Wildfire Evacuation: Knowing When to Bug Out
A wildfire is an uncontrolled fire that consumes forests, grasslands, and savannas. When wildfires are not endangering lives and destroying properties, they can be beneficial to the ecosystem. Wildfires are either natural occurring disasters or man-made. It can appear suddenly, do irreparable damage, and last for hours, and in some cases, even days or weeks. So, in short, wildfires are a bi-polar disaster, making them either extremely dangerous, or economically beneficial.
Like most natural disasters, wildfires can be unpredictable. Fortunately, wildfire travels at a comparatively slower pace than, let’s say, tornadoes. This leaves people in its path with more than enough time to evacuate their homes.
If you, like many in the United States, live in a wildfire-prone area, you must be prepared at all times. Fortifying your property to withstand a wildfire should be part of a consistent routine. This is because wildfires leave you with little time to prepare once they hit. Knowing your home is as prepared as possible will allow evacuation to be the only thing on your mind. Having a bug-out-bag ready will make evacuation quicker and easier.
Evacuation Alerts and Warnings
In the last few years, you have seen multiple wildfires occur nearly every summer. During these unfortunate events, evacuation from the affected areas is commonplace. When a major wildfire breaks, the good intention and best efforts of government agencies may not always be the golden rule, when deciding to evacuate or not. Based off the level of warning from your local government, evacuation is always your choice, and when it comes to fires, evacuating earlier is always better.
Read up on how to be prepared for evacuation and take the Fire Evacuation Challenge which will guide you through making a plan, coordinating routes, and getting your family informed.
~Level 1 - Alert: Get Ready / Be Prepared to Evacuate
~This alert stage is the first level of evacuation warning. It categorically signals you to get set and be ready for likely evacuation. As its label intends, you should remain alert during this level. This means there is already danger in your area. At this level, closely monitor emergency services, websites, and local media outlets for information. This allows you to know the next step to take if the situation worsens. Emergency services personnel may also reach out to you.
This is also the timeframe in which you should make sure your go bag is filled with all the essentials like your personal documents in a firesafe holder, water, food, locator whistle, fire blankets, glow sticks, etc. If you want a ready-to-go pack you can buy an already filled fire evacuation bag.
~Level 2 - Warning: Be Ready to Evacuate
~This is level 2 and it's known as the warning stage. Having already prepared, this warning simply means that you should be set to evacuate at a moment's notice. There will now be significant danger in your area. Have your bug out bags within reach and everyone in your household accounted for. Everyone should know the plan, where they are sitting in the car, and what each one is carrying out of the house. Don't forget to load up your pet and their supplies in your small pet or dog emergency bags. For those living on a farm it is advised to load up the animals you can bring like horses and chickens, if you have trailers for them, or at the very least release your livestock so they have a chance to escape the fire too.
For those elderly or disabled family members that require help there are specially made, lightweight evacuation wheelchairs you can purchase. During this timeframe these chairs should be placed near the person in need and ready for them to be loaded up quickly.
~Level 3 - Order: Evacuate Now
~This is the last level, and it means the waiting is over. Level 3 is also the last notice you will receive. This order means you need to go, evacuate now. Danger has gone past being potential and significant, it is now imminent. Your response, the only viable one, is to evacuate immediately. Take your loved ones, your pet, your supplies, and flee. Don't delay evacuation once you have heard this order.
If you live in a place like California, wildfires won't be a novel disaster to you. Consider how you can protect your property against the threat of wildfires by creating defensible zones, access for emergency responders, and communication with your neighbors. To help inhabitants of wildfire-prone areas survive potential disasters, the government crafted an evacuation message system. The same terminology is used throughout the country for uniformity.
~The authorities issue evacuation warnings once they confirm a potential threat to life and/or property. The threat is not yet imminent at this moment. This is when you should commence preparation to move in case of a likely mandatory evacuation order. You should leave now if you have children, pets, or are traveling with livestock.
~This is a state-sanctioned order to leave immediately without delay. You will receive it when there’s an urgent and imminent threat to your life and property. After evacuation, the authorities will subsequently close the affected areas to public access. You will need to wait for the all clear before returning back to your home.
~Shelter in Place
~A shelter-in-place order means you should go indoors, shut doors and windows, and stay there until the authorities issue further notice or direction. These warnings are generally instructed for areas heavily affected by smoke, rather than the fire itself. Your pre-sorted survival kit(s) should sustain you in the meantime. In this case, access to affected areas may be restricted for outsiders. If you are in your vehicle already make your way to the nearest building. If you are unable to reach a shelter stay in your car until otherwise instructed.
Knowing When to Evacuate is Key
There’s time for everything. A time for you to go indoors and lock the doors, and a time to evacuate. Knowing the exact moment when an area has become unsafe for you is crucial.
~When Evacuation is Possible
~Evacuation becomes plausible if there’s a wildfire nearby or a Red Flag Warning is issued. Accordingly, prepare for the possibility of an evacuation. You don’t have to wait for an evacuation warning or order if you feel unsafe. Just move out of the area until it’s safe to come back.
~When Evacuation is Warned
~Evacuation is warned when the wildfire poses a potential threat to life. Evacuate as soon as possible. If you haven’t already done so, quickly gather basic needs and valuables along with your loved ones and pets.
~When Evacuation is Definite
~Leave immediately once you receive this order as it means a threat to life from wildfire and smoke is imminent. You also want to leave early to avoid being stuck in traffic. Don’t wait for an evacuation order, evacuation warning should be enough to send you on your way out.
It is difficult enough to have to remove yourself from an area under the threat of fire and accompanying smoke. Most times, it’s not just you and that complicates everything.
~What to do if you Need Help Evacuating
~You may not be able to evacuate on your own, like if you are in a wheelchair or don’t have a car. In which case, ask a neighbor to give you a hand or give you a lift. You can plan this with a neighbor ahead as part of your emergency preparation. On the other hand call 911 if you are disabled or if your neighbor is unable to accommodate you.
~Evacuating Children and Schools
~The authorities might issue an evacuation order while your kids are still in school. The school will try to notify you if there’s still time to evacuate. Otherwise, they will activate their safety protocol to keep them safe on campus. Your kids should know beforehand that you may not be allowed into the evacuated area to pick them up. So, especially during wildfire season, send them to school with supplies, including extra food, water, long cotton clothing, and emergency contacts.
~Remember Your Pets Will Need Help Too
~In all your rushing, don’t forget your pets. They are also in danger, and they deserve and will need your help too. Secure your pets in their carriers and prepare their go bag, which should include water, pet food, medication, blankets, and toys.
Know Where You Are Going
Evacuation from affected areas is one thing, knowing where to go from there is another. As part of your preparedness plan you should already have a few designated spots chosen. Whether you are going to families, a pet friendly hotel, or a known fire evacuation center, know how to get there. Knowing multiple routes is even better.
~Friends or Families out of the Evacuation Zone
~The most comfortable place for someone evacuating their home to go would be another family members house. Ensure you choose a family member that is far enough away from your potential fire evac zone so you know they are a sure-fire safety spot.
~Like most major disasters the local government will have set up open-to-the-public evacuation centers. Know what these generally are, maybe the local high school, or even the local football stadium. These public safety buildings are normally the same for all natural disasters. Emergency personnel will usually be available to direct you to designated evacuation centers if you are in need.
~Temp Refugee Camps and Centers
~This may be a house, a commercial building, or even a large tent. The main goal here is to simply provide temporary shelter for affected people to wait for the fire to pass. Once the fire passes long-term solutions can be determined.
~Sheltering in Place (Building/Home)
~Take shelter in your house? Shut your doors (but leave them unlocked) and stay inside. It is recommended to leave your home unlocked during a wildfire incase an urgent evacuation is needed. No one wants to be fiddling with a lock when each second is precious. Additionally, if sheltering in place you should make sure to alert another person of your presence. Letting a neighbor, a family member, or even an officer or 911 operator know you are sheltering in-place is always a good idea. When sheltering in place you will also want to be ready to fight embers, block door openings, close the chimney flute, and for other immediate dangers.
~If your home is unavailable for any reason, go into the nearest building.
~Shelter in Place (Vehicle)
~If during an evacuation, your route is blocked and there are no safe buildings around, remain in your car. Inside your car is safer than outdoors during a fire. Smoke inhalation is a big concern here. If you can get your car out of the way of smoke that would be best. If not, take precautions to wear a mask if you feel yourself inhaling smoke. It would also be a good idea to have some fire blankets in your car in-case you are close enough to feel the heat from the fire. Additionally, technology these days is great. If your phone allows, share your location with a trusted source incase you need to ditch your car or to provide a location for someone to pick you up from when the coast is clear.
Getting to Your Evacuation Location
During the event of a wildfire, the government will issue an evacuation order and provide safe routes. It is up to you to be prepared and ready to evacuate quickly and safely. Take the the time to learn now and plan for an emergency meeting location in the event that you and your loved ones end up separated.
~Step 1: Grab Your Bug Out Bag
~The term “bug out bag” is a synonym for “emergency bag.” It’s a pre-arranged survival kit that should be ready to grab in seconds and should be tailored to the specific disaster you are trying to survive. Depending on the disaster, the survival time of your bag will very. For an evacuation bag it is best to go with a 72 hour bag. This will allow for any travel delays due to heavy traffic or blocked roads.
~Step 2: Get in Your Transportation Vessel
~Mentioned earlier, have some form of evacuation vessel in your plan. If you need help call 911, have a plan devised with your neighbor, take your own vehicle or even a boat if you live near the coast.
~Remember, cars are not as vulnerable to wildfires as many people fear. On the contrary, they provide protection from embers, radiant heat, and hot gasses. On the other hand, if you wait too long to evacuation the intense heat from the fire can cause your tires to melt, so be sure to evacuate in plenty of time. As added protection try to only drive on paved roads, no one wants to risk a flat tire on their way out of town.
~Step 3: Know Your Evac Route
~When evacuating you should only take routes you are sure of, preferably the local designated evacuation route which should have special signs posted along the route. Local emergency workers should be posted along the route to help manage traffic and keep everyone on track and away from the danger zones.
~~When There is Only One Way Out
~~In an extreme instance, there may only be one way out. Listen to the authorities and follow the designated route. Don’t try to take it upon yourself to take a different route. Taking the road less traveled may mean the difference between life or death in this instance.
~~If the Road Gets Blocked
~~The first order of business is to stay calm, panic will only complicate things. It is recommended to remain in your car until the road clears. Emergency personnel will try their best to clear the roads as quick as possible.
~~If there is no other way and the fire is getting dangerously close, this is the only time you should leave your car. Leave everything there except a mask, a fire blanket, and some water if you can carry it. Run as fast as you can and as far as you can. Try to find an emergency vehicle to help you the rest of the way.
~Step 4: Coming Home
~If an evacuation order is in place fire officials must first certify your area as safe before you can return home. Once you get home, take note of the following:
- See if there are fallen power lines and other hazards
- Re-check propane tanks, regulators, and lines before using them
- Investigate hidden embers and smoldering fires
- Check for structural damage
~When cleaning up any debris or damage follow safety precautions like wearing gloves, close toed shoes, and a mask.
Wildfires are unpredictable. Even the slightest change in wind can cause a fire to change directions. When you know there is a wildfire in your area be sure to keep up with the news. As soon as you no longer feel safe or an official evacuation order has been given get out of dodge. Waiting until the last minute can be a deadly mistake; roads can be clogged, the heat could melt your vehicles tires, the wind could change and trap you. Don’t be a hero. Be safe. Stay alive.