By Daisy Luther
The Northern California wildfires are fast-moving, unpredictable, and for some, unsurvivable. The videos below will show you what it’s really like, trying to survive an ever-changing inferno…and why you shouldn’t wait for the official evacuation order.
A lot of folks have been critical, saying blithely, “They knew there was a fire. They should have evacuated.” It’s important to understand that it doesn’t always work like that with wildfires. Armchair quarterbacking is easy. Fleeing when the car your driving literally catches on fire and the smoke is blinding you is not easy.
First of all, fires move rapidly. You can be in no danger whatsoever and just see a fire on the distant horizon, and then minutes later, it’s at your back door. Secondly, they change courses. Many times, the fire gets ahold of some new fuel – like a home, tall grass, or trees, and the course veers in that direction. Finally, high winds have propelled these fires rapidly and fanned them to new heights. Every fall, California has something called the “Diablo Winds.” These are seasonal gusts that can reach as high as 80 mph and cause extremely high fire danger. When coupled with existing fires, it’s nothing less than the perfect storm.
October is often the worst month of the year for wildfires in California. Not only is it the time when the Diablo winds (or Santa Ana winds in Southern California) kick up, but it’s also the driest month. California has a long dry season. It isn’t unusual to go without a single drop of rain from May through the end of October. Because of this, all the lush grass that grows during the spring rainy season is dried, crisp, and tragically perfect fuel.
In situations like this, there is often little to no warning before the fire is roaring through your property. The fire may be miles away and heading in the opposite direction one minute, then turn on a dime. Then suddenly, you find yourself directly in the path of an inferno. If you’re lucky, you escape unscathed with your life but lose all your worldly possessions. Many people have not been lucky.
15 large wildfires are blazing through Northern California’s wine country. 40 people are confirmed dead, hundreds are missing, more than a 100,000 have evacuated, and nearly 6000 homes and businesses have been completely burned to the ground. Thus far, the damage estimate is more than 3 billion dollars.
The following video and stories show you what the Northern California wildfires are really like.
This video is shot from a fire engine from Berkeley, California on the day Santa Rosa burned. It gives you the firefighters’ firsthand view of the destruction and the speed with which it was wrought.
This video shows the utter devastation from the wildfires and includes clips of people escaping with only their lives.
These two roommates left with their dogs as the fire jumped the hill behind their home, narrowly escaping death. (Strong language)
This police officer’s body camera shows the terrifying scene when he was helping people evacuate.
This couple described their escape as being like “driving through hell.”
This video shows multiple clips of people fleeing the blaze as embers rain down and the billowing smoke gets closer. They are trappd on the freeway in slow-moving traffic.
In one tragic story, a family tried to evacuate by car. Their car caught on fire and they had to take off on foot to try and outrun the blaze. They got separated in the smoke. A 14-year-old boy burned to death and the other members of the family are burned over more than half their bodies. The mother and daughter were found by a neighbor and the father was found by paramedics. (source)
In a story with a happier ending, a farmer tried to evacuate his dogs but one refused to go. Odin, a Great Pyrenees, stayed with his herd of goats. The owners were positive they’d never see their beloved dog again, but when they returned to the farm, they discovered a slightly singed Odin with every member of his herd unharmed. This very good boy had even picked up a few baby deer. (source)
Haunting drone footage shows what Santa Rosa looks like after the fire.
While I strongly recommend evacuating in a situation like this, one man stayed behind and managed to save his home and his neighbor’s home from the wildfire.
Along the Napa/Sonoma border, these residents scrambled for safety and barely escaped with their lives. There were fires in all directions, blocking escape routes. People had to choose whether to drive through blinding smoke or flames.
This couple survived a wildfire they couldn’t escape by taking refuge in a neighbor’s swimming pool for SIX hours as the fire blazed all around them.
Another couple who tried to take refuge in a pool was not so fortunate. The woman died in her husband’s arms after 60 years of marriage.
This family’s dog ran away in a panic and they had no option but to leave. They returned home, certain their beloved pup had perished, but then they found this:
These interviews tell the stories of more narrow escapes.
This aerial footage gives you a better idea of what firefighters are dealing with during these widespread blazes.
More than eleven thousand firefighters are pushing themselves to the limits of their endurance to contain these fires, but they aren’t able to directly respond and save people. As the mayor of Calistoga said in a press conference to the few who opted to ignore evacuation orders, “You will NOT be given life safety support at this point. You are on your own.” Exhausted firefighters are grabbing moments of rest when they can.
In some areas, civilians, farmers, and construction crews have taken a stand to protect their homes from the infernos.
The story of the Capell Valley community is one that was repeated in neighborhoods and valleys across Northern California’s wine country this week, as dry conditions and high winds fueled multiple fires in Sonoma, Napa, Yuba and Mendocino counties.
It was not only firefighters who stood in the path of the blazes, but civilians too. Contractors, skilled construction workers and even former wildland firefighters came out of the woodwork to run bulldozers and drive multi-thousand gallon water tenders on twisty and damaged back roads.
They picked up what tools and equipment they could and tried to save their neighborhoods….
This wasn’t the first time Gil Pridmore had fought a fire in those hills. He spent years as the boss of a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection bulldozer crew and fought the 1981 Atlas Peak Fire.
He used this experience to help lead a team of 30 people to cut multiple layers of firelines on the rim of the valley.
When flames would breach their lines and encroach on houses, the goal was to get the house “in the black,” or completely surrounded by burned areas so there was no fuel left to catch fire. (source)
They managed to save all but one home in the valley.
A few things to learn from the California wildfires
There are lessons to be learned from these videos (and 5 years of living in fire-prone California.) Wildfires happen in other parts of the United States as well, and it’s important to be prepared before the first spark.
You need a fire kit in your vehicle at all times. Things to include:
- Swimming goggles: This will protect your eyes and help keep you from being blinded by smoke
- Respirator masks: This doesn’t mean you will be able to breathe if the fire sucks all the oxygen from your environment, but it will help to filter out some of the smoke so you aren’t disabled by a coughing fit.
- Fire extinguisher: In a worst case scenario if your vehicle catches on fire, you may be able to put it out if you attack while the blaze is small.
- Welding gloves: Remember the guy who burned his hands opening a gate? Welding gloves will offer some protection from hot surfaces.
And here are some tips.
- Do not wait for the official order: In some parts of Sonoma County, people are questioning why an evacuation alert never came. While officials do their best, YOU are the person who is responsible for your family’s safety. (source)
- Have more than one escape route: In situations like this, you will often find your escape route blocked. Have more than one way out. Figure these out ahead of time and now when you are fleeing for your life and blinded by smoke.
- Evacuate large animals ahead of time. If possible, evacuate your livestock before the emergency becomes a crisis. In a situation like this, animals can be fearful and uncooperative. Get your livestock to safety first, because if you have to rush out like many of these families did, you’ll have to leave them behind, helpless. I shared good news stories above, but a friend of mine in California went to help out with veterinary rescue. There are far more bad news stories.
- Leash or crate pets early on: They will be affected by the same kind of panic. A normally well-behaved pet could rush off into danger, leaving you to make the choice to leave them behind or risk your family’s lives trying to save them.
- Grab your dirty clothes hampers: If you have time to grab a few things unless you have just done laundry, grab dirty clothes hampers. They’re likely to have several days of clothing from the skin out, PJs, and socks, saving you time from searching for all those things individually.
- Keep precious items and documents in one area: Make sure irreplaceable things are kept together. We have a decorative trunk near the door into which we can sweep precious mementos. Important documents are backed up in the Cloud, which means we don’t have to spend time packing those.
The fires are beginning to be contained, and firefighters say they are gaining an edge. Two out of three of the most destructive fires are more than 50% contained. Some people in Sonoma will be allowed to return to their homes today – or what’s left of them. Winds have lightened, but the weather will still be hot and dry until Thursday when there is a small chance of blessed rain. (source)
I wish those in the affected areas the very best.
What about you?
Have you ever been affected by a wildfire? We’ve had a couple of close calls. This is the story of our first experience on the edge of a California wildfire. Share your stories – and your advice – in the comments below.
PS: When I read the comments on the videos while researching this article, I was dismayed at the cruelty of people behaving like this doesn’t matter because it’s a state they dislike. Of all the times to be divisive and scornful, times of tragedy are the most repulsive. Comments like this will be redacted or deleted entirely.
Homes are leveled and trees and shrubs are still standing. Trees and shrubs not even burned bare in lots of cases. Year 2017. Doesn’t ANYBODY see some thing wrong ?
I can’t tell you specifically why this happens, but I saw the same thing after the King Fire in 2014.
Means houses caught fire easier and burned more thoroughly than trees. Dry attic wood and open eves.
It should be clear from these fires that two things are not working: choosing “air quality” over regular prescribed burning; and, trusting government to protect your home from wildfire. No prescribed burning just means that decades of accumulated fuel load will burn up all at once under the worst conditions. Leaving your home to be protected by the government right when they are stretched too thin is almost guaranteed to result in the loss of your home. You must be physically prepared with your own water storage, pumps, hoses, and nozzles, and mentally prepared to fight. God had nothing to do with saving that guy’s home — he did it by being willing to stay and fight.
To paraphrase Ben Franklin, They who would give up essential fire safety for temporary air quality will get neither. The people who thought they could forever avoid breathing smoke by not allowing prescribed burns are now collecting the result of their policy: choking on the smoke from decades of fuel load accumulation, along with a nightmarish dose of death and destruction.
I walked some woods here in Oregon yesterday that I first set foot in 25 years ago. It badly needed a cleansing fire then; it needs one even worse today. When the part of our land management budget that deals with fire is roughly balanced between fire suppression and prescribed burns, we will have entered a new era of improved fire safety AND more beautiful wildlands. But we will breath some smoke to get there.
I agree with you about the controlled burns. We were in Cali in I believe it was 2003 when the fires started down in the LA region. Grey Davis said there was no budget for $3 million worth of burn and pine beetle control…well $3 billion in damages later he was singing a different tune. We were on voluntary evac on the outskirts of Apple Valley. We loaded up and were ready with horses and important papers when they got it under control. Big Bear was devastated and we we told to watch for bears and mountain lions fleeing in our direction.
Do you mean the bubonic plague?
Are you referring to the article on the pneumonic plague? Same bacteria, different presentation.
I live in northern NM. I decided long ago I’m NOT LEAVING.
We’ve had an 8000 acre lightning caused fire that brought flames within a half mile of our property on two sides. I personally spent a day with a fire crews and dozer driver, cut two fences and helped direct them cutting a fire break. Later battled (and continue to battle) erosion problems. Our buildings have 30 to 50 feet of well cleared area around them, and more than that for large trees. The fire was also kept to a lower slower “controlled burn” level (even though is was NOT intentionally set as a controlled burn), rather than a super hot crowning fire. This was helped by having had some earlier controlled burns. The powers that be (State and Federal) spent 100 years jumping on every fire, not realizing they were doing just the opposite of what nature required. After years of building fuel load, this is what happens.
do you not think that…it was alack of controlled burning for some 8 years that gave the fire the fuel to be a conflagration ? hint no fuel …no fire …
As someone who lives in one of the most fire prone places in the world (the state of Victoria, Australia), I can give you a few hints.
1) If it is a hot, dry day with strong winds, LEAVE. Don’t wait for an evacuation order. Just leave. Grab what you can and go to the city or even out of state. Just go somewhere where you will be safe. Cities are often the best bet because they will have a highly organised team of firefighters who have a much smaller area to defend. In Australia, the government will monitor conditions and tell you if there’s a high chance of fire, but the US has no system like this, so you have to do the work of researching yourself.
2) DO NOT, I REPEAT DO NOT, HIDE IN DAMS/RIVERS/POOLS UNLESS IT IS THE WORST CASE SCENARIO. People think that being in a body of water will keep the, safe, but the radiant heat from the fire will burn and can kill (as per the above video). You can’t stay under the water, and even so, these wildfires can reach temperatures over 800C or 1400F, more than enough to boil water. If you do shelter in a body of water, ensure that you have swimming goggles, a cloth bandanna (not a mask, you won’t be able to use it if it’s soaked) and a thick woolen blanket to place over your head. If the blanket is soaked, it reduces the heat and smoke, but it will be heavy and clingy to you when wet. So, if you’re going to be in a pool, it better be because you don’t have a bunker and didn’t evacuate early.
3) If you are escaping in a car and the fire catches up with you, YOU CAN SURVIVE. First, pull the car over onto a clear section on the side of the road and put on your hazard lights (this lets other vehicles see you better and helps avoid a collision). When the fire approaches, turn off the engine and accessories, and shut off the vents. Then hide yourself below the car windows under a woolen blanket (hint: if you live in a fire prone area, ALWAYS have woolen blankets/water/first aid kit in your car). After this fire passes, turn on the engine (but not the vents/AC) and drive to where the fire has already been. This is safer as fire cannot burn already scorched ground. Remember, sheltering in your car is also last ditch.
4) Bunkers. If you have the resources to purchase a bunker, don’t just slap a shipping container into the ground (though I have heard of this working). You want a shelter that preferably has 30cm/1 foot (or more) of soil on top of it. Also ensure that there are at least 2 doors between you and the fire. For the purpose of this bunker, don’t go full doomsday prepper. An empty shelter with some food, water, blankets, and camping gear (including a camp toilet) is all you need. If it has an air filter, DON’T have it on when the fire is passing over. It will just let in unbearably hot air.
5) Your best bet of surviving a wildfire (if you somehow find yourself in one) is to drive your car into the centre of an empty field (preferably a sports field, as it has the shortest grass and are usually well watered) and then shelter in your car in the field (see 3). If you don’t have a car, then just take yourself, a big, thick wooden blanket and your BOB and shelter underneath the blanket. This method is actually quite good for this. The best field to pick is one with short, well watered grass, a recently plowed field with little or no fuel for the fire, or (the best) a field of rocks and gravel with little or no vegetation. For this, even a road in the middle of grasslands will work. Remember, the goal is survival.
6) Fighting to save your home. Even if your house is well away from the fire, embers from the fire can drift up to 10km/6.2miles away, and start a whole new fire in your area. So be wary of this if you do choose to stay and fight. If fighting, remember that it will take at least 2 dedicated adults with vast reserves of strength and stamina to do it successfully (don’t attempt it alone). Also, don’t let a water bill stop you. If you’re planning on fighting, use as much water as necessary. But, water may cut out due to the fire, so always have a backup. Also, before the fire is even a threat, make sure your house is prepared for a fire. Grass less than 5cm/2 inches within 15m/50 feet of the house, and no trees within 10m/30 feet. Keep all fuels (wood, charcoal, propane etc.) stored in a building away from the house. No shrubs below trees and cut low tree branches away. Rake around your house regularly as this leaf litter can provide extra fuel for the fire. If you’re going to fight, be prepared well in advance.
7) Clothing. Wool is your friend. When facing a fire, wear a broad brim hat, goggles, p100 mask, long sleeve cotton OR wool shirt(don’t have a blend and NO synthetic materials), denim pants (make sure that they are loose and easy to run it, i.e no skinny jeans), thick wool socks and leather work boots. This may seem hot and uncomfortable, but it will greatly increase your chance of survival.
8) Woolen blanket. You should have enough in your car for all the family. You should have several to take with you in your house. If your wool is natural and completely soaked, it is near impossible for fire to light it.
Final note: Stay safe when it come to fires. While it is good to prepare, your best bet is to evacuate early. It is better to stay in town for a couple of days and have nothing happen, than to be trying to frantically escape a fire that is faster than an F1 formula car. Please, DON’T UNDERESTIMATE THE FIRE. It can kill. It can burn. And it can take your life. Please, stay safe.
Absolutely fantastic post! Thank you.
My nephew and his girlfriend lost all their possessions, & home to the Tubbs fire. Thankfully they escaped with just the clothes on their backs. I am so grateful. They made it out unharmed.
How terrifying, Joan! I’m so glad they are okay.