Our community was hit by a major wildfire a few years ago. The fire was purportedly started by utility power lines arcing during high winds in the late afternoon, at the same time as another fire started nearby. Firefighters had initially responded to the other fire, which delayed their response to this one. Firefighting was further hampered because our community’s water comes from a huge tank above it; this tank was drained dry during the first hours of the fire, so once that tank was empty, there was no more water available to the firefighters. Once the water was gone and the fire started to race through our community, the firefighters were ordered to pull out (about 8:30 AM). Before they left, they came door to door, indicating a mandatory evacuation order was in place and that we were on our own for firefighting.
We watched the water and retardant dropping aircraft head away from our community. For the first time ever (there have been fires in this area before) dozens of homes in our community were lost in this fire. The fire burned through the power poles and electricity was out. Compounding the situation, the burned power poles fell across the roads, impeding peoples’ evacuations through the area, particularly for those who did not have 4WD. The fire raged for 5 days and ultimately burned through more than 96,000 acres, all the way to the ocean and destroying more than 1,600 structures.
My husband and I evaluated the situation when the fire first broke out and decided we would stay and defend our home if we could. We had spent time in advance of this fire preparing and discussing what we would do and what gear / supplies we needed, so we had our plans and gear when the fire came. I have included a list of our gear below and we used EVERY SINGLE PIECE OF THIS GEAR. Our home is on a cul de sac on a plateau, surrounded to the north, south and west by canyon wildland state park that had not burned in more than 35 years. We had previously over the years cleared all pine trees and other brush off our property and reduced fire hazard absolutely as much as we could.
Here are some of the lessons we learned / our observations about staying to fight a wildland fire:
The most important thing for us was to critically assess ourselves – did we have the ability to stay and fight the fire? We are older but still physically capable and we are both rational and calm under stress and can make decisions quickly, so we felt we would take the next step to stay and attempt to defend (more on assessing the team later).
We had the gear we felt we needed and knew how to use it. My husband had been trained by the Navy in firefighting and that is what occasioned him to buy a pool pumper at the time of the purchase of the house. I had experience in defending against prior wildfires, but not on the scale of the inferno we were about to face.
The next thing we did was to be sure we had our exit plan and parameters in place BEFORE THE FIRE CAME ON US. We both firmly believe that our lives are more important than “stuff.” We prepared the cars (one large 4WD SUV and our van camper – more on this later as well) and made sure they were loaded with the important items we needed (food, water, clothes, insurance info, photo albums, computers, crossed mixed between both vehicles in case we had to abandon one of them).
There are numerous articles on this blog about what should go into a BOB and we suggest really reviewing those. We made sure that the sat navs were preprogrammed with our family’s addresses where we planned to go and that our paper maps were ON THE DASHBOARD ready for reference. With all the road closures that were happening, we wanted to navigate around them to our desired destination. We also made sure that we flashlights and breathing masks (N95s) were in the vehicles; as we saw during and post-fire, even with the cabin air filters in the vehicles, it is still very smoky and the masks helped a lot. We agreed that if the fire came up the canyon side on the east more quickly than we felt we could respond, we would immediately evacuate and we communicated this to our family members in advance. We further agreed that if we stayed and the fire took the neighbors and / or our home, we would get into the pool to protect ourselves. The weather and pool water were warm enough to make it a viable plan for us. We understand that some individuals did the same in Paradise, — in northern California — during the Camp Fire and died from hypothermia, but that did not appear to be a risk for us.
Track The Fire News
Information about what the fire was doing / which way it was moving was very hard to obtain during the event and getting info in an emergency is obviously critical. Visibility was dramatically reduced, of course, by the smoke, being blown by winds gusting between 50 and 80 mph. We found the news reports to be slow and incomplete and info on social media is diffuse and sometimes not useful. With the power out, there was no television capability (we had enough to do without running the generator till later). Cell phones did work during the fire and I texted my family regularly so they did not worry. I suggest you pre-program your phone and computer for quick links for news, weather and emergency broadcasts.
I have the following on my phone and my laptop and we used these constantly: broadcastify.com which provides access to local emergency and fire department broadcasts around the US (be sure to buy the subscription and choose your channels to follow IN ADVANCE so you don’t have to fiddle with this during the emergency), twitter feeds for local fire departments, accueather.com for weather forecasts, calfire.com, inciweb.com for fire events, zoom earth and flightradar24.com to see where the firefighting aircraft are and app.watchduty.org for the latest reports on the fire.
We believe in helping the neighbors and assessing the people is important here. Very few of them had the skill, temperament or equipment to fight a fire and most of them evacuated as soon as they heard about the fire. Interestingly, one couple on our street wanted to stay “for a while” to see what happened but they had no preps to fight the fire and they are right on the edge of the canyon. I gave them one of our radios and told them as soon as we had info we would let them know when we thought they should leave. When we saw the firefighting aircraft leave, we suggested they depart and they did. Earlier in the year, before the fire, we had encouraged our neighbor across the street, whose property backs up to the large wildland hill / ridge to get a gasoline powered pump for his pool in case he wanted to stay and defend his home from wildfire. We had also gave them suggestions on other gear to get.
When this fire started, we walked over to his home and talked with the family. He is a smart guy and, although he is older like we are, is physically capable. They are a warm, loving Christian family and the son is talented, smart and works well with his father. The wife is a wonderful person but has asthma and is not geared for a high stress environment like firefighting. She wavered about leaving and we all encouraged her to leave for her own safety, which she did. The husband and his son, a millennial, decided to stay. By now, the only people in this whole upper part of our community were the four of us, we called ourselves the “three geezers and a millennial firefighting team,” and we candidly discussed the situation and felt we could work together effectively.
We also have gotten to know our local firefighters. During the fire in our community BEFORE this one, I turned one of my offices over to the fire department to use as a command center. I had internet set up for them and put up 3 laptops and printers for them to use. They were very appreciative, particularly one firefighter who was buying a home during the time of the fire and needed to communicate with his new mortgage lender and escrow company. They were printing fire maps and info as they needed to do their job. I also ordered in food for them. The next thing I know, there was a fire truck in front of my home and we suffered no damage to our property during that fire. During this recent fire, we made our bathrooms and kitchens available to the firefighters when they came back during the mop-up phase.
Here are some things we learned regarding fire gear:
1. Type of Gear: Wildland fire gear can be different from structure firefighting gear. We opted for wildland gear to protect us. That meant we had wildland firefighting helmets with nomex neck protection, goggles and the visor, nomex jackets and pant (easier for us to get in and out of than a one piece jumpsuit), wildland gloves, steel toed fire resistant boots, etc. All this stuff is HEAVY to wear and we needed to keep that in mind as we moved around! The eye protection is an ABSOLUTE MUST to deal with the ash and fire brands in the air and we need both the googles and the clear visor when the fire was upon us. We used cotton underwear and Merino wool socks and LED headlights on our helmets.
2. Extra Gear: We had extra gear under the old “one is none” scenario, in case ours failed or someone else needed it. I bought some used nomex gear on eBay sized large and we had a spare gasoline powered pool pump, both of which wound up being used by the folks across the street.
3. Personal Care Products: The ash in the air and heat were very harsh on our skin; I could not believe how fast my hands dried out, even with gloves. I had put small containers of Blistex lip balm, Murine eye wash and Gold Bond intensive hand lotion in our pockets and we needed and used them!
4. Radio communication was vital. We had walkie-talkie radios for us and for the neighbors. We put them in our jacket front pockets and used them but the fire noise sometimes made it impossible to hear.
5. Extra Water: We have a 55 gallon drum of water on the side of the house with quick release lid filled with water. We loosened the lid and put the stainless steel bucket on top of it. This was used during the fire to put out spot fires in the garden area.
6. Fire Pumper: We have a gasoline fire pumper with a Honda Engine (Versax Waterax model) which we test and tune up every year. Some of our neighbors had purchased pumps which operated as part of their regular pool pump and told us when we went to their house to “take care of it for them” that we should use that, but once the power went out, these pumps were, of course, useless. The Waterax pump we have is self priming, has three outputs (2 x 1” MH and 1 x 1.5” NH) and it is super reliable. It is pull-start but we have subsequently added electric start; we put the battery on a battery tender when not in use. We test our gasoline fire pumpers every year and made sure we had plenty of gasoline in gas cans that were easy to use (see Ken’s recent article on gas cans) and put some of them near the pump and some closer to the house. We set up, had ready to go and used the Terapump battery operated fuel transfer pump on the gas cans and they worked GREAT and fast. We wound up also using more of these pumps to pump water from 5 gallon water cans to our toilets to enable us to flush for the 5 days while the community was out of water.
7. Fire Hoses: We have double layer white fire hoses that have National Hose “NH/ NSH” thread (did not spend the extra money for the more durable wildland versions, which are usually yellow, because we were only going to be dragging them around our yard). We wanted to have hose that could connect to the fire department equipment if needed if we had to evacuate and the firefighters were defending our home. There are several websites that sell used, cleaned fire hose that is more economical than new hose. We have 2” and 1-½” hose but also learned that most of the wildland firefighters in our area were using 1” hose, which is higher pressure and better and fighting wildland fires for a smallish area like our yard. We have added 1” hose to our supply.
My husband laid out all the hoses around both sides of the house and up onto the roof before the fire came onto us. We felt it was better to do it in advance rather than try to do it while wearing all the fire gear and climbing up a ladder! One positive from doing this is that when the firefighters around to give us the final evacuation notice, they gave us a couple suggestions on how best to position the hoses. We strongly recommend against the plastic fire hose unless you have no other option; in our experience (we had it set up as spare hose) it burned up quickly. When the fire is over, we laid the hoses out on the patio, and at the recommendation of the firefighters, used a scrub brush and Dawn Platinum dishwashing liquid to clean them up – they look almost new!
8. Fire Hose Nozzles: We used aluminum pistol grip, variable flow, handled ball valve nozzles. The variable flow allows us to ramp up the water flow when the fire was intense and turn it down to conserve water when the need is less. Conserving water was important for us – we used about 11,000 gallons fighting the fire in our yard and our three neighbors’ yards.
9. Ladders: husband also pre-positioned the ladders to both the front and back of the house in advance. We suggest you get out every ladder you have and have it ready for use.
(To be concluded tomorrow, in Part 2.)