By Daisy Luther
However prepared you think you are for an emergency wildfire evacuation, when it looks like you’re driving through the outer edges of Hell, it’s going to be a scary ride.
Wildfires are a real threat every year in California, but this season seems to be especially dramatic and uncontrollable. Chalk it up to the severe drought that has caused the grass and trees to become well-seasoned fuel for the fires.
One particular fire rages out of control in Lake County, just north of the famous Napa Valley, putting thousands of acres of vineyards on the outskirts of the inferno.
That is far from the worst of it, though. Over the weekend, the tiny burg of Middletown, California was burned off the map. The flames moved so quickly that there was barely time to notify the families of the town that they had to evacuate.
When the fire hit the gas stations on the edge of town, the fuel tanks exploded, worsening the blaze. The fire traveled to the down and destroyed virtually every single building More than 1000 homes and businesses burned to the ground. Pay close attention at 1:30.
Residents literally only had minutes to evacuate as the flames approached. This was not a calm, orderly evacuation. This was families fleeing for their lives.
Do you think you are prepped to evacuate? What if you had to literally drive through a wildfire? Here’s a dose of reality. This video was shot as one family left their home for what is most likely the last time. (Some very understandable harsh language).
I know what you’re thinking: That guy waited way too long to bug out.
The thing is, this fire moved so incredibly quickly that people who bugged out within minutes of notification had a scene exactly like this. They had a soundtrack of approaching flames roaring in their ears. One minute, the fire was a plume of smoke on the horizon, and the next minute it was in their backyards.
News reports say that more than a thousand homes and businesses have been lost, and that one civilian has died in the fire. Four firefighters had to deploy their survival shelters and allow the fire to “burn over” them when they could not escape the blaze. Miraculously, they only suffered second-degree burns and are recovering in the hospital.
This is how quickly a disaster can strike. No matter how well-prepped you thought you were for a potential evacuation, if your vehicle wasn’t already loaded, you’d only have time to grab what was closest to the door in a situation like this. Some residents didn’t even have time to put on their shoes before leaving. This particular fire was fueled by drought-dried brush and pushed by 20 MPH winds, making it engulf territory faster than veteran firefighters had ever seen a blaze move. Embers propelled by the wind sparked new fires that joined the original blaze, causing even more rapid expansion.A report in the Press Democrat described the exponential growth of the fire.
Hundreds of firefighters streamed into the area to battle the blaze, which grew from 50 acres to more than 10,000 acres in the span of five hours Saturday. It doubled in size again over the next four hours, swelling to 25,000 acres by 10:25 p.m.
And this is the horrifying aftermath. An entire town, left like this.
Prepping for a Wildfire Evacuation
In the event of a rapid evacuation, here are a few tips.
- Have your bug-out bags ready at all times. You may not have any warning, particularly if you live near the origin of the fire. Conditions could change rapidly, putting you in harm’s way. Always, always, have a bug-out bag ready.
- Keep swimming goggles and N95 masks in your vehicle for all family members. Swimming goggles will keep you from being blinded by dense smoke and the masks will filter the air somewhat so that you aren’t overcome by inhalation. I recommend these goggles and these masks – the kind with the valves offer you the most protection.
- Keep your vehicle full of fuel. A dire bug-out scenario is not the time to run out of gas, and you can bet that the filling stations won’t be open for business in such an event.
What we learned during the King Fire
Last year, we lived right on the edge of the massive King Fire, and blessedly, did not have to make our escape. Had the conditions been similarly explosive, however, we would have had to flee for our lives as well.
We learned a lot about prepping for an emergency, even though we felt pretty well-prepared before it happened. Here’s a summary that I wrote the week after the danger from the fire had passed.
Bug out bags are absolutely the first prep you should make. If you’re just getting started, do this one thing. You can do it without spending a penny, by just gathering up things that you already own. You may not have a top-of-the-line, ready-for-the-apocalypse bag like THIS ONE, but you’ll still be far ahead of most people. When we first learned of the fire and realized that evacuating might become necessary, I had only two things to do. I had to get documents from the safe (the documents, by the way, were already housed in a plastic folder, so I only had to grab that one thing) and pull the pet carriers out of the shed. In less than 5 minutes, we were ready to roll. Had it been necessary, we could have left with only the photocopies of the documents, because those always remain in our bug-out bags. Having your bug-out bag ready means that you have accepted in advance that disaster could strike.
Any time one disaster strikes, several more are sure to follow. This is highly probable. Some people in the fire zone not only stayed on the edge of evacuation for nearly two weeks, but they also lost power due to the fire. This greatly reduced their ability to get news and information, which is vital in a disaster situation. It leads to even more worry and stress, and while you’re dealing with the potential of your home burning down, you’re also living through a power outage lasting several days. Getting prepared for a two week power outage is absolutely vital and can see you through most regional disasters. Also, when it finally began to rain, although it helped to quench the flames, firefighters were suddenly threatened by flash floods,. These were made worse because the areas no longer had the same natural obstructions to deter the flow of water.
Unprepared people panic. Some people panicked initially. When we got the first evacuation alert (a notice that evacuation was highly likely within the next 24 hours), a woman who lived down the street was wailing and sobbing as her husband tried to pack up their vehicle. She was rendered absolutely useless by fear. Meanwhile, my 13 year old was fulfilling her list while I fulfilled mine and we quickly made an orderly stack of important belongings, then turned on a movie to beat the stress. Had our area actually been forced to evacuate, those who panicked would have either been the last to leave, or they would have forgotten important things as they left in a disorganized rush. It’s important to decide ahead of time who packs what, and for each person to have a list. Sit down well before disaster strikes and make an evacuation plan with your family.
Get organized. All the lists in the world won’t help you pack quickly if you don’t know where things are. One change we’re making is that all of the items we deemed precious enough to pack and take with us will now be stored in one area so that we won’t have to look for them when seconds count. Another friend ran into the issue of dirty clothes: he actually had to evacuate with hampers of unwashed laundry. Having your home tidy and organized (and your laundry washed and put way) will help your packing go smoothly in the event of a sudden evacuation.
You can’t be prepared for everything. Disaster situations are always fluid and they don’t go by a script. It’s vital to be adaptable to the changing situation.
Keep your vehicle full of fuel. If you have to evacuate, lots of other people will be hitting the road too. When you’re stuck in traffic, you don’t want to be worried about your fuel gauge dropping to the empty mark, leaving you stranded in a dangerous situation.
The criminals come out, like cockroaches. Within 24 hours of the first evacuations, we learned that the local scumbags had looted some of the homes that had been left unattended. Within 48 hours, we learned that the scourge had reached the outlying areas, with these people breaking into cars that had been loaded up with the things that families had determined to be most important to them. Of course, if you’ve evacuated, there’s nothing you can do about what’s happening to your home. But before evacuation, or in the event of civil unrest, it’s vital to be prepared to defend your family and belongings. In these situations, the first responders are busy, and that’s what criminals rely on. You should consider yourself to be completely on your own, and be ready for trouble. Keep in mind that during the civil unrest in Ferguson recently, the only businesses that didn’t get looted were the ones at which the owners stood armed and ready to defend their property.
The longer the stress lasts, the worse some people behave. As continued stress is applied, the true nature of a person becomes evident. People who formerly seemed like perfectly nice individuals were on the local message forums saying terrible things to one another. They were verbally attacking others for imagined slights and taking offense at things that would normally never ruffle feathers. Some folks were launching tirades against the very people who were performing the greatest service: the admins of the webpages who worked round the clock to keep us informed. If it was this bad in a potential emergency, can you imagine how bad things will get in a truly devastating long-term scenario?
But then…some people are wonderful. Alternatively, sometimes you see the very best of human nature. The generosity of many of my neighbors cannot be overstated. They housed livestock, pets, and families full of strangers during the evacuation. People showed up at the shelter with food and comfort items for those who had been evacuated. Firemen who came from near and far to fight the blaze were constantly being treated to meals at local restaurants, as other diners surreptitiously paid their tabs. Watching the kindness and gratitude helped to restore some of my faith in human nature, after seeing the squabbling and crime. It was interesting to me that the people who gave the most generously were the ones who were the most prepared. These folks were calm and could focus on other things besides “Oh my gosh, I don’t know what to do!” We definitely learned who the people were that we wanted to surround ourselves with when the S really HTF.
Take steps now to be calm and prepared later.
I want you to think about disasters. While it’s certainly not a pleasant thought, but considering these things now – when there’s no fire bearing down on you, no hurricane heading your way, no chemical spill poisoning your water, no pandemic in the next town over – allows you to think more clearly and make a definitive plan of action.
- Check your bug out bags.
- Organize your most precious belongings.
- Discuss the plan with your family so that everyone knows what to expect.
Make these decisions now so that when – and it’s always “when” not “if” – disaster knocks at your door, you’re prepared to respond immediately. Learn about what to expect from others in order to keep your family safe and on-plan. Human nature isn’t as much of a variable when you can predict their behavior.
What to pack:
Here are the things we packed for our potential evacuation:
- Bug out bags
- Cell phone
- Address book with important contacts
- Money, credit cards
- Pet carriers – I prefer the hard-sided ones so that our pets are sheltered better in a crowded vehicle
- Pet food
- 2 weeks of clothing
- Extra shoes
- Personal hygiene items
- Documents (identification, insurance, passports, etc.)
- A utility bill or other proof of residence
- Small Portable safe for valuables and firearms
- Family photos
- Items of sentimental value
- Reading material
- A small fire extinguisher
- Extra fuel in a safe container
- Phone and laptop chargers
- car charger
Your list might also include:
- Security items for children
- Items to entertain children
- Prescription medication
- Allergy medication
- Religious items for comfort
- Food (If you go to an evacuation shelter, you may end up having to purchase meals out or make do with very small rations)
Make a written checklist that you can easily access. You might include the location of items that are packed away. Decide on these things now, when you have the time to calmly think about what items are the most important.
I can’t emphasize enough the importance of those sentimental items. We feared that if we had to leave our home, we might never be coming back. Identify the things that are dear to your heart and put them in a place where you can grab those treasures quickly. Insurance can’t replace photos of those who have passed on, special gifts, and items that bring you memories of loved ones.
Surviving a Wildfire
Surviving a wildfire begins well before the first spark. No matter where you live, a forest fire or large blaze can be a threat. Oftentimes, fires occur on the heels of another epic disaster.
As with any type of disaster, by being prepared ahead of time, you will handle a terrifying emergency in a much calmer fashion than those who have never considered the possibility of such an event.
If you wish to make donations to help the victims of the Valley Fire, find out more information here.
Have you ever had to evacuate quickly? Share your tips and stories in the comments below…