuate, they should go to this location.
  • Post emergency telephone numbers by every phone and teach your children how and when to use them.
  • Determine which items you will retrieve when forced to evacuate quickly. Always plan as though you will never see your home again.
  • Determine which items you will take if there is more time. (See the evacuation checklists in your Totally Ready Emergency Binder)
  • Assign family members the task of collecting items. You may want to have children place the items on a table while mom or dad load the car.
  • Post lists of evacuation items in a convenient place for easy access and to remind you of your plan. We all forget when we are under pressure to perform quickly.
  • Practice, practice, practice.

Create a Neighborhood Plan

Talk to your neighbors about what they are doing now to prepare for the fire season and how they might be able to respond to fire reports in the area. There may be things you can do together to prevent the spread of fire, and to survive if one occurs.

  • Gather and distribute a list of home and cell phone numbers for emergencies.
  • Decide on a channel to use on walkie talkies to communicate during a crisis.
  • Identify potential fire hazards.
  • Determine which hazards can be corrected by working together, such as clearing debris and cutting weeds.
  • Notify the proper authorities to correct any problems they are responsible for.
  • Identify roadways which are blocked or poorly marked. During a fire. the line down the center of the road may be your only guide. If roads need attention, notify the city or county authorities.
  • Create a plan for how the neighborhood could work together after a fire. Make a list of your neighbors’ skills such as medical, construction or technical.
  • Consider how you could help neighbors who have special needs such as seniors or people with disabilities.
  • Make plans to take care of children who may be on their own if their parents can’t get home.
  • Make a list of neighbors with heavy equipment and other firefighting tools.
  • Develop a neighborhood plan for things that need to be done.
  • Develop a neighborhood phone tree.
  • Plan a neighborhood meeting with the fire department to have questions answered and to get advice.

Create a Safety Zone Around Your Home

Design and landscape your home with fire safety in mind. All vegetation is fuel, though some trees and shrubs are more flammable than others. The greater the distance between your home and the vegetation, the greater your protection.

  • Cut and water lawns often.
  • Move shrubs and other landscaping away from the sides of the house.
  • Prune branches and shrubs to allow for 15 feet between vegetation and chimneys and stove pipes.
  • Prune tree limbs 15 feet above the ground.
  • Prune tree limbs so they don’t overhang the roof.
  • Replace highly flammable vegetation such as pine, eucalyptus, junipers and firs with less flammable varieties. If in doubt, ask your local fire department or landscape professional for suggestions.
  • Remove vines from the walls of your house, out buildings and garden walls.
  • Remove all dead tree branches from the ground-level up (these act as ladder fuels for the approaching fire).
  • Clear the area of leaves, brush, and fallen limbs.
  • Remove debris from under sun decks and porches.
  • Replace wooden decks with non-combustible materials such as concrete, brick, rock, or man-made materials. Building a deck structure at ground level will eliminate the danger of a fire starting under a deck.
  • Use non-combustible patio furniture and covers.
  • Adding a brick or rock wall around your property will help prevent a grass fire from threatening your home.
  • When possible, install electrical lines underground.
  • If you notice branches around power lines, ask the power company to clear them.
  • Avoid using bark and wood chip mulch.
  • Stack firewood 100 feet away and uphill from any structure.
  • Store combustible or flammable materials in approved safety containers away from your home.
  • Keep the gas grill and propane tank at least 15 feet from any structure. Clear an area 10 feet around the grill.
  • Clear at least a 10-foot area around propane tanks.
  • Dispose of newspapers. Do not allow them to stack up.
  • Place stove, fireplace, and grill ashes in a metal bucket far from structures. Soak with water.
  • Have garden hoses that are long enough to reach any area of your home and other structures on your property.

When a Neighborhood Fire Threatens

If you are warned that a fire is threatening your area, listen to your radio for reports and evacuation information. Follow the instructions of local officials immediately. While you wait for the order to evacuate:

  • Back your car into the garage or park it in an open space facing the direction of escape. Shut the doors, but do not lock them, and roll up windows. Leave the key in the ignition or make sure it is always in your pocket. Close garage windows and doors but leave them unlocked. Disconnect automatic garage door openers just in case the electricity goes out.
  • Gather your family members if they are at other locations or arrange for them to remain where they are if they are safe.
  • Gather pets into one room, making them easy to find when it is time to leave.
  • Evacuate large animals, such as horses, to a safe location.
  • Arrange temporary housing for your family at a friend’s home outside the threatened area.
  • Notify your out-of-state emergency contact of your plans and give them the phone number and address of the place you will evacuate to.
  • Load your Five-Day kits and important family possessions in your car.
  • Place pet supplies and leashes in the car.
  • Place maps in the car with at least 2 evacuation routes clearly marked.
  • Change into protective clothing including long pants, long-sleeved shirt, heavy socks, and sturdy shoes.
  • Have hand towels or bandannas ready for each member of the family.
  • Contact your neighbors to make sure they have heard the warnings.
  • Close all windows and vents.
  • Move flammable furniture into the center of the home away from windows and sliding-glass doors.
  • Move all flammable patio furniture indoors.
  • Turn on a light in each room and also your outdoor lights, to increase the visibility of your home in heavy smoke. 

If Advised to Evacuate, Do It Immediately

  • Wet towels or bandannas and take them with you. Holding these over your nose and mouth will help you breath in a smoky environment.
  • Do not lock your home.
  • Leave lights on so fire fighters can see your home and defend it.
  • Call you neighbors as you are leaving. Warn them if you are aware of an escape route that is blocked.
  • Call family members who were staying at other homes to inform them where you are going.
  • Call your out of state contact to inform them you are heading for the safe location you have given them earlier.
  • When you have reached your destination gather all your family members to that location.

A fire can happen to you. Prepare now to avoid heartbreak later.

For even more tips for evacuating see your Totally Ready Emergency Preparedness Binder.

Carolyn is always available to answer questions and share tips at Totallyready.com and on Facebook. For those wanting information or to participate creating Christmas ornaments for disaster survivors visit Operation Christmas Ornaments on Facebook and on Carolyn’s blog.


Catch Carolyn on Annette on America:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1kLaXgPacxE (school safety)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PrFKyecixeo  (prepping for blackouts and civil unrest)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IO_XUJMC008 (prepping for recession)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bjtEdX0h2OA&t=2507s  (prepping for inflation)