With alarming regularity, wind whips flames right through a California community and residents are forced to flee their homes.
It’s a terrifying moment for the people forced to pack up and leave, even in situations where the evacuation orders are mostly made as a precaution. In the worst cases, residents never see their homes in tact again.
Despite that awful reality, wildfires are a part of life in the Golden State. Numbed to news of fires outside their immediate community, residents might not consider what it’s really like to evacuate.
Capt. Thomas Shoots, a public information officer with Cal Fire based in Southern California, shared his expertise as someone who’s been there on the ground. He provided tips and words of warning that go beyond a “go-bag” checklist.
How information spreads
Officials have more tools than ever to prompt residents to leave home. The moment they’re able, authorities blast out reverse-911 calls, posts on social media and wireless emergency alerts, which function the same way as Amber Alerts.
You can sign up for apps and email lists, like Cal Fire’s Ready for Wildfire app, and similar services provided by your local fire department or county office of emergency services.
Despite all that, Shoots said you’re more likely to first notice fire danger the “old-fashioned way — door-to-door, neighbors telling neighbors.” Firefighters need to get to the scene of the blaze and start getting water on flames, and it takes a while to coordinate escape routes and necessary evacuation areas.
Shoots said, more often than not, residents aren’t surprised when they see evacuation notices on the news or a law enforcement agency knocks on their door.
Digital alerts still come quickly and provide for rolling updates — but a call from a neighbor about rising smoke a few minutes earlier gives people a head-start. Especially if you live in a wildfire-prone canyon or backcountry area, fostering connection with your neighbors, keeping vigilant and looking out for each other makes all the difference, the fire captain said.
Hitting snags on the way out
Shoots said perhaps the No. 1 issue he encounters is people anticipating they have more to evacuate than they actually do. The fire captain understands people’s hesitance to leave home, thinking they can wait things out. But delaying evacuation until the last minute causes a lot of problems, often leaving people stranded.
For one, Shoots said people underrate the effect that visibility has on their escape routes. With thick smoke rising in the area immediately near a home, drivers can’t safely see the road, much less breathe, when they get out to walk. Even as officials try to direct traffic, back-ups start to build on the roads.
“Things are going to start to deteriorate very quickly,” the fire captain said. “A lot of people have lost their lives deciding to stay.”
Even if they’ve gathered emergency supplies and are ready to go (see more on that below), Shoots said there’s another evacuation issue that slips people’s minds: having the gas to get out of town.
“There’s nothing more catastrophic,” the fire captain said, than realizing you’re out of fuel as a fire closes in. He said that it’s a very common problem, and one that compounds upon itself, as traffic jams build with dead cars blocking the escape route.
Especially in areas where wildfires are frequent, California drivers shouldn’t come home with their vehicle running on fumes, Shoots said.
Meeting at evacuation points
When you hear about an evacuation point — say, the local middle school — what you find on the other end will vary significantly based on the scope of the wildfire, Shoots said. Sometimes, it’s simply a safe gathering place where residents have access to snacks, water and updates from officials.
In the past, larger fires led to the set-up of full-blown shelters, with cots filling a gymnasium or other public space where people can spend the night. Shoots said that changed with the coronavirus pandemic, and that it likely won’t go back to the old model.
When necessary, the Red Cross and local government agencies running an evacuation center will be equipped with debit cards, vouchers or other means of securing a hotel room nearby, he said.
The change was made to keep too many people from gathering indoors during the pandemic. But this approach works and is likely to continue, Shoots said.
“We’re working harder and harder to get people back into their homes quickly,” the fire captain added. He hopes people will not let fear of a prolonged evacuation order keep them from leaving home in the first place.
Lending a helping hand
Fighting fires in California since 2003, Shoots has seen a lot of evacuations. It never fails to hearten him when he sees residents taking care of each other.
He called back to San Diego County’s Lilac Fire in 2017, “seeing everybody work together to get people of harm’s way.”
“Not just from the human perspective,” he added, “but the animal perspective.”
The Lilac Fire, which killed over 30 horses, could have led to the deaths of hundreds more. Shoots remembered residents assembling with horse trailers, helping ferry other people’s animals to safety.
“I saw folks lined up right outside of the immediate fire area ready to help,” the fire captain said.
Shoots emphasized that people should always follow official orders and take care of their own safety first. But neighbors always play a key role, filling the gaps where official resources simply can’t.
Being prepared beforehand
There are countless tools online to help you assemble your “go-bag” and consider the most important elements of an evacuation. There’s simply no time to do it properly when the fire is already moving through your area, Shoots said.
You can also print (or favorite in your mobile browser) this list of pre-evacuation preparation steps, which are things you can do while you continue to monitor official updates on a more distant fire.
Creating defensible space and “hardening” your home from fires is a more underrated element of being prepared, Shoots said.
Some people tell him they’re not overly concerned about physical possessions, saying insurance will take care of them in a disaster. But in a worst-case scenario, when it’s too late to evacuate, Shoots says people may need to take cover in their home and simply wait it out.
If that’s ever the case, they’ll be glad they took these steps ahead of time.