This is a true story of a thirty-something survivalist/engineer and his family as well as some lessons learned in the second most destructive fire in California history.
I had seen other large fires in Lake County over the years, and they would arrive in apocalyptic fashion, as the up swelling of a mushroom cloud. This one started no differently on a windy afternoon as I was pulling pork chops off of the grill. At about one o’clock in the afternoon, the wall of black smoke that erupted to our south immediately flattened out due to the wind. It formed an anvil shape with its horns stabbing like a dagger at the hamlet of Middletown. We immediately got out the portable scanner that I had bought in response to two other large fires that had recently missed our home. The day suddenly became night, and the roosters crowed. The underbelly of the black curtain soon glowed a hellish orange, and the power was cut. Our cell phone and scanner became the only window through this curtain. Listening to the scanner, it became clear that the carefully designed incident command system– the backbone of the wildland firefighter organization– began to crack like the men’s voices over the radio. Despite a flurry of chaotic and often misleading radio chatter, one thing was certain; it was coming.
Outsmarting The Fire and the People Fleeing It
As the flames crept closer, we could hear homes being leveled as their propane tanks boiled and peeled open. From an engineering standpoint, 500 gallons of a liquid turns into a gas all within a few thousandths of a second. A home is blown over by the expanding gas before the propane has a chance to ignite. At one point, we could hear the deep thud of a home being turned to matchsticks every 30 seconds. At times, the base of the smoke was so bright that I didn’t mind having the power cut, as I could read a newspaper at midnight. I had soon loaded food, fuel, medical supplies, a large chainsaw, bolt cutters, and guns into the pickup in preparation to escape. In a second car, we had the two children’s car seats and cotton blankets to put over the kids. My thinking was that I would ride out front in the pickup and cut through any gates or saw through any fallen trees that might block us. As we felt we had fairly good situational awareness, we decided to stay put. The fire was still pretty far from us, and the number of traffic collisions due to “lookie loos” was appalling. The danger of a traffic accident outweighed the dangers of the fire. I am a person who likes to take action, and just waiting for things is not my nature. I also had this gnawing sense that we had made a mistake in staying and that my wife and children would meet a horrible end. My wife, who was a former wildland firefighter in Colorado, kept telling me that she could keep us safer by staying put. She had been listening faithfully to the scanner and knew all the lingo, fire behavior, and nearby landmarks much better than I did. She had formed a mental picture of the fire that I did not have the training to synthesize. To me the Valley Fire, as it would be called, was just a glowing hell on the horizon that would burn my children alive. Just as I was about to force us to leave, she got very stern with me, reiterating, “we must stay put!”, but I needed convincing. I got out a fire map given to us by the fire service from another fire that burned near us a few weeks earlier. I asked her to draw out the fire lines in pencil on the map. That map was an unbelievably useful tool. I could immediately see why she wanted us to stay put. The fire was headed toward us, but it was going to burn through the community of Hidden Valley Lake first. With the map, I could see that as Hidden Valley Lake was evacuated our only paved egress was going to be or was already totally jammed with escapees. (We learned later that it took an acquaintance of ours an hour to travel a few miles on our planned escape route.) Based on the scanner chatter, we estimated how long it would take to fully evacuate Hidden Valley Lake. We then estimated how long it would take the fire to get to us. It was pretty obvious that we could wait out the jam of evacuees, let the road clear, and then evacuate. Our decision was reinforced by radio reports of people being burned in their cars while stuck in traffic jams. In the end, things worked out better than we hoped. The traffic did abate and, just as we were making final preparations to leave, the wind shifted and spared our home. The fire had come within two miles.
A. Situational awareness is the most important asset in a disaster. Do not rely on newscasts, as they are too slow and they lack the detail required to make meaningful decisions. A portable scanner should be an early purchase in your disaster preparedness.
B. It may be better to stay than go. We were probably safer for the vast portion of our ordeal by staying put. Obviously, the information you garner will dictate your decision making.
C. Think slowly. Modern society is built on speed, and we are constantly rewarded for making rapid choices. Unless the threat is immediate, you probably have a lot more time to make decisions than you think. It is hard to take your eyes off a wall of fire coming toward you and to plan. However, deliberate thinking is far more powerful than speed in most disasters.
D. Paper maps and pencils offer more protection than guns. As a disaster unfolds, create a map of the flood, fire, epidemic, or whatever. Note the names of major streets or landmarks near you, and listen for them on your scanner. You will make better decisions with a clear and tangible picture in front of you.
E. You will be somewhat confused, overwhelmed, and the situation will feel almost unreal. Disasters are chaotic, by definition. On top of worrying about your loved ones, there is a pervasive sense of unreality. Don’t let this alarm you. It’s a perfectly normal reaction to an abnormal situation. The whole experience felt similar to the first weeks after the arrival of a new baby. Disasters thrust you into a mental fog by stress and sleep deprivation. All the disaster preparedness literature I have read over the years completely failed to warn me just how much my cognitive skills would be impacted by fear and lack of sleep.
A few days into our ordeal, after the fire lines had stabilized, we started to hear reports on the police radio frequencies of looters. Apparently, when an area is designated as under mandatory evacuation, an undesirable element starts looting the homes in that area. I began carrying a pump action shotgun everywhere I went. (I have a rather amusing picture of me pushing a child in a rope swing while carrying a slung shotgun.) One afternoon I could hear unexpected vehicles coming up our driveway. (Our house is far up a dirt road.) The dogs started going nuts. Two bikers riding in front as scouts came up our driveway, followed by a white van. These were the idiot type, tough guy bikers with their leather vests and rocker patches. (I wish I was kidding; it was so stupid.) I got lucky; their gaze was not initially on me. I had just made up my mind to empty six rounds of 00 buck into them when they looked at me and raced off. I didn’t even get the weapon fully off my shoulder. I would learn later that the sheriff chased these guys all over the county, though I’m not sure if they were ever caught. Within half an hour of this incident, I put out a sign that blocked the road saying “looters will be shot without warning”. Thankfully, I did not have any more encounters with looters. However, three men were arrested by the Lake County Sheriff not two miles from us. One had a .40 cal pistol. The following account from September 17th, 2015, from the Press Democrat gives you an idea of what their intentions were. “In the vehicle, he found a full face mask, 3 pairs of gloves, tools, duct tape, zip ties, numerous key rings with keys, acetone, lighter, headlamps, flashlights, binoculars, empty plastic bags, empty garbage bags, a backpack, and large knives”. Who knows what these men would have done to my wife and my children. However, by the looks of the equipment captured with them, they were armed and equipped for night looting, and they expected little resistance.