Even though this post is outside of my normal area, I want to reflect on some basics for home preparation and how I approached my evacuation experience to help my parents. This post will break down three areas and identify: what are the highest priorities for evacuation? How do you prepare your home and other structures before you evacuate?
What are the typical stages of an evacuation?
- Pre-evacuation/voluntary evacuation: Danger is headed your way, but you may have some time to get things ready to go. You can probably get more than just people/pets out and
- Mandatory evacuation: You've either received a reverse-911 call or you have a first responder knocking on your door. There is a clear and present danger and you need to leave immediately so that you aren't killed in the wildfire. You should get people (and pets if there is time our) and go immediately. There is no time to pack possessions and you'll need to hope for the best at this point.
- You should start packing and preparing as soon as you are aware of a possible threat to your property. By the time evacuation becomes mandatory, it is already too late to pack/prepare and any delay could mean the difference between life and death. You might even consider packing if there is an elevated fire danger in your area, but no fire yet...
- Get all of the people out! This is the primary concern that you and the first responders share. Wildfires can be extraordinarily hot and there is likely no safe place to "wait it out." If you get an mandatory evacuation notice or there is a clear and present danger, don't wait... get out... Go away from the fire and smoke if possible, and only travel through areas with flame and smoke if there are no reasonable alternatives (ex. driving through open fields, across terrain, etc). There's a good chance that if the fire is moving fast enough and is hot enough, there is no possible search and rescue option that first responders can exercise to get you out.
- Pets and livestock. This follows the "Life is irreplaceable" ideology above. When given a choice of something to lose, most people would rather lose a material possession than a pet. If you have enough time, get your pets out. If you can't transport certain pets (horses, cattle, sheep, pigs, etc), attaching halters/harnesses and opening the gates may be your only option. If possible, ensure that all gates to the nearest road or open space are open to provide an escape route. Consider cutting fences and other obstructions to the nearest road if the fire is moving in the direction that will cut out possible escape routes through open gates. Volunteer organizations and first responders mobilize to move "found" pets to the edges of the wildfire areas when possible so that they can safely be taken to boarding areas that are set up for disaster relief. Additionally, first responders may work to take down fences in areas where there are a lot of livestock properties to allow livestock to escape to fire boundaries.
- Irreplaceable and difficult-to-replace material possessions. If you have material possessions that cannot be replaced, you may try to pack as many as you can before you need to leave. From highest to lowest, here's what I think someone should take:
- Required Medications and a first aid kit.
- Cell phone/charger
- Tools to help clear a defensible space around yourself in the event of a breakdown. This includes shovel, rake, hatchet/chainsaw, fire extinguisher, water, particulate masks or wet cloth (to assist with breathing in the presence of heavy smoke).
- Photo albums and photo storage devices.
- Family heirlooms in the form of books, letters, etc.
- Family Photo/Video Blu-Ray, DVD, CD-ROM, VHS, Beta
- Laptops, tablets, MP3 players (IPod, Zune, etc), and other mobile devices.
- Computers (you really only need the "tower" and any external storage [hard drives, tape drives, and media]). Also remember password lists and any USB drives or smart cards that "unlock" the encryption on your computer.
- Uncashed checks, cash, and stock/bearer bond certificates. If you are insured and these are declared items, then it might only be an inconvenience to have to replace these items.
- Records for un-invoiced work if you have a home-based business or store store records in the property that is threatened.
- Accounting records for a home based business.
- Signed contracts that are not filed with a county clerk or secretary of state, business incorporation documents, LLC formation, partnership agreements, real estate title records, motor vehicle titles, birth certificates, passports, tax records, and other important legal documents. These records may be retrieved from a secretary of state or county clerk and recorder if they were required to be filed.
- Firearms and ammunition that are not stored in fireproof safes. Discharging firearms/ammunition present a danger to first responders working to fight the wildfire and save structures. If you can't take these with you, then put them in a location that will minimize their impact, such as a filled bathtub, bucket of water, metal box, stove, freezer, or refrigerator. If the structure burns down, you don't want first responders to be hit with discharging ammunition.
- Other irreplaceable items, such as family heirlooms and antiques.
- Finally, at the very bottom of the list, pack easily replaceable items as if you are packing for a trip. This includes clothes, food, water, toiletries, etc.
- If there is time, shut off the power to your structures. This will help change the fire from a Type 3 (electrical fire) to Type 1 (regular combustible organic solid) and allow the firefighters to use water directly without risk of electrocution and without aggravating the fire due to electricity.
- Create a defensible boundary around your structures. Firefighters typically try to create a fire-line that is 1.5x the height of the tallest nearby object that will burn.
- Water the top of your structure and surrounding areas. We started a sprinkler on the roof shortly after recognizing that the approaching fire presented a credible threat. If you have buckets/trash cans that can be filled with water, these can be placed in strategic areas to help cool down areas where the fire is likely to approach from.
- Remove any flammables/accelerants from your structures. This includes gasoline cans, paints, mineral spirits, varnishes, barbecues, firewood, and propane/kerosene tanks. Place these items in a clear area away from the structures as these items are likely to explode and the heat should be directed away from your structures..
- Clear combustible material (pine cones/needles/leaves/plants) away from the structures.
- Fill buckets and other containers with water and place them in strategic areas around structures that may be burned.
- If there is time and you have the ability/equipment, cut nearby trees and drag them away from the structure. The main risks from burning trees involve a burning tree falling onto a structure and radiant heat. The heat of the fire may still cause spontaneous combustion of the structures, but you can prevent a falling burning tree from landing on the structure and causing it to burn from direct flame contact. To cut a tree, first cut a notch in the direction of the fall and then cut a line through the tree to a point slightly above the notch from the side away from the fall. Do not fall trees if you lack the proper equipment/ability or the fall threatens power lines or other structures!