Wildfires are one of the most common natural disasters in the United States. Since 1983, an average of approximately 70,000 wildfires have occurred yearly in the country, impacting several natural areas and neighboring communities. Several parts of the State of Georgia are prone to wildfires. As such, it is important that residents understand the disaster and how to coordinate their emergency response when it occurs.
Wildfires are unplanned and uncontrollable fires that begin in natural areas like forests and grasslands. They can be triggered by natural phenomena, like lightning and lava, but most are caused by human activities. Wildfires spread quickly, devastating vegetation and wildlife, destroying properties, and causing health hazards in communities. According to the National Weather Service (NWS), on average, wildfires kill 30 people, destroy 2,800 homes, and affect over 7 million acres of land in the United States each year.
The amount of energy released during a wildfire determines the intensity of the disaster. This is separate from the measurement of its severity which examines the degree of damage caused by the wildfire. The most devastating wildfire in United States history was the 1871 Peshtigo Fire, which swept through northeast Wisconsin, killing over 1200 people.
Depending on where it occurs, other terms that describe a wildfire include bushfires, forest fires, woodland fires, grass fires, and peat fires.
Wildfires can occur naturally due to ignition by lightning, lava flows, or heat from the sun. But humans remain the leading cause of wildfires. According to the National Park Service (NPS), humans cause nearly 85% of wildfires in the United States. Common sources of human-induced wildfires include acts of arson, debris burning, equipment use, negligent handling of campfires or cigarettes, and fire plays.
In addition to factors that can cause an ignition, available fuels, weather conditions, and topography also influence the occurrence and behavior of wildfires. Fires require a fuel source to burn and spread. Materials that fuel wildfires include grass, pine needles, dead logs, and other organic matter around. Extremely hot and dry weather makes organic materials less moist and more combustible, aiding the spread of the fire. Similarly, drought causes vegetation and underlying land to dry out, making them susceptible to wildfires. Wind supplies oxygen which aids the combustion of fuels. It also pushes flames to surround fuel sources, ensuring the spread of the fire.
Furthermore, fires ignited at the bottom of steep slopes move faster uphill as heated wind warms up fuels that are higher up. Because of this, mountainous areas and steep terrains have a higher risk of wildfires. Soil conditions also influence the spread of wildfires. Fires can smolder for weeks or months in soils rich in wood fiber. These factors determine the intensity and severity of a wildfire.
The intensity of a wildfire refers to the amount of energy or heat released by the fire at a given point in time. A fire can be of high, medium, or low intensity in different parts of a forest. Low-intensity fires occur when the fuel sources in a particular area are few and moist, the weather is cool, and wind speeds are low. Whereas the abundance of fuels during dry, hot, and windy weather can result in high-intensity fires.
In the same vein, fires can be classified based on the extent of damage they cause to an ecosystem. This is known as their severity. Trees and plant life can recover from low-severity fires, while high-severity fires cause total destruction of vegetation. The severity of a wildfire largely depends on its intensity and spread rate.
Finally, wildfires can occur at any time of the year if the conditions are right. But they are more likely to happen in the summer because of the warm and dry weather conditions usually obtainable. However, note that in recent times, the typical wildfire season is widening due to the effects of climate change.
Three elements must be present for a forest fire to start. They include fuel, oxygen, and heat, collectively referred to as the fire triangle.
The heat brings plants, trees, and other materials in a forest area to their flash point when they can burn more easily. This prepares them for combustion, the chemical reaction between flammable materials and oxygen that results in fires. Oxygen is readily available in the air, and surrounding winds continuously supply it.
A forest fire finally begins with an ignition at a point where the fire triangle elements are present. Fuels may ignite due to heat from the sun, lightning strikes, or lava flows. However, the most common triggers of ignition are human-induced.
There are three categories of forest fires based on how they burn. They include ground fires, surface fires, and crown fires.
Ground fires: Also known as subsurface fires, these kinds of fires burn underground in soils composed of dead plant materials such as dead plants, needles, and twigs. Ground fires spread slowly and can burn unnoticed for months as they do produce a lot of smoke.
Surface fires: Surface fires burn fuels that are on the ground or close to it. They are the easiest to put out, and they cause the least damage to forests. They spread based on the distribution of surface fuels.
Crown fires: Crown fires occur when surface fires ignite the forest’s canopy, including tree branches and tall shrubs. They are of two kinds: active and passive crown fires. Passive crown fires burn individual trees or a group of trees. In contrast, active crown fires involve the spread of fire from tree to tree through canopy fuels, strong winds, and sloped terrain. Crown fires are the most intense type of forest fire and are difficult to contain.
Also, firefighters classify wildfires based on the amount of land affected. The categories are contained in the table below.
|Class||Affected Land Area|
|A||One-fourth acre or less|
|B||More than one-fourth acre, to less thn 10 acres|
|C||10 acres to less than 100 acres|
|D||100 acres to less than 300 acres|
|E||300 acres to less than 1,000 acres|
|F||1,000 acres to less than 5,000 acres|
|G||5,000 acres or more.|
Wildfires can persist for weeks and months if left unattended, destroying wildlife and vegetation and severely affecting human communities. According to the National Weather Service, fire weather caused eight fatalities and 41 injuries, including economic loss of $735.34 million across the United States in 2021.
Fatalities from wildfires can result from severe burns inflicted by the fire and extreme heat from the flames. Exposure to smoke also causes respiratory conditions and lung illness, which lead to several hospitalizations and deaths annually. Firefighters at the forefront of containing the fire also record fatalities. According to the United States Fire Administration, the country lost nine firefighters to wildfires in 2020.
Wildfires also cause immense economic damage in affected areas. Wildfires are costly to suppress. According to the National Weather Service, the United States spends an average of $2 billion annually for damages and suppression of wildfires. Wildfires can totally destroy buildings and farmlands and kill livestock. They also can destroy nutrients in the soil, severely affecting its fertility and the livelihood of persons that rely on agriculture.
An area’s flood risk significantly increases following a wildfire. The charring of the ground and loss of vegetative covers reduces the soil’s capacity to absorb water. Such a situation may lead to flash flooding when there is excess rainfall. Also, debris and ash left behind by wildfires can result in severe mudflows during floods.
Nonetheless, despite the destruction and losses they cause, wildfires can help maintain forest life when at a controlled intensity. They can reduce the amount of fuel on forest floors, release nutrients into the soil, and trigger biological diversity. Several states in the country, including Georgia, use prescribed burns to improve the ecosystem and reduce the risk of large wildfires. Persons that perform prescribed burns in Georgia require a burn permit from the Georgia Forestry Commission.
Georgia is located in the southeastern region of the United States. Its terrain consists of coastal beaches, vegetation, and mountains, which makes it susceptible to wildfires. As of 2020, the state had a population of 10,711,908 and a land area of 57,716.96 square miles.
In addition to communities situated within natural areas, those located at a wildland-urban interface (WUI) are at high risk of devastating wildfires. A WUI is a transition zone where a human-built environment and natural or vegetative areas meet. These areas are common in Georgia due to the significant movement of city and town populations into forest areas and farmland.
According to the Georgia Forestry Commission, the state experiences an average of about 3,500 wildfires per year. In 2021, 11,108 acres of land in the state were impacted by wildfires. Debris burning remains the leading cause of wildfires in the state, accounting for over 50 percent of wildfire occurrences in the state. The state’s wildfire season runs from February through May. The time of the year is characterized by dry, hot, and windy weather.
Below are some of the recent federally declared wildfire disasters in Georgia.
|Name||Incident Period||Affected Counties||Post-Disaster Assistance|
|West Mims Fire (FM-5181-GA)||May 6, 2017 - Jul 10, 2017||Charlton, Clinch, and Ware||$7,751,554.46|
|Tatum Gulf Fire||Nov 13, 2016 - Dec 2, 2016||Dade||$1,746,719.82|
|Sweat Farm Again Fire (FM-2921-GA)||Jun 16, 2011 - Aug 8, 2011||Ware||$2,613,039.26|
|Racepond Fire||Jun 15, 2011 - Jul 27, 2011||Brantley, Charlton, and Ware||$1,684,808.26|
|Mosley Road Fire||Mar 24, 2011||Coffee||$112,240.74|
|Elan Church Road Fire (FM-2875-GA)||Mar 25, 2011 - Apr 25, 2011||Long||$904,314.17|
|Harveytown Fire||May 31, 2007||Bryan||$80,752.71|
|Bugaboo Scrub Fire||May 9, 2007||Charlton||$3,513,567.09|
|Roundabout Fire||May 4, 2007||Atkinson||$1,228,860.77|
|Kneeknocker Swamp Fire (FM-2686-GA)||Apr 26, 2007||Brantley||$1,333,559.35|
Wildfires can sometimes be unavoidable. But you can prepare ahead of the situation to ensure your safety and limit the potential damages to your properties. Georgia residents can take the following steps to prepare themselves and their properties for wildfires.
Have a detailed plan on what everyone in your household should do once a wildfire threatens your area. A wildfire situation may unfold when the family is not together. As such, you should include a communication medium and a meeting point in your plan. Picking an out-of-state contact can help coordinate your communications plan. When a disaster strikes, it is usually easier to reach persons outside your vicinity. Also, learn about your community’s emergency response plans and local wildfire risk.
Practicing your emergency plan makes it easier to execute when an emergency occurs. Ensure that your pets are also carried along in the drill. Furthermore, ensure that every member of your household learns how to use fire extinguishers, how to apply first aid treatment, how to shut off your gas supply, and how to wear N95 respirator masks.
An emergency can keep you away from your home for a while. Therefore, you need to have some supplies that will sustain you while you are away. This should include food items, drinking water, N95 respirator masks, flashlights, sanitary materials, first aid equipment, and a weather radio. You should also include supplies for your pet. Make sure these supplies are kept in kits that you can easily pick up during an emergency.
Local emergency officials may require you to evacuate due to the disaster. You should be prepared for this, so you and your family can act quickly. It is advisable to learn about your community’s evacuation plan and routes beforehand. Also, have a plan of your own. Your plan should include whether to use your vehicle or shared transportation. Furthermore, identify a public shelter, hotel, or any other safe place you would wait out the disaster. You can contact your local emergency official for a list of public shelters around your vicinity. However, note that shelters do not typically accept pets for health reasons. As such, you should consider making a list of safe places that allow pets ahead of a wildfire.
Though a house cannot be totally immune from fires, you can make an effort to reduce the risk of fire in and around your home by considering the following tips:
Build or renovate your home with fire-resistant materials.
Remove fuel sources such as dry leaves, deadwood, and pine needles around and from your roof and gutters.
Ensure that tree crowns are at least 18 feet away from one another. Also, store flammable materials in approved containers and away from your home.
Keep gas grills and propane tanks at least 15 feet away.
Have a fire extinguisher in your home.
Identify a water source and have a garden hose that can reach any part of your house.
Ensure that your water pumps and generators are in good condition and ready to use.
Install spark arrestors in your chimneys and stovepipes.
Install lawn sprinklers on flammable roofs. But only turn them on when there is an imminent fire hazard.
You might not be asked to evacuate, but there might be smoke in the environment. To prepare for that, choose a room in your building where you can shut out outside air. Then install an air cleaner or filter to reduce indoor pollution.
Ensure that your vehicle is well maintained and none of its parts are dragging on the ground. Also, have a fire extinguisher and an emergency kit in your vehicle and boats. Avoid parking your vehicle in tall, dry grass during fire weather. Always keep your vehicle well-fueled. You might need it to evacuate. Also, install smoke alarms in all rooms in your boat.
Review your homeowner's or renter's insurance policy and ensure that it is extensive enough to replace your property. Also, get comprehensive insurance to cover damage to your vehicle. Ensure that the insurance and licenses for your boats and other automobiles are up to date. Furthermore, prepare a list of your properties and items, including their worth and related documents. The list will come in handy when preparing insurance claims after the disaster. Also, secure important documents like IDs, insurance, and rental agreements. They are important for insurance claims and applications for government-provided assistance. You can consider creating a saving plan for your emergency response to cover your out-of-pocket expenses after the emergency.
Wildfire warnings and alerts are essential for preparing for wildfires. They provide information that helps residents coordinate their emergency response. It is important to have several means of receiving these alerts. This should include a loud audible alert that can wake you in case a wildfire threatens your vicinity late in the night. It is equally important to understand the types of wildfire alerts to know what to do when you receive one. There are three types of wildfire alerts. They include fire weather watch, fire weather alert, and extreme fire behavior warning.
Weather authorities issue fire weather watches when dangerous fires are likely to occur in an area within the next 2 to 72 hours. A watch means the weather conditions can support an extensive wildfire. But there is no fire occurring at the moment, and the risk is not imminent.
Residents receive this type of alert when there is an imminent fire danger or an already occurring wildfire. The issuance of a fire weather alert or red flag warning means a fire is ongoing, or residents should expect a wildfire to occur within 24 hours. The alert may also include an estimation of an area’s fire danger which may be low, moderate, high, or extreme. Fire danger is based on the fire intensity and spread rate.
This kind of alert is issued when there is a wildfire that is likely to burn out of control. In this case, local authorities may also issue evacuation orders. Evacuation orders are used to inform residents of an area of imminent wildfire risk and the need to leave their vicinity due to the predicted severity of the fire. Evacuation orders may be voluntary or mandatory. When you receive a mandatory order, leave the vicinity immediately.
There are several ways of accessing information on fire weather in Georgia, both at the state and local levels. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has weather radios to disseminate watches and warnings issued by the National Weather Service. You can purchase an NOAA Weather Radio in any local electronic store. The agency also has a Fire Weather Outlook, which contains maps of active fire warnings and alerts. Similarly, warnings and alerts are announced as Emergency Alert System (EAS) messages on state and local radio and television stations.
Residents can also receive wildfire warnings and alerts on their mobile phones. Mobile alerts can be disseminated as Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA), which require no subscription or application download. WEA messages are short, and they target particular areas that can be affected by the disaster. You can also receive emergency messages by downloading the National Weather Service mobile application.
Some localities also maintain their emergency notification system. This may include mobile alerts or outdoor warning sirens. Ensure that you contact your local emergency officials for information on your community’s notification system.
Learning about your area’s wildfire risks helps you prepare adequately for the disaster. This includes your area’s wildfire history, the likelihood of occurrence, and typical severity and intensity. Also, take note of recent weather conditions that contribute to wildfires, such as long periods without rainfall, extreme heat, and high winds. Furthermore, some areas are more susceptible to wildfires than others due to their topography and land use. Communities within natural areas have the highest wildfire risk, followed by Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) areas. Likewise, wildfires are likely to spread faster in places with steep terrain. Also, keep in mind the seasonality of wildfires in your area. The Georgia wildfire season typically spans February to May.
There are several ways you can access your wildfire risks in Georgia. The United States Forest Service operates a website that communities can utilize to access their wildfire risks. The website, known as wildfire risk to communities, also provided tips on minimizing these risks. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) also provides a National Risk Index. The index assigns scores and ratings to each community in the United States based on their wildfire risk compared to other places in the country. Similarly, Georgia Forestry Commission provides daily updates on wildfire risks across all counties in the state, including an interactive map of their fire danger rating. Georgia residents can also contact their county forestry officials to inquire about their wildfire risks and obtain location-specific preparation tips.
It is important to respond to a wildfire disaster properly to ensure your safety and limit your potential losses. Here are actions you should take and things you should take note of during a wildfire in Georgia.
Stay attentive to your local emergency officials. They might require you to evacuate, depending on the situation. When they do, evacuate immediately. Consider the following tips while preparing to evacuate:
Always park your vehicle in your garage in a way you can drive out easily. Keep the windows closed to avoid smoke from getting in, and consider leaving the keys in the ignition.
You can shut the garage door but avoid locking it. Also, shut off any automatic door system to avoid your door getting jammed in case there is a power failure because of the wildfire.
Follow the routes recommended by emergency officials and stay away from fire fronts.
Avoid shortcuts, as they may have been blocked.
Remember to take your emergency kits and identification documents with you.
Keep a close eye on your pet and ensure they come along.
You can take some steps to protect your home whether or not you intend to shelter in it during the wildfire. These steps would keep you safe and make it easier for firefighters to put out a fire that threatens your home:
Prevent flames from blowing into your home by shutting all doors and windows.
Close doors within the house to prevent or slow down fire spread in the building.
Turn on outside lights and at least one light in each room to improve visibility when there is heavy smoke.
Station a ladder against your building to ensure easy access to your roof. Ensure that the ladder is placed on the side in the opposite direction of the approaching fire. Make sure the ladder is in clear view.
Create extra water reservoirs for firefighters by filling sinks, tubs, buckets, cans, and large containers with water. Keep water-filled containers in easily accessible places. Also, remember to connect your garden hose.
Shut off your gas supply or propane. Also, cover vents with fire-resistant materials, such as a plywood that is 1/2 inch or thicker.
Remove your curtains if they are flammable. Also, close metal blinds and other fire-resistant covering.
If you are leaving, turn off your air conditioning system and any other appliance that circulates air in your building.
Keep furniture away from windows and glass doors to avoid ignitions. Instead, move them to the center of the room. If you cannot bring outdoor furniture, keep them far away from your building.
Certain clothing offers more protection than others during wildfires. As such, wear long clothes made of cotton or wool. Avoid short clothing, as they expose your skin to ash and cinders. Also, wear sturdy shoes and gloves, if possible. They offer extra protection.
Do not drive over a fire.
Keep your windows up and close your air vents to avoid smoke from coming in. Instead, rely on recirculated air from your air conditioner.
Only drive in heavy smoke where it is necessary. If possible, avoid it.
Surrounding smoke affects visibility. As such, drive slowly and keep your headlights on. Also, watch out for fleeing pedestrians and animals, and other vehicles.
Keep your vehicle doors unlocked.
When trapped during a wildfire, call 911 for help and provide your location. Heavy smoke can make it harder for emergency responders to find you. But turning on your light can make your surroundings more visible. Other tips largely depend on where you are during the disaster.
Park your vehicle in an area with little or no vegetation.
If possible, remain in the vehicle till the main fire subsides.
Keep your headlights and hazard lights on.
Close your windows and vents.
Do not turn off your engine.
Get to the floor and cover yourself with a wool blanket or jacket.
Proceed to the nearest public shelter, if possible. If not, find a flat area with little or no vegetation, such as a ditch or depression. You can also move close to a nearby water body.
Clear away wildfire fuels like leaves and twigs from where you are.
Lie face down and cover your body with non-flammable materials. A wool blanket is a preferable cover.
Breathe close to the floor to limit the amount of smoke you inhale.
Stay indoors, away from outside walls and windows.
Close your doors and windows, but do not lock them.
Keep your lights on to ensure visibility.
Wet your roof and yard using sprinklers.
Proceed to a room where you can shut out external air.
Maintain your air quality by using a portable air cleaner or filter.
Smoke is one of the most prominent hazards associated with wildfires. Smoke carries particles that can irritate one's eyes and respiratory system. It also can result in severe health conditions like asthma, lung disease, and allergies. Therefore, it is important to protect yourself and your family from inhaling large amounts of smoke during wildfires. The following tips can help limit your exposure to smoke:
Move indoors if you begin to notice smoky conditions.
Avoid activities that can burn or pollute indoor air, such as smoking, burning candles, using propane, vacuuming, and using fireplaces.
Maintain the air quality of your home by keeping windows, doors, and other openings shut. You may operate an air conditioner but prevent it from taking in external air. Instead, rely on the existing circulation of air. Also, keep your filter clean to keep out particles in the air.
Use respirators such as the N95 or P100 masks to filter the air you breathe in. However, note that respirators are not designed for children. Likewise, facial air may prevent it from fitting your face properly.
If you have pre-existing respiratory conditions, confirm with your doctor whether you can wear a respirator.
In any case, ensure that you stay tuned to local radio for updates on the disaster and steps to take.
A wildfire can leave several issues in its wake, including property damage, injuries, and further health hazards. You need to take certain steps to recover and get things back on track. Below are helpful tips for the aftermath of wildfires in Georgia.
If you happen to be apart from your family during the disaster, contact them afterward. Opt for text messages or social media, as phone lines may be overwhelmed after a wildfire.
Make sure you check everyone for injuries sustained as a result of the disaster. Apply first aid treatment when required. Clean and cover burns immediately to reduce the risk of infection. If the injury is serious, get medical assistance as soon as possible.
Ensure that you and your family go for a medical check-up after the disaster. You might not have been able to notice some injuries or conditions caused by the disaster. But a licensed physician can provide a professional assessment of your health. Furthermore, you may need to seek professional psychological help or counseling following the hardships experienced during a wildfire.
In addition to seeking medical help, you need to be careful with what you eat and the water you use after a wildfire. Do not use your water for cooking, drinking, washing, bathing, or brushing until local authorities confirm that it is safe to do so. Similarly, discard any food item you suspect to have been exposed to smoke, heat, or soot. It is likely contaminated and bad for your health. Instead, get fresh food and bottled, boiled, or treated water. You can keep your food fresh after a power outage by keeping your refrigerator closed as much as possible.
Remember to stay hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids. This will help you prevent heat-related conditions. Note that extreme heat is the natural disaster that causes the most deaths in the country. According to the National Weather Service, 190 Americans died, and 67 sustained injuries as a result of extreme heat in 2021 alone.
Experiencing a disaster can have adverse effects on animals. They may become scared and react by biting or scratching. Take care of their health. Ensure that they visit a veterinarian after the disaster and keep them from roaming around after the disaster.
Check around your home, including your roof, gutters, attic, and home interior, for sparks and embers and put them out. If you are unable to put out the flames, call 911 immediately.
Continue to check your home for embers for several days.
Maintain the air quality in your home by keeping the doors and windows closed.
Do not turn on your utilities yourself. Instead, contact a licensed electrician and plumber. Also, ensure that you get the go-ahead from your local authorities before restoring your utilities.
Contact a licensed contractor to examine structural damage to your building.
Avoid returning to your home until local authorities confirm that it is safe to do so.
Stay away from trees and power lines and poles as much as possible.
If a power line falls on your car, do not leave. Instead, call 911 and wait till an emergency responder reaches you.
Drive carefully. Understand that some traffic lights and street lights might have been destroyed during the disaster.
Watch out for debris on the road and dangerous animals that have been displaced due to the disaster.
Beware of ash pits. They are holes containing hot ashes, caused by burned trees and stumps. Falling into one can result in severe burns.
Be cautious when entering burned areas. There might be hot spots that can flare up and cause a fire.
Avoid walking on smoldering surfaces.
Wear long clothes, leather gloves, respirators, socks, goggles, and sturdy shoes to protect yourself when cleaning up.
Do not allow your children to do any cleaning or roam around damaged areas.
Handle hazardous and flammable material carefully to avoid fires.
Only use generators outdoors at least 20 feet away from your home to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning.
Do not delay in making your insurance claims. Ensure that you contact your insurance agent as soon as possible. Also, inquire about what kinds of repairs you can do before your claim. Avoid making permanent repairs until your property has been inspected by the insurance company. Taking pictures and videos of damage done to your property can aid your insurance claim.
Preserve burnt or mutilated money by placing them in plastic wraps. You can replace partly burnt bills by submitting a mutilated currency redemption request to your regional Federal Reserve Bank or the US Treasury. Deliver the bill personally or through non postal couriers from 8 to 11:30 A.M. or 12:30 to 2 P.M., Monday through Friday, excluding holidays to:
You can also send the bills via USPS to:
After a disaster, affected areas usually experience a heavy influx of fraudulent contractors that intend to scam homeowners of their money through several means. Some forms of contractor scams include contracting without a license, overpricing materials, sub-standard work, and not doing the agreed work after receiving full payment. The following are tips to prevent you from falling for contractor scams following a wildfire in Georgia:
Make sure that any contractor you hire is licensed and properly insured. You can verify the license of building contractors using the License Lookup feature on the Secretary of State's website.
Beware of contractors that offer their services door-to-door.
Do not pay in cash. Also, keep proper records of every payment you make.
Insist on having a written agreement and ensure that your attorney reviews it before you sign it.
Report a fraudulent contractor by filing a complaint with the Consumer Protection Division.
After a disaster, the President may make a declaration enabling federal agencies to provide disaster assistance to people in affected areas. Reliefs that accompany a disaster declaration include nutritional benefits, temporary housing, debris cleanup, and counseling. The extent and type of assistance provided usually depend on the severity of the disaster. You can apply for post-disaster benefits on the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s website.