Every year, thousands of wildfires rage across the United States, with a significant number ravaging the West Coast and leaving behind absolutely devastating results. In 2020 alone, more than 58,000 fires burned over ten million acres across the US, mobilizing tens of thousands of firefighters, razing over 10,000 buildings and killing at least 37 people.
This year has already resulted in even further wildfire destruction, with a growing number of the population living at risk. This uptick is only the beginning of a terrifying trend that experts predict to expand in the coming years. The rampaging flames of a wildfire have the potential to endanger lives, devastate communities, destroy homes and divide families, all in a very short period of time before they can be controlled and extinguished.
Allyson Watson was a victim of one such vicious and unexpected blaze. In 2003, during one of the worst wildfire seasons in the history of southern California, her family was driven out of their home by an arson-set wildfire. Despite having fire-prevention efforts in place and established evacuation procedures, she and her family were forced to fight for their lives in order to escape. In the process of evacuating the flames with her family, Allyson miraculously managed to survive two separate car crashes. Still, she suffered extensive second- and third-degree burns on over 86% of her body due to the accidents.
Tragically, her younger sister Ashleigh was not so fortunate, with the second crash ending in her untimely death.
Despite the many challenges of healing from extensive burns, coping with the sudden loss of her sister, and the destruction of her home, in time, Allyson healed. After years of recovery with the staunch encouragement of friends and family at her side, Allyson now works to spread awareness and education of wildfire prevention across the United States.
Allyson’s sacrifice, determination and passion for the cause have driven her to educate others on the critical importance of fire preparedness. She channels her personal experience into instructing those in wildfire-prone and at-risk areas on the necessity of a practiced evacuation plan, as well as the cultivation of ignition-resistant homes and properties.
These efforts all stem from Allyson’s desire to protect others from enduring the same pain and loss that she has suffered: ‘The main thing I want others to know about wildfires and fire prevention is that nothing is more important than your life. Homes can be rebuilt; items replaced.’ With the absence of her younger sister Ashleigh ever-present in her mind, Allyson emphasizes the irreplaceable nature of human life: ‘Have a plan in mind on how you want to evacuate and then prepare a backup plan. But, always remember, your life needs to come first. Your memories won’t matter if you can’t be there to enjoy them.’
Passionate individuals like Allyson, along with countless others, have come together to take their pain and transform it into something powerful. With their support, Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors, the leading national non-profit dedicated to supporting the burn survivor community, is launching a national outreach campaign for educating those in wildfire-prone areas about safety measures and preparedness. Efforts will focus on wildfire safety, burn prevention, and first aid to prepare the public in expanding wildfire areas for a severe season ahead and the threat of difficult years to come.
Campaign partners include Anaheim Fire & Rescue, Legacy Oregon Burn Center, National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), Santa Clara Valley Regional Burn Center, UC Davis FFBI Regional Burn Center, UC Irvine Regional Burn Center, University of Washington Burn Center at Harborview and Western States Burn Center at North Colorado Medical Center.
With an increase in wildfire activity in the United States over the past decade, these efforts couldn’t have come soon enough. Amy Acton, CEO of Phoenix Society and NFPA board chair, speaks on the growing threat behind this initiative: ‘Wildfires are getting bigger and threatening more communities for longer periods of time each year. At any moment, a fire could consume hundreds of acres, destroy communities and threaten lives.’
Together, with resilient survivors like Allyson and the support of esteemed partners nationwide, Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors is working hard to spread wildfire awareness, preparedness and knowledge to help prevent tragedies like those she and many others have endured from happening again.
For more information, go to www.phoenix-society.org/wildfire21