Tips for Coping With Wildfires Behind the Wheel

It is an unusual warning for this part of the country but East Coast motorists need to watch out for wildfires. AAA says motorists should take seriously the “Red Flag” weather condition warnings from the National Weather Service and stay alert while out and about, and even at home if you live near a wooded area.

Wildfires can create thick smoke and zero visibility woes and worries, as some motorists are discovering to their chagrin, the auto club cautions. Wildfires have already burned more than 14,000 acres across Virginia, according to various news reports, and closed roads throughout the region, including Interstate 64, which has sincereopened.

“Most of us falsely assume that wildfires are common threats only in California, along the West Coast, and in the Southwest, and we also wrongly presuppose that they can’t happen here,” noted John B. Townsend II, AAA Mid-Atlantic’s Manager of Public and Government Affairs. “And as a result, the residents of our area have little experiential knowledge of how destructive and deadly wildfires can really be.”

Sixteen Red Flag Warnings have been issued for Virginia over the past five years, the National Weather Service Forecast Office in Sterling, Virginia is reporting.

“Most area residents and drivers were stunned to learn the Washington and Baltimore metropolitan areas, and most of Maryland, and Northern and Central Virginia were placed under a ‘Red Flag’ warning this past weekend, and they were also caught off-guard by the brush fires that burned hundreds of acres in our area back in February of last year. It’s a wake-up call for all of us.”

“It is also a timely and timeless reminder that  if you are driving and notice smoke billowing from a wildfire, or if you encounter heavy smoke blowing onto the roadway, keep your wits about you and drive with caution,” Townsend added.

This week alone, wildfires have consumed 600 acres in the National Forest in the Wolf Gap area of Shenandoah County, the Virginia Department of Forestry reported earlier this week.

If you encounter a wildfire while driving or traveling, don’t panic, advises AAA Mid-Atlantic.  If the fire approaches, the best advice is to stay inside the vehicle. That may sound counter-intuitive but it will likely safeguard your life, said Townsend.

Here’s why.  Wildfires, much like brush fires and forest fires, can move quickly. Here’s the deal: turn off the vehicle, and then roll up its windows. Next, get as close to the floor as possible.  In fact, the vehicle will protect you from a quick-moving fire.

Here’s the problem: you may become seriously injured attempting to outrun a fire. Also keep in mind, most deaths that occur when dealing with wildfires are caused by people getting lost in the smoke near the fire, fire safety officials warn.

Safety tips

If you are driving:

  • Observe “Red Flag” weather condition warnings before heading or venturing out.
  • When pulling trailers, attach safety chains securely; loose chain can drag on the pavement and cause sparks, igniting roadside fires.
  • Smoke from wild fires or forest or brush fires, for that matter, can be dangerous to drive through, because it can occur suddenly, without warning, and be very dense.
  • Don’t lose your nerve or freak out when this occurs.
  • Reduce your speed — and watch your speedometer. Smoke, like fog, creates a visual illusion of slow motion when you may actually be speeding.
  • Roll up your windows and close your air vents.
  • Drive with lights on low beam. High beams will only be reflected back off the smoke and compromise your visibility even more.
  • Use wipers and defrosters as necessary for maximum visibility.
  • Use the right edge of the road or painted road markings as a guide.
  • When you approach areas where smoke clouds are present, emergency flashers may help make you more visible to other drivers.  (Check the AAA Digest of Motor Laws regarding state laws on the use of flashers while moving or driving).
  • The best option is to move off the highway and wait for conditions to improve.
  • If you’re caught in the open, try to find a ditch or depression and cover yourself with a blanket or a coat.
  •  Never park your vehicle on dry grass, or drive through tall grass.
  • Stay tuned to the radio or television for updated information.

“Gusty winds can result in erratic fire weather behavior,” warns the National Weather Service. By definition, a “Red Flag warning” means “critical fire weather conditions are either occurring now, or will shortly. A combination of strong winds, low relative humidity, and warm temperatures will create explosive fire growth potential.”