Editor’s Introductory Note: At nearly 10,000 words, this is one of the longest multi-part articles ever to appear in SurvivalBlog. It will be presented in five parts, concluding on Saturday. Despite its length, this is some fascinating and detailed reading. The author’s insights and “lessons learned” are quite valuable, and they go far beyond just the particular concerns of wildfire evacuation.
On the evening of December 4, 2017, the Thomas Fire  started in Ventura County, California. By the time it was over, about 440 square miles had burned across Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties, more than 1,000 structures were lost, and at least 23 people had perished (2 directly from the fire, and another 21 [plus 2 missing] from subsequent mudslides caused by denuded hills). This fire resulted from the combination of a long-term drought (very dry brush) and a very strong Santa Ana wind condition (a semi-routine wind pattern that blows from the deserts of Utah, Nevada, and Arizona and pushes warm and very dry air into SoCal). Temperatures, even on this December evening, were in the 60s – 70s, humidity was in the single digits, and winds were blowing up to 70 mph. A spark was all that was needed to set off this firestorm, and that was provided by a downed power line.
The Thomas Fire came right on the heels of the devastating Tubbs Fire  in and around Santa Rosa, California, which burned so quickly that entire neighborhoods were engulfed before people could escape. One heartbreaking news story told of a trapped couple who had to shelter all night in a swimming pool, just briefly exposing their mouths and noses to get air before going back down to escape the heat / flames. The husband survived, but the wife did not. The only thing to come out of the Tubbs Fire that could be called “good” was that such terrible stories from Santa Rosa were fresh in the minds of many of us in Ventura County – and we knew that we had to get out NOW when the evacuation was called for. I firmly believe that without the “lesson” that the Tubbs Fire taught many Californians, the death toll from the Thomas Fire would have been higher.
On the first night of the Thomas Fire, somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000 people were forced to evacuate from our homes. Over the course of the next 3-to-4 weeks, as the fire spread across Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, the number of people displaced rose to over 100,000. We were out of our home for a little more than four weeks.
These are our family’s evacuation and displacement experiences before, during, and after the Thomas Fire. My hope is that they can spark others (no pun intended) to think about what to do in an emergency where you are forced to flee from your home.
A few months before the Thomas fire, shortly before the Tubbs Fire, I looked at our family’s old evacuation plan and knew it needed to be updated. The old plan was based upon a generic form that I’d gotten from our county officials at one of the local emergency preparedness fairs. It was better than nothing and I’d modified it so that it sort of fit us, but I wanted something that was specific and tailored to our needs. I decided that I wanted a “time-critical” checklist that would be more concise and easier to use during an “event” – a “pre-plan” of what was critical, what was vital, what was important, what was ‘really-nice-to-have’, and what were ‘leftovers’. Items and tasks were prioritized into 1-minute, 5-minute, 15-minute, etc. checklists of things to do or items to grab. After much thought and planning, many revisions, and a lot of time reorganizing our stuff, I ended up with something similar to the following…
1-Minute (e.g., house is on fire, severe earthquake, etc.) = critical items and things we need to survive:
- Spouse / Kids / Other household members – I know that it may seem a bit odd to have this on the list, but notifying all family members in the house of imminent danger should be the first thing! NOTE: I don’t have kids, but I imagine that keeping little ones calm and /or focused during a time like this could be a very tall order; I’ve heard that turning evacuation drills into age-appropriate games, to give them some familiarity with the process of getting out safely, can work well.
- GO bag (Get Out bag) – this is a small bag that I (and I’m sure many others) keep at the side of the bed, and is designed just for grab-and-go. Mine has 1 change of clothes, shoes, a headlamp style flashlight, a spare car key, spare eyeglasses, a liter of water, etc. Basically, if I have to evacuate in the middle of the night and don’t have time to grab anything except family, this small bag will (hopefully) allow me to get away from immediate danger, to find my way in the dark, to clothe myself, and even get away in my vehicle without needing to spend time hunting for my other “stuff”.
- Wallet or purse – usually full of contact info, or ID, or money, or credit cards, all of which will be useful in the coming hours / days / weeks.
- Pets – grab our pets quickly and get them secured; don’t let them run away and hide under the bed… Each GO bag has a leash and a folding pet carrier attached it.
- Cell phone – useful communication device and information storage IF the infrastructure is up to support it (note: networks may be down in an earthquake, hurricane, or other large scale disaster). Even if the infrastructure is unavailable, the device could still be used for games / puzzles to keep little ones occupied. A spare battery pack and spare charging cable are also kept in my GO bag.
- Medications – I keep a small supply of needed medication in my GO bag. NOTE: A tip I heard from someone evacuating during Hurricane Katrina; he kept medication in his GO bag, and when officials in the boats came to rescue him, they told him, “No personal belongings” – he was able to claim, “My meds are in here, I need it”. The other evacuees in the boat had nothing with them, but they let him keep his GO bag because it contained his meds. Even if you don’t take any meds, consider keeping a small container of aspirin or other OTC drug in your GO bag, as a cover.
So that’s 5 or 6 items / tasks in 1 minute – that would be under ideal conditions. In reality, it’s probably more like 1.5 to 2 minutes coming out of a deep sleep and working in the dark. The wallet, cell phone, and extra meds are not truly critical but they were of immense benefit during our evacuation – and they are kept near to my bed so they take very little time for me to grab; but, I would skip them if I had to hunt for them or if I had to get out RFN. In reality, the ONLY items that are truly critical are my family members – I would not leave without them, and I would go back in to get them.
5-Minute (e.g., fire on the horizon heading your way, etc.) = vital items and non-replaceable items:
- Computer – backup drive or laptop with digitized family photos.
- Important papers – copies of insurance policies, passports, birth and marriage certificates, etc. Other documents like wills, trusts, land-deeds, patents, etc., if they apply to you. Copies of all of these items can be kept in a file or binder – ready for grab-and-go. An encrypted flash drive with many of these items on it can also be kept in your GO bag.
- Family heirlooms / keepsakes / photo albums – just be mindful of the time constraints.
- Extra clothing and toiletries kit – spare pants, over-shirts (x3), undies (x5), socks (x5), undershirts (x5), boots, and a “charger kit” made up of USB cables and adapters. All of these are packed up and kept ready-to-go in our standard travel suitcases – if we need to bail, our suitcases are ready to grab-and-go.
- 1-2 pistol + ammo (depending on personal preference and the legal issues of your locale).
Many of these items are kept in the same general location, so they are able to be grabbed quickly.
15-Minute (e.g., fire in the area and closing in) = important items and difficult to replace items:
- Pet food or pet-BOB
- Child’s favorite game / toy?
- Some water?
- Some food?
- 1-2 rifle + ammo (depending on personal preference and political climate of your locale)
- Trailer – connect the travel-trailer to our truck
- Other important items that might apply
30-Minute = highly valuable items:
- Gun safe contents + emergency ammo box (a .50-caliber ammo can which has a little bit of each different caliber I use)
- NVD and/or thermal
- Ham radios
- Spare fuel cans for vehicles
- Any other high value items that might apply (PMs, jewelry collection, camera[s], book collection, emergency cash stash, etc.) Just be mindful of weight and volume, and of the time needed to gather these items.
60-Minute = other items / tasks:
- At this point, gather whatever else will make our lives most comfortable or items that, later, we will be most happy that were saved.
>1-Hour (e.g., hurricane or rising flood waters coming soon)… Assuming we won’t be returning home any time soon. We’ve probably gathered as much as we can reasonably carry, most of these are tasks to make our (hopeful) homecoming as pleasant as possible:
- Load all food from fridge and freezer into the trailer fridge, into ice chests, or discard it (returning home to a fridge full of spoiled food is what we’re trying to avoid).
- Shut off all circuit breakers at the main electrical panel (minimize damage to sensitive electronics in the event of a power spike or voltage fluctuation – our neighbor lost a few electronic items from this after returning home from evacuating).
- Shut off natural gas at the regulator (tool is kept at regulator).
- Consider shutting off water at the main valve (specialty tool is kept in garage) – you may not want to do this in a fire situation, but a water pressure spike could result in an unmonitored leak that could cause extensive damage.
- Discard all kitchen trash and move the cans away from the house (coming back to a house full of insects and smelling of rotting garbage would not be fun).
- Post our contact information on the front door.
- Bolt or lock the garage roll-up door.
When loading, we have to consider our vehicle’s limitations. We have a full-sized truck and a travel trailer that each have ~1,000 lbs. load capacity – based upon our calculations (and upon our experience during our evacuations), we have space and carrying capacity to haul pretty much all the stuff on our checklists. If you’ve only got a Mini Cooper or a motorcycle, your options are much more limited. We also have some guidelines noted on the checklist for loading:
- Truck – key items (pets, clothing, documents, etc.) go in the cab. The bed can be loaded to 1,000 lbs. with the load centered over the axle.
- Trailer – keep heavy items on the floor and spread them out evenly; if all heavy items are put in the rear, the trailer tongue will be floating up in the air. Try to load items in a way that will prevent their shifting, or secure them as needed.
Also, if escaping from an immediate threat (e.g., wildfire closing in), the priority is to get clear of the threat before doing things like:
- Tying-down the load in the truck-bed or trailer
- Determining any extended travel routes, rally points, etc.
- Setting up the VHF radio antenna
When everything is put all together, the idea behind the checklists is as follows:
- If we’ve only got 1 minute to evacuate, grab the items and do the tasks on the 1-minute checklist and then get out as quickly as safety allows.
- If the threat is not as close and we’ve got more time to get out of the house, do the 1-minute checklist items first, then reassess the situation to make sure we’re still not in imminent danger. If it’s still safe, gather the items and perform the tasks on the 5-minute checklist… And so on with the repeating pattern of: reassess the situation, do the next checklist, reassess, next checklist, reassess, next checklist…
- No matter what, make sure we get out ahead of danger. I cannot stress enough that determining WHEN to evacuate is at least as important as WHERE to go and WHAT to take.
(To be continued in Part 2.)