by Sadge, at Firesign Farm
It started small - just a teens' party fire left to smoulder, flared up again and a blown ember ignited some nearby brush. The fire crept along until it got to a couple of small trees. As those flamed up, someone saw the smoke and called 9-1-1. While a crew mobilized to investigate, the fire spread. Monitoring the police scanner, a radio station breaks into the programming with a special news bulletin. No one is very alarmed - fire crews are responding, aren't they? But the afternoon winds are picking up, and the smoke plume keeps getting bigger. The beating of helicopters and drone of the fire planes shake the air over the house. All the television stations are broadcasting continuous updated reports now - structures are threatened. Suddenly, there's a knock on your door. A sheriff's deputy stands there. Prepare to evacuate - you've got 20 minutes. What do you do now?
Survival psychology puts forth the Theory of 10-80-10 to explain behavior in an emergency situation. People basically divide into three categories. Ten percent will handle a crisis in a calm and rational state of mind. Another 10% will lose control completely - panic, unable to pull themselves together. The vast majority, though, will be stunned and bewildered - their reasoning impaired and thinking difficult. So don't count on thinking straight when time is of the essence. Make up an emergency evacuation envelope now, with copies of important documents; a list of things to do on the front. Oftentimes, in a wildfire, you might not be permitted to return to your home, so a duplicate set kept at work or in your car might not be a bad idea.
No property is worth human lives. Get out immediately if told to do so by fire officials. It will most likely be dark, smoky, windy, and hot. There may be airborne burning embers, no power, no telephone, and poor to no water pressure. But if you have a bit of time to prepare, here are some things you can do:
Attire and Equipment
Wear only cotton or wool clothing - long pants and long sleeves - and sturdy shoes with enclosed toes (no polyester, no rubber flip-flops). Carry gloves and a cotton kerchief to cover your face, water to drink and wet down kerchief, and goggles if possible, plus the fire extinguisher from your kitchen or garage. Have a flashlight and portable radio with you, tuned to a local emergency station, and listen for instructions. Your usual route to and from your house might be blocked - familiarize yourself with different streets in your neighborhood, and keep a local map in your car.
Family Members and Pets
If possible, get everyone not essential to preparing your home out first. Call a friend or send one family member out with essentials, children, and pets. Designate a meeting place and contact person - talk with your children about this ahead of time. Relay your plans to your contact person; maybe change the message on your answering machine. Many times in an emergency situation, it can be easier to make a long distance call than to call locally; incoming calls may be jammed. You might need to call someone out of the area to relay information if you're separated (during the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, my brother and sister in the Bay Area couldn't reach each other, but both called me in Nevada as their information relay contact). Confine pets until ready to evacuate - smaller animals in cages or carriers, dogs with collars and leashes, larger animals with halters and lead ropes. Call for help to evacuate livestock - do not ever just turn them loose.
Turn your car(s) to face your direction of escape, windows rolled up, keys in the ignition. If in the garage, close the garage door but leave it unlocked. Disconnect your automatic garage door opener so that the door can be opened manually. Put essential items in the car.
Important documents: bank, IRS, trust, investment, insurance policy, medical records, birth certificates, plus your children's current school photo (in case you get separated) - you might want to put everything in that emergency envelope now, just in case. Cash, credit and ATM cards. Identification - driver's license and passport. Medications and prescription glasses. Inventory of home contents - consider videotaping if you have time, or take photos inside and out. Computer backup (drop one of those little keychain flashdrives in your emergency envelope, update regularly) and/or laptop. Know how to access your email and financial accounts if you're away from your regular computer. Cell phone, and charger. Address book or Rolodex. Family photo albums and videos, and heirlooms (make a list of what is important to you now - don't trust your reasoning or memory in an emergency. Women I've talked to about the 2007 South Lake Tahoe fire were amazed at some of the silly things they "saved"). Personal toiletries, washcloth and towel. A change of clothing (underwear!). Comfort items for your children - favorite toys, books, or games. Blankets or sleeping bags and pillows, if possible.
Inside the House
Leave a light on in each room. Close all interior doors. Remove lightweight curtains and other combustible materials from around windows. Turn off pilot lights. Close any heavy shutters, Venetian blinds, or fire-resistant draperies. Move over-stuffed furniture, such as couches and easy chairs, to the center of the room.
Outside the House
Turn on outside lights. Put combustible patio furniture and propane tanks from gas grills inside the house or garage. Turn off propane at the tank, or natural gas at the meter. Close all doors and windows, exterior vents if possible; leave exterior doors unlocked. Prop a metal ladder against the house to provide firefighters easy access to your roof. Attach hoses to outside faucets, and attach nozzles set to "spray". Fill trash cans and buckets with water and leave them where firefighters can find them. If you have a pool or pond with a portable pump, clearly mark its availability so it can be seen from the street.
My heart goes out to all the victims of recent wildfires in Australia, and those that have lost friends and family. Please, there is nothing you own worth your life! Evacuate immediately if asked by fire fighters and law enforcement officials.