Last updated on January 17th, 2019
An increasing number of people are choosing to live in or near forests, rural areas, or remote mountain sites. Being this close to nature and away from the city can offer the perfect setting for your next house sit, but you may also face the danger of wildfire.
We lived in Colorado where we were evacuated twice, fortunately without loss of our home. Being about a quarter mile from the fire was close enough! It is important to discuss with the home owner what preparation and planning, if any, has been done for this eventuality.
Here are some of our first-hand experiences and recommendations.
IT’S ALL ABOUT BEING PREPARED
Although you can’t possibly plan for every contingency, if you’re house sitting in a fire prone area, ask for a written plan or guidelines from the homeowners as to what actions they would normally like to take in the case of such an emergency.
These will obviously need to be reasonable requests and you are only agreeing to do the best you can. We are assuming that the location has meant you have a vehicle. If not, you will need to address this with the owners.
WHAT TO INCLUDE IN YOUR PLAN
This includes the local authorities’ communications to homeowners and your communications with the homeowners. In Colorado, we had reverse 911 calls for evacuation notices. This is used extensively across the US. Many communities have text or email alerting systems for emergency notifications.
Find out how you can be linked to this service in the owner’s absence and what the local process is for emergencies. This can usually be found on local authority websites.
Ask to be introduced to several neighbors prior to the home owner’s departure. Exchange email and phone numbers and get together for a drink or dinner to create a relationship.
Should an emergency arise, early communication with the homeowners is essential to make them part of the process. With our neighbors, we watched a fire approach for two days before evacuation. By then, we had discussed scenarios and organized ourselves to ensure that we all had the help we needed and knew where we would be staying.
This communication with neighbors would be especially helpful to a house sitter not familiar to the area. Your dog walks and trips around the area should help you assess the evacuation routes, so that you know how to escape fire from several different directions.
Issues with power can vary depending on whether the property is on local services or a separate well, power, or septic systems. You should assume that you may lose power at any time, if you are connected to local services.
Identify what functions in the house cease with no power. If you’re on a well system and you lose power, is there a backup generator? If not, you will be without water. We installed a backup generator for our well and house after our first evacuation. We were hosing down the roof of our house and the garden when we lost power. Hot embers in the air can start fires between half a mile to a mile away from the fire.
If you need use of landlines, the handset needs to be directly linked to the telephone line, not connected to remote devices using power.
Disconnect automatic garage door openers, so you can manually open the doors at a moment’s notice. Open gates and position the car forward facing for a quick exit if necessary.
Ask the owners what emergency kits exist, including flashlights, batteries, first aid kits etc.
Planning for pet evacuation during fires
Planning for evacuation of pets can vary dramatically, therefore an agreement with the homeowner is essential.
Dogs and cats can be loaded into a vehicle with the minimum of fuss, but if you have outdoor cats with access to a cat-flap, keep them inside, somewhere you can easily grab them for any planned exit – seal the cat-flap to prevent them leaving the house.
Horses are a different matter.
The homeowners should have an arrangement with a third party for any evacuation. It should not be the house sitters’ responsibility, although they can assist where possible. We would suggest early communication with this third party by the house sitters.
We had about ten to fifteen dogs temporarily located on our property as the owners, closer to the wildfire, started partial evacuations.
Along with the homeowners, you’ll need to agree on what can be loaded into the vehicle should you have to evacuate the property. We’ve seen people do multiple trips hauling furniture out. Our position was that we had insurance, therefore only certain essentials or personal items should be packed.
During one of our evacuations we removed crystal that we wanted to save and accidentally broke a piece during the move. Because the incident occurred as a result of our actions, and not from the fire, the breakage wasn’t covered under our homeowner insurance policy.
You also should think about the risk of your vehicle being broken into if evacuated items are visible in your car. Find a safe place to store these items.
How prepared you are will depend on how much time you have. We were able to pack our cars a day before evacuation. This enabled us to assess what we could take and be ready to leave within minutes if necessary.
Depending on the homeowners wishes they may want to move certain items well before evacuation. However, they need to have made the necessary arrangements for a safe location. It is their responsibility to ensure continued insurance coverage.
5 P’s FOR EFFECTIVE EVACUATION
1. People, pets and livestock – prepare to evacuate if you can safely remove them.
2. Prescriptions – for pet with dosages; personal medicines; medical equipment; batteries or power cords; eyeglasses; and hearing aids. Any food the pet will need for the duration of the evacuation
3. Papers – including important documents the owners may have left with you, contact information (hard copies and/or electronic copies saved on portable drives or devices), any personal papers the home owner asks you to take with you
4. Personal Needs – such as clothes, food for you and the pets, water, first aid kit, cash, phones, and chargers
5. Priceless Items – any items the owner may have requested you to try and save, understanding the risks and responsibilities involved
Again, there should be some understanding as to what is acceptable for both the homeowners and the house sitters, especially on the items holding irreplaceable memories or considered priceless
UNDERSTANDING THE ENVIRONMENT
It’s always good to understand your immediate environment. Studying a map of the area is good for preparation. Knowing whether there is a safe place in a local town or village is a good call too.
- Has the homeowner been mitigating his property against fires?
- Is the home located in the hills or mountains? Fires accelerate up slopes.
- Are the evacuation routes bordered by trees and in more open environments?
- Are there fire breaks that could delay the spread of fire?
- Where are your best exit routes?
You can research plenty of long lists detailing what to do when evacuating a house due to wildfires. The house sitter just needs to agree with the homeowner a list for that location.
For example, the lists say leave doors and windows closed, but unlocked for access by firefighters. Homeowners need to be aware of and agree to this. They also talk about taking down all curtains and moving flammable furniture to the center of rooms. This is possible if there is adequate notice.
From our discussions with various people, we understand that the heat generated by fires can cause items in the house to burst into flames without direct contact with the fire. We decided that we had proper insurance, and if the fire reached the house it would most probably be a total loss.
Numerous resources are available on the internet to help educate and prepare in the event you are forced to evacuate. Here are some for the USA and Australia.
- https://www.ready.gov/wildfires (USA)
- https://www.fs.fed.us/managing-land/fire (USA)
- FEMA – How to prepare for wildfires (USA)
- https://www.dfes.wa.gov.au/safetyinformation/fire/Pages/default.aspx (Australia)
- https://www.emergency.wa.gov.au/prepare (Australia)
- Plan for an emergency bush fire (Australia)
- Bush Fire Danger Ratings (Australia)
ENJOY THE HOUSE SIT, BUT BE PREPARED!
Our recommendation is always to have open discussions with homeowners about emergency situations in any environment.
In fire prone areas most homeowners will have some thoughts about how they would handle such situations and what resources exist. Create clear guidelines and plan early communications with the homeowners.
In today’s digital age there are a multitude of resources and communication warning systems that exist in many countries.
Tap into the neighborhood network. Travel around and familiarize yourself with the location and its environment.
Most wildfires come with plenty of warning. Local authorities should be providing the necessary support and advice. A little preparation and common sense should allow you to do the best under the circumstances.
Property can be replaced, people and pets can’t.
Susan Greet and her husband John, have always shared the same spirit of adventure and love for travel. In 2014, they sold their mountain home in Colorado to spend an extended period as full-time house sitters and travelers. They have traveled in North, Central and South America, Caribbean, Europe, Africa, Asia and Australasia. They keep healthy with hiking, cycling and yoga. They blog about their experiences at: https://unforeseentravels.com/