“It’s really getting bad out here.”
On Sunday afternoon, February, 2011, in Amarillo, Texas, Rita sat inside of the library to finish some work after attending the morning church service when she received the first phone call. “It’s really getting bad out here. You need to tell us if there’s anything you want,” her son reported back from the other end.
Rita’s son called her from Lake Tanglewood, a gated, private lake community outside of the city of Amarillo. Many residents flock there to build vacation homes or live permanently. On this afternoon the winds were particularly high and fires in the area were threatening the neighborhood and surrounding communities.
“Mom, you don’t understand. We have to leave right now.”
Rita hung up the phone and sat back. She wanted to take her time to determine what she wanted. Maybe her jewelry, maybe something else. Maybe she’d even drive down and gather things herself. A second call came quickly after the first. “Mom, you don’t understand. We have to leave right now. The skies are black and ash is falling,” her son reported. Her family and the Lake Tanglewood community had to evacuate immediately.
What Started the Wildfire?
Lightning strikes can cause a wildfire, but unfortunately, most are caused by human carelessness. Intentional arson or accidental error can lead to devastation that wrecks entire neighborhoods and communities.
The wildfire in Lake Tanglewood didn’t have a direct cause. Low temperatures, high winds, and an extremely dry climate with flammable mesquite and brush created a very favorable condition for disaster—but where the ember itself came from is unclear.
Research shows that more than half of homes destroyed by wildfire are ignited by embers. Embers can travel one mile from the main fire to land on roofs, gutter decks, or in homes through any opening, including pet doors.
Misused fireworks can lead to wildfires and hazardous situations. We previously put together a fireworks safety guide to help inform the public on proper firework usage. Make sure to:
- Check for firework bans in your area.
- Never set off fireworks in a banned area.
- Abide by all local rules and regulations.
- Properly dispose of fireworks and flammable materials.
Similar to fireworks, a campfire can lead to a tragic event that devastates an entire community. The following steps will prevent an incident:
- Abide by rules in the area by paying attention to fire bans, limits, times, et cetera.
- Don’t build campfire near dry leaves or overhanging tree branches and surround it with rocks.
- Keep lighter fluid and other flammable materials away.
- Be careful with how much lighter fluid you use.
- Keep fire away from tent and make sure it’s downwind.
- Always put out a fire before you leave.
Don’t light a fire if you don’t have the resources to put it out.
Your Home is also a Hazard
Wildfires aren’t the only danger posed to a family and home. It’s vital to be prepared for fire hazards and understand the many different methods that fire can impact a person or property.
Many homeowners may not know that clothes dryers are a leading cause of issues in the home. Most often they occur from lack of cleaning.
- Don’t use a dryer that doesn’t have a lint protector.
- Clean out lint and don’t let it pile up.
- Have your dryer serviced and installed by a professional.
An Incredible story by the NFPA tells of ESPN’s Hannah Storm and her near death experience because of improper grill use.
If your grill doesn’t start or the flame goes out for any reason, wait at least 15 minutes for propane to dissipate. Propane is heavier than air and lighting the grill will light everything in proximity.
Gas grills contribute to higher number of house fires than charcoal. Make sure to:
NFPA says in 2014 over 16,600 people went to the hospital for grill related accidents.
- Remove overhead materials.
- Keep grill a safe distance from trees, buildings, and anything that can burn.
- Clean grill frequently, grease buildup can cause fires.
- Keep grills away from homes and decks.
- In charcoal grills don’t add fluid after the coals are lit, and once they are cooled they should be placed in metal container with tight lid.
- In gas grills, make sure the hose connection is tight and check the hoses for leaks. Putting soapy water on hoses can reveal leaks. Once your meal is finished turn off grill and fuel cylinder.
- Roll up sleeves or wear short sleeve shirts while grilling.
- Keep fire manageable.
- Make sure fire is 10 feet away from any structure or combustible surface (plants, overhanging trees, buildings, furniture, et cetera).
- Be aware of the weather forecast.
- Always have a way to put out a fire (water, bucket of sand, fire blanket).
- Clean the area surrounding the fire pit.
- Keep a close eye on children if they are near the fire pit.
Various objects in the home can cause a fire to burn more rapidly.
- Remove billowy curtains or look for different insulating options.
- Store flammable products in a safe place, like an outdoor shed.
- Stack firewood away from the house in an uphill direction.
Everyone remembers sitting through a childhood safety class and hearing the popular adage, “stop,drop, and roll” in the event of a fire situation. The phrase is invaluable if you or your loved ones are ever in harm’s way, and the warm, dry summer months are the likeliest time to encounter danger.
How to be Prepared
If you live in a fire prone area, it’s important that you take the proper precautions in case of an event. The following will ensure you’re equipped to handle a situation:
- Have two escape routes out of your neighborhood.
- Have an evacuation plan that includes a meeting location if your family gets separated.
- Keep the outside of home clean, including: roof, gutter, alley, driveway, and don’t store flammable products or furniture outdoors.
- Have house numbers and driveways clearly marked.
- Have a first aid kit and non-perishable goods ready (water, food, et cetera).
- Have personal identification and documents in known location that can be moved in the event of an emergency (including medications).
- Have battery powered radio and plenty of extra batteries.
- Be ready to evacuate and follow all law enforcement instructions.
- Listen and monitor reports of situation (air quality, evacuation problems, et cetera).
- Keep the grass mowed short and tidy the outside of the home.
- Place valuables in one place for easy and quick access.
If a fire sweeps through your area the home may smell like smoke. Walls, ceilings and household items may be stained. Homes will need to be cleaned and sanitized by professionals, which may be costly. Frequently check with your insurance plan to make sure you are covered and know what coverage includes.
Units should be replaced every 10 years, cleaned every six months, and tested at least once a month to ensure they are working properly.
Smoke and Carbon Monoxide Detectors
Place units on each floor of the home, and place them away from furnaces, ovens, or any area with exhaust gasses or open flame heating systems like oil and gas furnaces. Garages, workrooms, or living rooms are culprits for false alarms.
Steer clear of cold air returns, humid areas, or construction zones that may omit dust.
That evening in February, seven houses burned down in the Lake Tanglewood neighborhood and many others were affected in surrounding communities. Rita remembers that firefighters were doing all that they could, but they were losing homes.
“We all agreed as long as we have each other and we were outside it’d be okay.”
After Rita’s family and Lake Tanglewood was evacuated, she remembers looking on to their community and only seeing smoke. “It was an odd feeling,” she says of wondering whether or not their home would survive. ”But we all agreed as long as we have each other and we were outside it’d be okay. That’s just part of life and you pick up and go on.”
“Until you actually saw your house, you didn’t know.”
Some people in the neighborhood had the inside scoop, but conflicting reports circulated. A home would be reported safe only for homeowners to immediately realize it wasn’t. “Until you actually saw your house, you didn’t know,” Rita says.
Rita’s family was extremely fortunate. Their next door neighbor’s home and a few homes further down the street burned down, but there’s was unscathed. The fires reached three sides of the home, and only the fourth side that was blowing against the wind was saved. The sides were charcoal, except for the shielded side. Everything burnt to a crisp. To this day many of the trees remain standing dead. Some foliage around the home, like cactus, are starting to return and might make you think there wasn’t ever a fire, but the trees stand as a reminder—still scorched black.
“I wouldn’t have guessed how fast it could happen.”
There were some tragic stories. One neighbor’s home burned down, and even though he had insurance, his company didn’t cover the fire and he lost everything. An elderly man who was on the Lake Tanglewood fire staff went out to help homes in surrounding areas while his own home was burning down. It was he and his wife’s retirement home, and they lost everything: antiques, items from previous homes, everything they wanted to pass on to their children was gone in the blink of an eye. They’ve since moved out of the community.
“The other thing we learned is, you can’t feel like, ‘okay, now we’ve had our annual fire or our decade fire so we can just go back to normal’,” Rita says. “Just having the urgency of knowing that really can happen any split second at any time, any number of times in the same year. I wouldn’t have guessed how fast it could happen.”