Our Wildfire Evacuation, Part 5, by SoCal9mm

(Continued from Part 4. This installment concludes the article series.)

OPPORTUNITIES FOR IMPROVEMENT:
  1. Make sure you wait until the last moment to do your Christmas shopping – seriously, I never have to worry about “rescuing presents” when I procrastinate. Stupid “get-stuff-done-early”…
  2. Laundry – have enough clothes so that you don’t have to go commando next to the washer, waiting for your lone pair of choners to get clean. Trust me, not cool.
  3. Air – we worry about food, water, shelter, protection, etc., but we rarely worry about preps for air. Dust and ash are (relatively) easily removed from breathing air with particulate masks (or respirators), which are fairly inexpensive and easy to store. But most do have rubber elastic straps that WILL break if left in storage too long (like mine did). I need to pay better attention to personal protective equipment (PPE) rotation.

So that’s it right? Nothing else left to tell? Well, I still have a bit more to share…

Re-Evacuation & Different Types of Evacuation

After a thorough cleaning of EVERYTHING in the house we finally moved back in on Jan 4, 2018 – exactly 1 month after the fire. The only things that we hadn’t cleaned before moving back in were the HVAC ducts and the attic insulation – both were saturated with potentially toxic ash, and both eventually got replaced in the next few weeks.

On Jan 6, the weather service sent out a notification that a very large rain event would be coming through our area on late Jan 8 or early Jan 9; ~4-5 inches were expected within a 12-24 hour period. Great – we go from a drought that causes a huge wildfire to flooding rains that come right after everything that could possibly hold the hillsides together has been burned to ash.

We have a fairly steep hill right behind our house, and most of it (including our neighbor’s house that was on top) was completely burned. I was very concerned about this and decided we needed to take action. With the help of some amazing friends, we trudged up and down the ash-covered slope and covered as much of the hillside as we could with tarps and sandbags.

On Jan 7, the weather service increased their estimates to >6” of rain, and I felt that the small canyon we live in might not hold up – that we really shouldn’t stay in the path of a potential mudslide; I mean, you only need 1 weak spot to potentially bring the whole thing down. I told W. that we really needed to evacuate again. I remember how her eyes teared up and she whispered, “but we just got moved back in” – I felt so bad. After discussing the risks vs. benefits of staying, we decided to start packing – again.

Fortunately, we had 3 significant advantages over the last evacuation: 1) we had at least 24 hours before the expected danger was to hit, 2) we knew where everything was – in fact, we still had some of our things that we hadn’t yet unpacked, so we just had to grab it and toss it in the truck or trailer, and 3) we had made several changes to our checklist and pared it down to a more manageable and appropriate level.

After work on Jan 8, we packed the last items into our vehicles, grabbed our pets, and left our house – again. We settled back into our friends’ house and waited out the storm.

As you might know, the storm that was supposed to hit us veered about 20 miles to the west and slammed into Montecito (just east of Santa Barbara), dumping ~6” of rain on the burned and bare hills and mountains. All that rain got funneled into just a few canyons and overwhelmed the debris basins, pushing mud, rocks, and trees down into the town and coming very close to flowing all the way to the ocean in 1 or 2 places. Debris flows killed 21 people and 2 are still missing. Ironically (and unfortunately), the northern half of Montecito (closest to the mountains) had undergone mandatory evacuations, and many people were out of their houses when the debris flows hit. Most of the fatalities occurred in the southern half of the town – in places where they did not expect the flows to reach, and where evacuations had been “advised”, but were not “mandatory”.

In our area, we got ~2.5 inches of rain during the night, and when I drove up our street early the next morning it was still covered in places with mud, rocks, and tree limbs – but it was manageable. Had we gotten the full brunt of the storm, we might have easily seen parts of our small canyon coming down into the houses.

With that storm behind us, we moved back home and unpacked.

Two months later, another large storm was called for, and we evacuated again. It turned out that, again, the power of the storm was much less than expected, and we had no troubles.

~10 months later (early 2019), we got word of another large storm heading for us – with 5-6” of rain expected. I figured that our hills (which were now starting to get some small regrowth) could handle that amount and we decided to stay put. Well, the next day the weather service increased their estimate from 5-6” to 9-10” of rain. Um, no – we’re not staying for that. So we packed up and left – again.

We ended up getting 5.5” of rain (the original estimate was spot on) and everything was fine.

It got to the point in early 2018 where we would get back home and we would just leave some of our stuff packed up and ready to go again. Our friends who hosted us during these later evacuations would call us whenever the weather looked bad to ask if we were coming over.

My point in bringing these events up is that every time we’ve had to evacuate, we got better and faster at the tasks we have to perform. We’ve done this four times in the past 18 months, and improved each time; but, this type of “practice” is not something I’d wish on anyone. Each time we review what worked and what needs improvement, we’ve reorganized our stuff several times so that it’s easier and quicker to grab (in fact, I’m in the middle of a large reorg right now), and we’ve revised our checklist into something that barely resembles the original. Each and every evacuation has been a “test”, and it sucks, but we do it – and we’ll continue to do it if it looks like danger is headed our way.

You hear all these trite sayings, “better safe than sorry”, “when in doubt, get out”, and such. While there is truth in these phrases, it is very unnerving to pull that trigger and decide to bail out ahead of potential danger, especially if your neighbors are not leaving. Normalcy bias (“it’s never happened before, therefore everything will be fine”) is HARD to overcome. Every time we had to evacuate, it was hard work and stress. Having the checklist and having the items prepped took a lot of time and energy, but I believe that it really helped us – I’m certainly glad we had it rather than not.

Different Types of Evacuation

When I composed our original checklist it was geared towards a SHTF type of evacuation and had things like: ammo, long term storage food, water, water purifier, stove, my box of survival books, medical supplies, etc., etc., etc. I would say that it’s partly due to the fact that the original 15 and 30-minute lists were “clogged” with items like these that contributed to us being so slow on that 1st evacuation. We spent valuable time second-guessing the items on the list because some of them didn’t make the most sense for the situation we were going through.

I made the mistake of looking at the WORST-CASE SCENARIO and not paying enough attention to the MOST LIKELY SCENARIO. I mean, really, I live in bone-dry SoCal and I was more prepped for an EMP than I was for a wildfire! I assumed (incorrectly) that being ready for the worst-case meant that I was ready for everything – and while there was some crossover, I really needed to be better prepared to deal with a “spectrum” of emergency situations, from the mundane to the more exotic.

Since then, I’ve focused my efforts on two types of evacuation, 1) evacuation due to a localized hazard / disaster, and 2) evacuation for SHTF. How do I make the distinction between these two types of events? For me it boils down to: if we were to lose everything that gets left behind, would we be able to replace it? In other words, will we be able to come back home, maintain our jobs, and/or pick back up and start over?

  • If “yes” we expect things to return to normal after the event, then the money, credit cards, insurance paperwork, etc. will be very important in putting our lives back together.
  • If “no” we expect things to fall apart from this event, then those “other items” (water purifier, stove, etc.) will be what we need to have with us.

So. Our evacuation preparation started with a “generic emergency-fair” list, then moved on to a time-based evacuation checklist, and (now after 4 evacuations and corresponding modifications) we have our current version of the checklist, which incorporates some of the following features:

  • Broken down by time – still have the 1-minute list, 5-minute list, etc. all the way up to 6-12 hour list (most “items” have been grabbed well before this time, the 6-12 hour list focuses on tasks to either secure our property or make sure our eventual return will be less stressful).
  • Multiple copies – several printed copies are kept around the house (in GO bag, in garage, next to safe, etc.) and are kept on a clipboard with a pencil.
  • Color-coded – items that we grab for ANY type of evacuation are in bold red font so they stand out, the additional items for SHTF evacuation are in normal font.
  • Organized items – nearly all items on our lists are kept in just a few locations, most often in labeled bins, and each of those places is noted on the checklist. Items on the same, say, 5-minute list that are in the same area are clustered together on the checklist, so they can all be grabbed at the same time and brought out to the staging area (garage or driveway).
  • Assigned tasks – Our initials are next to each item on the checklist so we know who’s responsible for grabbing what.
  • Loading restrictions – I’ve discussed this before, but having at least an idea where things are going in your vehicle(s) will speed the process. We also have plans for contingencies, considering the weight and space limitations: if we only have 1 vehicle, if we have the travel trailer or not, and even if we’re having to bail out on our bicycles – we’ve identified what we’ll take on our bike trailers vs. paniers. Generally, the more important the item is, the closer it is kept to my person.

When looking back to where we started before the fire, I know that we made a lot of mistakes, but we’ve tried to learn from them and improve each subsequent effort. My hope is that there may be lessons here that others could use, so they don’t have to make the same mistakes we did.

A FINAL THOUGHT:

As we were driving away from our house on that first night of the fire and the flames were moving SO fast, I was convinced that our house was going to be lost. Looking at the speed of advance, I was absolutely certain that it would be gone.

And it depressed me. And it made me mad.

And then I took a breath and realized that even if everything burned, I still had so much. And what I had with me was the most important.

I refer to the house as our home, but I only think of it that way in the context of “me and W”. Without her, it’s really nothing but a building with some cool stuff inside.

As long as your family is safe and sound, then “Home” is always where your family is.




33 Comments

  1. Excellent. Thank you for taking the time to write this in the middle of all you were going through. Your last comment was the most valuable “home is always where your family is”.

  2. Excellent article with priceless insight. You are right SoCal, “home is where family and the heart is”. The rest is peripheral stuff on the fringes. Your article confirmed what I knew, some sort of utility trailer is a critical essential, i’m buying one.

  3. SoCal,

    Thank you for taking the time to share your experiences and new expertise on evacuating from your home. I am thankful that you and W are safe!

    I have had to be prepared to evacuate, but never had to pull out. Your timed lists have opened up a new line of thought for me as I would have to do the prep/loading for multiple people and pets. Having a carryon ready to go with clothing/meds is a great idea for a shorter term evacuation.

    I highly recommend multiple types of backup for photos and important papers. Sentimental items might be a downfall. When you have more “stuff” than the house can store, it is time to re-evaluate. Purging can be liberating!

    Thank you again.

  4. Great read. Learning is the never ending aspect of life that allows us to change, adapt and most importantly better serve the needs of our selves and others.
    As much as I desire to learn from others mistakes ~ my own are the most indelible.

    1. At least the results have been good! Nothing lost but time and effort, and a bit of $$. Would we want the alternative–losing more?
      Yes, a move might be a good idea, but anywhere you go, the training gained in these evacs will be valuable.
      The family unit is certainly the most valuable of all earthly treasures.

  5. Very good article, concise and informative. As you stated, true wealth is family and friends; No financial institution will ever be able to amass that amount of riches. One thought, would it have been possible to reseed that hillside with cheap grass seed to help hold it for the future? I realize the first storm was very close after the fire and would not have allowed enough time for growth.

  6. Great article! This is life in our “fallen world”, where one better hang on to Jesus real tight as we are in for a very bumpy ride! Accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior and let Him guide you, as without Jesus, one is surely a lost!!!

  7. This article was wonderfully written and provides good food for thought. I agree with the comment have you given thought to a strategic relocation of the permanent sort? SoCal to me is not the optimum location for a survivalist.

  8. The author has provided us with one of the finest articles that I can recall on any survival-related blog for a very, very long time.

    In general, any article based on actual experience, rather than good-intentioned conjecture, is one that deserves closer attention. I’m sure that many readers will benefit from the many useful points the author has covered.

    Here’s a tip of the hat to SoCal9mm.

  9. Very good article. One thing that I have always done when I / we went on vacation is What you said about hard locking your garage over head door, I I use the Irwin brand welding and carpentry vise grips ( the kind that is shaped like a double c or double u face to face) and I put one on either side of a roller, two to a side and then disconnect the overhead emergency release. the vise grips pushed tight against the rollers and tighten the handles really tight. Does it work, good question, it seems to .

    1. I agree. This is a good approach. But I must warn folks: be sure to unplug your garage door opener, so that it doesn’t try to tear itself to pieces if you hit the open button before removing the manual block or clamp.

      1. I have to chuckle, James. My hubby has clamped our garage door when we went on vacation, and we have had to repair it a couple times because we forgot and tried to open it before removing the clamp. Just goes to show how good it works!

    2. I do lock the garage door and the vise grip is just another level of security, not forgetting to mention that I also unplug the opener from the power. but yes that is a good question, I know of people who don’t even do that.

  10. I don’t normally comment, but this five-part series is one the best written and informative articles I can recall reading at Survival Blog. Thank you for sharing your experiences, sir. We are all obliged to you.

    Oh, and may your future evacuations be few and far between. I think you’ve overpaid your dues in that regard.

  11. https://www.amazon.com/3M-Facepiece-Respirator-6291-Particulate/dp/B000FTEDMM/ref=sr_1_3?keywords=3m+mask&qid=1560626286&s=sporting-goods&sr=1-3

    perhaps a few of these are in order, they have changeable filters you can stack up on.

    also i concur with some other readers perhaps a strategic relocation is in order, god forbid you are away on business or a trip and cannot bug out your gear and family quickly next time. the mudslide factor alone,unless you are able to repopulate the tree line with drought resistant trees that also will shore up the unstable ground with massive root systems

  12. Hi all, thanks for the comments. In regards to moving – oh yeah! I definitely can’t wait to get out of Cali. We already have an out-of-state BOL, & I’m itching to move there or to the small town nearby. Our target date is still a couple of years out, but if this state keeps finding new depths to sink to, it may be sooner.

    1. Mad props, brother! Lessons learned are invaluable and you’ve clearly put a lot of thought and effort into capturing them in a clear and concise way. Thank you!

  13. Agreed this is a great article. I am hopeful for a follow-up and write about or list the final list of most important items for short notice escape. Thanks to Survial blog, for the great idea and good articles

    1. H North & Socal..Yes, yes, yes…Super article and couldn’t agree more. Those lists could be invaluable. Please consider posting them. Thanks and good luck.

  14. Excellent read and I enjoyed your writing style with the mix of humor used.

    I agree with others here to do what you can to escape from California.
    I have read some serious diseases are in LA area that range from typhus
    to other 3rd world pathogens.

    Again thanks for your time

  15. The best (N-100) masks are expensive, and I can’t afford to throw them away when the flimsy rubber band fails. Locate a supplier (mine was on eBay) from whom to purchase a large roll of new elastic material. You’ll also need a heavy duty office stapler to secure the replacement band unless you have needles, thread, and a fair amount of time. Store the replacement elastic cord and stapler with the masks.

  16. What about shelters against fire, for property, persons, and vehicles?

    Hesco, earthbag, concrete, aircrete, ICF?

    How does one of those ICF tornado safe rooms do against a fire?

    New plastic water tank, buried for valuables and supplies, that way, you wouldn’t need to transport them.

    Hesco or dome garage for a vehicle, heavy concrete or stucco on the door…

    Would you need an air supply for a period of time?

    Seems to me that there is a risk of being caught in the traffic jam.

    Did any buildings survive the firestorm?

    I see a lot of new construction with nothing flammable on the outside, metal, metal shingle, or Terracotta roofs, heavy plaster or stucco walls, metal doors, steel shutters, etc… Would those buildings survive a firestorm?

  17. Thank you so much for sharing all of the troubles you went through and the insights you developed! I can’t imagine everything that you and your family encountered… Your detailed assessment will certainly help me and mine!

  18. Thanks for the great article. As a fellow SoCA resident living in an extremely wildfire prone area, I really appreciate all the information and comments. This really prompts me to get much more focused on evacuation preparedness. Mostly to this point it has been about getting my large animals out first. This prompts me to look more at my personal needs on a longer term absence basis. As always the devil is in the details. Your timeline assessment for grab and go was really on the money and highly appreciated.

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