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When ash falls from the sky: Preparing for Oklahoma wildfires

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Multiple fire departments were spread thin today fighting wildfires in two separate Oklahoma counties. While Tulsa firefighters joined several other departments in helping Broken Arrow and Wagoner County battle grass fires powered by high winds, eight other fire departments came together to fight a massive grass and brush fire in Washington County.

According to the U.S. Forest Service, 2013 saw a 30-year low in the number of wildfires throughout the country, and well below average economic losses. Total economic damages were roughly $700 million, 46% below the ten-year average of $1.3 billion. Yet the same year was the most lethal to firefighters in 20 years. The number of firefighter deaths due to wildfires was 34; double that of the previous year. More than half of those deaths occurred in the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona, which killed 19 firefighters .

Wildfires are dangerous and costly. According to an NBC report dated August 22, 2013, the costs to taxpayers have tripled and costs to insurers have grown even faster.

Since the beginning of the year, Red Flag Warnings, or Fire Weather Watches in Oklahoma have frequently been in effect. With the number of wildfires Oklahoma sees each year, it is important to understand that much loss of life and property can be prevented. Many homes survive wildfires because of prevention and mitigation techniques the owners put into place. What can you do to prevent your home from catching fire, or to mitigate against potential fire damage?

As with every potential disaster, every family should have a family emergency preparedness kit and a family emergency plan. The kit should include not only food and water supplies, but copies of important papers, photos, cash and credit card information. The plan should include wildfire preparedness, if you live in an area vulnerable to wildfires. The plan should include an exit strategy from your home if it catches fire. Be sure to practice family fire drills. Include pets and special needs family members in your preparations.

Preparedness measures should include the following:

• Keep a fire extinguisher in the home, and make sure everyone knows how to use it.

• Keep your chimney cleaned. Clean your chimneys at least once a year, and have them regularly inspected.

• Smoke alarms regularly save lives. Make sure your home is protected with smoke alarms, and that the batteries are regularly changed.

• Your home can be designed with fire safety in mind. Landscaping can be done in such as way as to prevent the home from catching fire as quickly. Some shrubs and trees are more fire-resistant than others.

• Use fire-resistant materials to build your home—or you can protect the structure by treating it with fire-retardant chemicals.

• And don’t forget to keep your roof and gutters clear of debris.

During a wildfire, be prepared to evacuate. It the authorities give an evacuation order, do not hesitate. Make sure you have somewhere to go, and do not spend too much time gathering items to take with you. They are not worth endangering your life, no matter how precious they may be.

Some things you can do to protect your home and yourself during a fire:

• Fill tubs, buckets, pools, garbage cans; anything that can hold a large amount of water. If you have lawn sprinklers, placing them on your roof and turning them on will douse your roof, keeping it safe at least for a while.

• Shut off any natural gas, propane, or other fuel supplies.

After the fire, keep your eyes open for any sparks, or smoke that may indicate a rekindling. For the safe cleanup of debris and ash, follow public health safety guidelines.

If you suffer burns, or are with someone who suffers burns, cool the affected area immediately, and cover it to prevent infection. Call 911 or seek immediate help.

Wildfires are serious business, and deserve our respect. Remember—thinking ahead, preparing, and practicing can save not only your property, but your life.

For more information on wildfires, visit http://www.ready.gov/wildfires; http://www.usfa.fema.gov/index.shtm; and http://wildfiretoday.com/

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