Back to Basics, Emergency Preparedness, Fire Safety, Safety

Back to Basics: 10 Ways to Prepare Your Facilities for Wildfires

Back to Basics is an article series that highlights important, but possibly overlooked, information facilities management professionals should know.

With summer in full swing, along with rising temperatures and increased dry vegetation, facilities management professionals should be reminded that this year’s wildfire season has already begun—and it’s becoming a larger problem than in the past. The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) reported that, as of early June 2022, the number of acres burned by wildfires is 112% above the average for the last 10 years. The American Red Cross also reports that since the beginning of 2022, there have been more than 28,000 wildfires that burned more than 1.9 million acres.

What Are Wildfires?

Wildfires are uncontrolled fires in forests, grasslands, brushlands, and lands that have crops. While these fires are dangerous to wildlife and natural areas, they can also devastate communities.

Where Do They Occur?

While wildfires can happen anywhere in the United States, the NIFC expects higher wildfire potential this summer in the following areas:

  • U.S. Southern High Plains
  • U.S. Cascades
  • Northwest U.S.
  • Southwest U.S.
  • California
  • Hawaii
  • Oregon
  • Montana
  • Wyoming

There are 10 steps you can take to prepare your facility for wildfires:

1. Assess risks.

Look at the facility’s conditions, such as weather patterns, vegetation types, and topography. To learn more about specific vegetation and plants that have the highest levels of combustion, be sure to check out “Wildfire Preparation Tips for Your Organization” on EHS Daily Advisor. Specifically, tall shrubs or overhanging tree branches can create devastating fires. Remember that vegetation is highly combustible.

2. Create a defensible space.

Facilities professionals should set up three zones around their buildings:

  • Zone 1: Within 30 feet (ft). Remove all flammable materials and litter, and trim branches. Also, have drought-resistant native plants and well-irrigated lawns.
  • Zone 2: Between 30 and 100 ft. Create fire breaks with walkways, water features, rock gardens, or pavement, and move all outbuildings to zone 2; outbuildings with combustible materials should be 50 ft from the facility.
  • Zone 3: More than 100 ft. Prune and remove dead or dying branches. Prune horizontally and vertically to reduce a fire’s potential to spread.

3. Be informed.

Watch for National Weather Service red flag warnings and fire weather watches. To learn more, read the article “Is Your Business Prepared for Wildfires?” on EHS Daily Advisor. While facilities that are in areas with red flag warnings and fire weather watches do not have to be immediately evacuated, facilities professionals should still make final preparations for evacuation and take steps to protect lives and property.

To find out when these warnings and watches are issued, sign up for emergency wireless communication alerts. To learn more about those, visit “Back to Basics: Comparing One-Way and Two-Way Emergency Communication Devices” on Total Security Advisor

4. Test the emergency communication plan.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) advises companies to regularly test their employee notification plan so they could use one or more of the following to communicate critical emergency messages:

  • E-mail
  • Text alerts
  • Public address system

All tests should be started with the words “this is a test” so employees don’t think there is a real threat.

5. Maintain air quality.

Facility occupants with asthma and those who are allergic to smoke should be cautious of wildfires and their effects.

To prevent smoke from entering a facility:

  • Install high-efficiency filters in the central air conditioning systems that capture fine smoke particles.
  • Close off a room from the outside air, and install a portable air filter to keep the air clean when it’s smoky in other parts of the building and outside.
  • Fresh air intakes should be closed, if possible, and instead, set the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system to recirculate the air in the building.
  • If the outside is smoky but the building is not, shelter in place.  

6. Find an outdoor water source.

Ready for Wildfire recommends that there be an outdoor water source that can help fire departments fight fires. For example, connect a long garden hose to an outdoor water valve or a spigot that can reach any part of the property. Other examples include swimming pools, ponds, lakes, wells, and fire hydrants. Also consider filling up water buckets and placing them around the facility. 

7. Evacuate.

Facilities personnel should ensure that an evacuation plan includes:

  • An emergency meeting location outside the area so everyone can be accounted for
  • Alternative locations if the primary area is not safe
  • Several ways for occupants to safely leave their facility

8. Gather supplies.

If it’s not possible or safe to evacuate, facilities professionals should ensure there are adequate emergency supplies on hand, which can include:

  • Sleeping bag or warm blanket for each occupant;
  • Fire extinguisher;
  • Matches in a waterproof container;
  • Food kits, paper cups, plates, paper towels, and plastic utensils;
  • First-aid kit;
  • Flashlight; and
  • Battery-powered radio and extra batteries.

9. Know when to return.

Returning to a facility before debris is cleared is dangerous and should be avoided, so follow instructions by local, state, and federal emergency personnel before returning to an area that has been damaged by wildfire. Fill up your gas tank, and bring water and nonperishable food with you to the facility, as local businesses may be closed. If there is no electricity, have a plan to use a backup generator or consider a microgrid solution, as recommended in “Planning for No Power: Experts Provide a Look at Microgrid Solutions” in Facilities Management Advisor.

Moreover, watch for hot spots, and extinguish them. To prevent others from getting hurt, mark ash pits, which are holes with hot ashes left by burned trees, and avoid all downed power and utility wires.

10. Document damages.

Facilities professionals should make a list of all damaged property and document it by taking photos and videos. It’s also important to contact your insurance company immediately to report all damages.

These steps will help you prepare your facility in case there is a wildfire. Always prioritize the safety of facility occupants over the protection of property.

With summer in full swing along with rising temperatures and increased dry vegetation, facilities management professionals should be reminded that this year’s wildfire season has already begun. It is becoming a larger problem than in the past. The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) reported that, as of early June 2022, the number of acres burned by wildfires is 112 percent above the average for the last 10 years. The American Red Cross reports that since the beginning of 2022, there here have been more than 28,000 wildfires that burned more than 1.9 million acres.