Letter: California’s December Wildfires

Hello Hugh,

As I write this, the Thomas Fire is still ravaging Ventura County, California. Three lessons need to be taken away:

  1. Gather your own intel,
  2. Be ready to go if it gets close, even if the threat seems remote; and,
  3. Live miles away from brushy or forested areas at risk of fire.

This gives people more time to evacuate with more of their possessions, or at least have better comfort about the fire. The more information that is available allows people to make better decisions in real time, rather than wait until the water is so high they need to crawl on the roof.

I believe that many more members of the public could have been informed and evacuated their homes with more than the clothes on their backs if the fire fighters communicated early concerns about the foothills of Ventura being threatened hours before it happened. It’s not so much the information; it’s the urgency, how it’s said. Reverse 911 is often treated as the boy who called wolf. People roll their eyes until the strike team arrives in the cul-de-sac, the deputies beat on the door, and the bushes in the back yard start to smoke.

Familiarity Breeds Contempt

Far too many people take evacuation warnings as routine. No one in the middle of a housing tract thinks their house will burn. Instead of regarding an evacuation as an inconvenience, what if the now-homeless understood they would have only what they packed up that night? If you have the chance, do you want to flee with as much of your stuff as possible, or just a suitcase or even your Bug-Out-Bag?

Also, the power went out for roughly 300-500k people. This was area wide, from Ventura County to Santa Barbara. In some areas, cell service was out or the Internet was slow. In a worse scenario, there may have been no cell phones, no Broadcastify, and no Twitter. To top it off, the local radio stations were on auto-play, and many young people are clueless about going to AM radio. This is the 21st Century and EMP hasn’t hit yet; we shouldn’t be spreading news via word-of-mouth, digital or otherwise, and running scared in the dark. Get your Ham license as well and program a handie-talkie to communicate with your friends, family, and community.

Get a Scanner

I’d advise preppers to get a scanner and not just the app. Get a trunking scanner like the Home Patrol II that does the work for you or at least know the frequencies and the radio plan in your area. Listen in and know your geography. If the fire fighters are describing a fire that’s closing a 10-15 mile gap in a matter of a few hours and saying it’s going to hit your housing tract while it’s still 10 miles out, it’s probably very, very bad.

My advice to local government is to Tweet and post online updates early and often. Too much information is better than too little. Ultimately, despite the best efforts of emergency services, there are Black Swan disasters that overwhelm everyone. You are often on your own more than you know. It is your responsibility to gather your own intel on the emergency and decide accordingly.

As for home sites for fire survival, live in flat areas well away from major fuel sources or in a modern, well built house (or development) that is not filled with tall, old trees, dense yards, and older less fire-resistant houses. The 2013 Springs Fire wasn’t horrific because the neighborhood it burned around consisted of modern fire-resistant homes, landscaping was well-maintained, brush clearance was good, and the development was well spread with good defensible spaces.

Thanks, – G.C.


  1. I agree with most of your blurb… having lived in the “city” most of my younger years; there’s money to be made in the heap.
    Now we are 10 miles from the nearest small town, surrounded by woods and depend on a small volunteer fire department and the wisdom of our forefathers on knowing how to protect or home and family.
    Parting thought: Don’t depend on any governmental entity for information or help, rather family, friends & community.

    1. Most severely underestimate the staffing size of emergency services and their ability to coordinate information among themselves before getting it to the PIO (public information officer). The county I live in is huge and when I ask people just how many deputies they think are on duty (county wide) they usually say in well excess of 100. Shocks them to find that the number is actually more likely 25 to 50. We really are on our own…

  2. Not just any scanner, but a battery operated
    scanner that is also capable of using your vehicle
    as a power source.
    When you have to bug out you must have your scanner
    with you and ready to go.
    To do otherwise could be a very fatal mistake.
    Merry Christmas to all.

    1. A handheld scanner, a good paper map of your area, and a cheat sheet of all the codes the emergency services will use. Without these you may be flying in the dark. Also pick the best source to follow (fire or law enforcement) and track that, too many can be tough to ken.

  3. Having had my first experience with wildfire this summer, I can honestly say it was a terrifying learning experience, and I pray for those in California who are involved in the fires raging there, homeowners and fire fighters alike.

    The Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia River Gorge was started September 2 by idiot teens with fireworks, and by Sep 4th, we were celebrating my daughter’s birthday under a smoke filled sky, raining ash, soot, and glowing fir needles driving by a stiff east wind. I wasn’t scared yet, just concerned. (The fire was on the other side of the river from us)

    That all changed the following night, when in the wee hours the dog started barking, headlights showed in the driveway, and someone was pounding on the door. It was my son’s best friend, stopping by to tell us the fire had jumped the river about 8 miles east of us.

    The wind was blowing from the east.

    We had no way of knowing what was happening for many hours. Our county, like many in the gorge, does not have the resources to provide much in the way of services, let alone communications during emergencies.

    My husband and a neighbor made a few recon trips, which gave us enough intel to realize we just might be in harm’s way, and soon. We packed up our important stuff, called, texted, or visited every one of our neighbors, and then……


    It was nerve-wracking to say the least. To know there was a fire east of us, but NOT know if it was spreading was one of the most frustrating and terrifying episodes of my life.

    By late afternoon, after reconnecting my computer, we got a few bits of information, and realized we were not likely to need to evacuate, though we stayed ready, and made arrangements for our livestock, re-arranged our stuff, and called relatives.

    Pretty much our only “official” source of info was facebook. The county emergency page, the fire district page, and the sheriff’s page were pretty much it, and they were not updated very often in those first terrifying hours after the fire’s jump of the river. Everyone was too busy to update the pages.

    I was mildly surprised at how the lack of information made me feel. I was scared to death, but managed to stay outwardly calm, dealing with my internal mild panic by taking breaks to call relatives and just talk.

    We were lucky in that we all had cell service, and the landline, internet, and while we do not have access to broadcast TV (by choice), neighbors and family did. Of course, there was nothing like realtime updates in those first 24 hours.

    All of this led us to once more discuss emergency communications, and pushed us toward implementing them. There is nothing quite like a wake-up call, literally and figuratively speaking!

    I’m in my 50’s. I have kids and grandkids, and we all live in the gorge. I’ve been prepared for emergencies all my life. My son is like-minded. My daughter is too, though she doesn’t really like to talk about it much. I think she surprised many people when she got the call about the fire’s jump, and promptly roused her family to clean house, cook, and prepare for evacuees.

    So, while I was scared, upset, and a bit panicky for a day or so, I was also very proud of how we all came together, did what needed to be done, survived, and went on to improve our preps with our new experience.

    That which does not kill you makes you stronger.

    1. Thanks for your comment; I have benefited from both G.C.’s mini-article and your comment. I have a similar situation living out in the country, 20 minutes away from the closest county or volunteer fire department. We also are surrounded by privately owned raw land and a state forest about 30 miles away that would burn quickly in a drought year. My neighbors all have forest very close to their houses but I have cut all but two 100 year old oak trees within 75-100 ft of the house. I think my next move is to clear the under brush and begin cutting the trees back another 75-100 foot away from the house and barn. A scanner would be beneficial but they are hugely expensive.

  4. I live in the arid SW US. In 2002 I watched a brush fire move across a grassland at the speed of the wind, 25 mph, devouring 5000+ acres (including redundant power line structures) in about 90 minutes. My brain could not really grasp the scene for a while, but I finally understood.

    A few years later, we had a summer fire explode in nearby canyons, destroying 50+ homes, but fortunately people got out. Most with pets, purses and clothes on their backs. I now keep precious items in baskets behind the sofa and in pre-packed envelopes in the safe for fast packing.

    What surprised me during our last pre-evac order was that my US Gov employer expected us to report to work, even if we were evacuated from our homes. Had to amend my BOB to include heels, stockings and office attire!

  5. Communications are typically overwhelmed in significant disasters. Power goes out, cell towers are inundated with calls. Floods or fires take out land lines. Individuals should have battery or auto powered radios. Towns and cities should have redundant backup communications. For example, the Gatlinburg Fires last year overwhelmed the cell towers and several were destroyed by fire. The EOC in Gatlinburg lost contact with the State EOC because the cell towers and land lines were overwhelmed, and they apparently Tennessee didn’t have a priority system in place yet. Then the firestorm, moving on 90+ mph winds, hit town before backup comms could be sent in. My recommendation is that every town or county call in HF comms backups as soon as the disaster is identified heading their way.

  6. In the 1970s, we had a rafting company in Grants Pass, Oregon, weekly drifting down the Rogue through days of wilderness. The health of the forest == and our safety == were important to us.

    One forest fire was just south of town along Interstate 5. We needed to experience this for our education. With four of us in the jeep on a frontage road, we paced the flame-front at 35mph. Thirty-five miles per hour.

    Flames were consistently triple the height of the pines.

    Is this a good time to discuss CONCRETE STRUCTURES WITH STEEL ROOFS !!!

    Wooden buildings need to come with a warning label:
    Used as intended, may cause injury, disfigurement, and death.

  7. Great points!

    But you have to remember you are talking about the People’s Republic of California. As ex-Californians ourselves, we had to leave that Communist run country. Their laws do not allow Preppers to prepare for any type of disaster and California has the worst disasters on the planet [Earthquakes, Nuclear striking distance from the East, Tsunami, ISIS attacks (San Bernandino), Tidal Waves, Forest Fires, Domestic Terrorism, Police shootings, Crime, et al.].

    Starting with gun control, to CCRs of their associations, to harassing letters followed by fines by the State, to Knife laws, to Camping equipment baring, and how many times do you order something on Amazon for your Bug Out Bag and it comes with a warning [not legal in the People’s Republic of California]. It is sad that Marxists have ruined that State, but the people who still live there – still have a choice to vote with their feet and GET OUT OF DODGE…

    Thanks again, and glad my family is now out from under the Thumb Print of Marxist Ideology centered in Sacramento.

    God Bless!

    1. Time for KarlMarkifornia to to break up, starting with the State of Jefferson. It is a sad state of affairs that so many states are controlled by a very few counties. In Michigan you have 8 or 9 counties that elect their US senators and at times even the President. If one more heavily populated county had voted for Hitlery, Trump might not be president today. So KarlMarkifornia should be at least 4 states, Michigan should be at least 4 states, New York, the same, even Florida should be at least 3 states. Texas should secede and reassert their forgotten nationhood.

      Look at your state, you tell me. This could be said for almost every other state, divide or secede.

  8. We lost our home to wildfire in 2013. Things happened very fast and we only had 30 minutes but having a list for evacuation was very helpful….keeps scattered thoughts together. We were also happy that we had a safe deposit box with our important documents. This was very helpful in the aftermath.I know of none that had safes survive the fire. We received the reverse 911 call the morning after our home burned….whoops!

  9. I would have to disagree with number three because it doesn’t matter where you live if you don’t have a defensible space around your home of at least a hundred feet we have a hundred yards around ours…Look what happened that neighborhood that had 1500 hundred homes burnt…The house that is right next to yours is just as much a fire hazard as a Grove of trees…

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