How to survive a wildfire when trapped in a car

A wildfire in California on September 5, 2008
A wildfire in California on September 5, 2008

A wildfire is a big, uncontrolled fire that usually occurs in forests and mountains but if it spreads it can also destroy agricultural crops and cattle, and houses. Wildfires rarely start on their own and are mainly caused by campfires left behind by people, or from such things as cigarette butts thrown away too casually.

A wildfire is a life-threatening fury and very hard to escape, especially if you’re trapped in a car with your exit cut off. The key thing is not to panic and to try and get out of the situation as soon as possible. There are things in life we can’t predict, and knowing this we should always be prepared for the worst scenario.

First of all, try to avoid being in a car during a wildfire. The car provides pretty much no protection from a fire and the temperature inside will rise very fast. It’s similar to a boiling pot with a lid on, so your chances of survival are slim. Choose a car to get away from a fire in your home or your work place, but do it fast and try to avoid any flames. If staying in your car seems like the best option when caught in a wildfire then things are clearly getting desperate.

Fortunately, there are some things you can do to save your life even in this situation. First, you need to roll up all the windows and be sure no smoke can get inside, because if it does, you’ll suffocated pretty quickly. Then, put the air-conditioning in re-circulation and leave the engine running. Oh, there is one piece of good news – vehicles with metal gas tanks rarely explode, so no need to worry about that.

The direction and density of the smoke from a wildfire can change rapidly
The direction and density of the smoke from a wildfire can change rapidly

If your car is still in a driveable state, move slowly and very carefully. Keep the headlights and the hazard lights on, as visibility is poor when driving through smoke. Be careful not to crash into other vehicles or pedestrians running away from the fire in panic.

Also, be careful not to hit any fleeing animals. Feel free to use the horn as much as you think is needed to warn pedestrians and animals that may be ahead of you. If the smoke in front of your car is too thick, then wait for a moment until it clears enough to continue forward. If possible, listen to the radio to keep informed about the direction of the fire. As soon as you know where the fire is focused, navigate away from it by the best possible route. And remember, don’t panic!

When you stop driving, park your car behind a solid structure to reduce your exposure to the heat. If there is no building near, park in an open area, as far away as possible from trees and anything that looks flammable. You need to lay down on the floor, and if you can, cover yourself with something, like a wool blanket or a coat.

If there are kids around you, cover them first. Avoid covering anyone with synthetic materials because they melt quickly and can cause severe burns. If you have any water near, drink it and pour some on a piece of cloth so you can breathe through it.

If the car is the only shelter you have, you must stay inside and try to calm everyone down. Resist the temptation to break a window and start running, because outside it will be a real oven and you’ll be baked alive. Be prepared for a lot of smoke which may get into your vehicle and that the temperature will rise. What’s important is to stay awake and take care of the others in the car. If anyone panics, you need to calm them down.

Fire is unpredictable – it can change very quickly
Fire is unpredictable – it can change very quickly

Once the fire is over, it’s time to get out of the car and look for medical help. Call the emergency services immediately and look around to see if there are any injured people in the area. Try to help as many people you can. Wildfires are one of the biggest hazards in the forest, so be responsible with your next campfire. Good luck!
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stef-zisovska is one of the authors writing for Outdoor Revival