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Our Wildfire Evacuation, Part 1, by SoCal9mm

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 [1] 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 [2] 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:

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:

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:

30-Minute = highly valuable items:

60-Minute = other items / tasks:

>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:

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:

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:

When everything is put all together, the idea behind the checklists is as follows:

(To be continued in Part 2.)

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Comments Disabled To "Our Wildfire Evacuation, Part 1, by SoCal9mm"

#1 Comment By CORD7 On June 11, 2019 @ 12:35 pm

As always, we can learn from the experience of others. Where there are gaps in our own plans that need revision. Thank you for the insight.

#2 Comment By Philip Schmidt On June 11, 2019 @ 12:50 pm

I agree with JWR, from the get go this article has great insight. If this first installment is any indication of the following parts this will be an article to refer loved ones and friends too. I believe this article could be used to boost Survival Blog readership!

#3 Comment By Marica On June 11, 2019 @ 2:11 pm

This is the sort of organized thinking I really appreciate.

#4 Comment By witless wonder On June 11, 2019 @ 2:11 pm

If practicable, you can “pre-load” your vehicle with some of the required items like extra clothing, water, snacks, blanket, shoes, small medical kit, flashlight, portable fire extinguisher etc., however this assumes you WILL be able to use your vehicle. If the vehicle’s tires are already melting however, the go bag is the best thing. All I really need is the gun and as many of the family photo albums as I can carry, everything else is replaceable.

#5 Comment By Gilbert Moore On June 11, 2019 @ 2:27 pm

50th anniversary of True Grit release today.

#6 Comment By Survivormann99 On June 11, 2019 @ 3:49 pm

I could only watch the Thomas Fire in the distance from my neighborhood, but I, too, was threatened by fire in Ventura County last November during the last major fire. Fortunately, given the evacuation warning through the cable TV service and cell phone service, and given my opportunity to judge the rate of the fire’s advance, I was not forced to leave my home with only a few minutes’ notice.

The author mentions heirlooms, keepsakes, and photo albums. After returning to my home a few hours later and seeing things that I had left behind, I found myself asking, “Why didn’t I take that?” I suggest that it would be a good idea in normal times to go room to room and to make a priority list of things to save if time is available, and to keep that list in a place where it can be quickly found if the need arises.

#7 Comment By Mr. Joe On June 11, 2019 @ 6:19 pm

I’ll be looking forward to the rest of the story. Evacuation checklists are essential. The drama of the danger at hand will compete for your attention. Having a list will help you maximize the precious few moments you have to assemble the things you need to do at a time when there is much competing for your attention.

#8 Comment By Bret On June 11, 2019 @ 9:53 pm

Here in South Louisiana Hurricane Katrina taught many lessons on preparedness and personal protection. Sadly, after 14 yrs, many have forgotten. People forgot the roving criminal gangs looting and robbing. People forgot lack of services. People forgot the NOPD, the Natl Guard and some sheriffs deputies confiscating guns. These are all things to remember

#9 Comment By Nosmo On June 12, 2019 @ 11:39 am

Very much looking forward to the rest of the series. This is one that will get printed and condensed for my household’s “Bugout Planning reference.”

I bought a few UPSes for “strategic” lighting in key locations – even if power is out I have LED-equipped table and floor lamps that the UPS will keep running for 60-90 minutes.

I reserved one drawer of a legal-size fireproof file cabinet for key documents and photo albums, which are stored in well labeled plastic bins. Remove an album, peruse it and PUT IT BACK, right now, not later. Pro Tip: bins with handles are essential, otherwise each bin is a 2-handed load.

My secondary “grab ‘n’ go” stuff – a mix of the author’s 1- and 5-minute list – is in 2 orange Home Depot buckets because of the color, and each bucket is horizontally wrapped with a 2 1/2″ wide band of white reflective sheeting to make it easier to find in the dark (plus, the buckets will stack in a corner of the MBR closet, but Gamma lids often crack if full buckets are stored more than 3 high).

Spares – phone chargers, portable battery packs, eyeglasses, etc. – are essential. Establish a calendar-driven schedule for keeping battery packs charged. A new, unactivated “burner” phone as a backup can also be very useful.

Meds – HUGE tip from the author on meds+GO bag. Have a fallback, position however. Find a way to obtain 1 full cycle (30 day or 90 day, depending on your insurance coverage, or cash availability) of all meds on hand. The most recent cycle goes in a ziplock bag in the refrigerator with a brightly colored note on the fridge door “BUGOUT MEDS IN VEGETABLE DRAWER” (or wherever in the fridge you store them). Tip: Let them reach ambient temperature before opening the bag to prevent condensation. When you get new meds, those go in the Bugout Meds bag, those in the bag get used so the freshest is always “Bugout available.”

Turning off ALL electrical power is the smart thing to do BUT it will also kill your burglar/fire alarm system after the battery runs down. Label circuit breakers and turn off everything except the alarm system. Mine reports status changes andconditions via SMS (text) and is accessible via smartphone, which also allows access to the security cameras. Very useful to be able to see what’s going on around the house from miles away.

When killing power to fridges/freezers, empty them and leave the doors blocked open and wipe them out otherwise you’ll come back to a science experiment. Don’t leave wet clothes. towels, etc. in the house.

Inventory everything. A detailed room-by-room spreadsheet listing EVERYTHING in each room, it’s purchase date and cost (you’ll probably have to estimate most of that) accompanied by hi-res still photos will be critical if or when you have to file insurance claims. Print it and place in one of the document bins you’ll grab on the way out AND put a copy on a thumb drive, AND burn a CD or DVD of the thumb drive and mail it to a trusted relative or friend.

I can’t wait for the next 4 episodes.