AMU Emergency Management Original Public Safety

Wildfire Evacuations: Preparation Never Starts Too Soon

By David E. Hubler
Contributor, EDM Digest

Anyone who has ever been stuck in a lengthy traffic jam can sympathize with the long lines of Californians who have been ordered to evacuate as wildfires threaten their homes.

Residents of Key West, Florida, try not to even think of a hurricane-induced evacuation, because there is only one route off the island and only one direction to go. However, these Floridians have the advantage of early warnings and relatively slow-moving storms, so they have ample time to prepare for an orderly, albeit slow, evacuation.

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Planning Ahead Is Vital to Ensuring Quick, Safe Evacuations

As the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Ready website advises: “In some instances you may have a day or two to prepare, while other situations might call for an immediate evacuation. Planning ahead is vital to ensuring that you can evacuate quickly and safely, no matter what the circumstances.”

The DHS Ready site offers several important tips that could help if your area is prone to natural disasters like wildfires that may require a prompt evacuation:

  • Plan how you will leave and where you will go. Choose destinations in different directions so you will have options during an emergency. (If needed, choose a place to stay that accepts pets.)
  • Develop a family/household communication and re-unification plan so you can maintain contact and take the best actions for each of you. Plan to re-unite at a prearranged location if you become separated.
  • Assemble supplies that are ready for evacuation: a “go bag” that you can carry if you will evacuate on foot and supplies for traveling longer distances if you have a personal vehicle. Keep a full tank of gas if an evacuation seems likely as well as an emergency kit in your vehicle.

In the case of the wildfires now raging north of San Francisco and in Los Angeles and San Bernardino, local authorities issued Red Flag warnings and in some cases, ordered immediate evacuations.

AMU Emergency and Disaster Management Expert Chris Reynolds Offers Evacuation Advice

Dr. Christopher Reynolds, Dean and Vice President of Academic Outreach & Program Development at AMU, is a registered paramedic in the state of Florida. His career in emergency and disaster management spans more than three decades.

“Wildfires are fast-moving, unpredictable and very dangerous. As we have witnessed in California, the devastation created by wildfires is life-changing and sometimes, life-ending,” he said in an email.

Reynolds offers a few more preventative measures that can help protect homes from wildfires. They include:

  • Maintaining a defensible space between your home and vegetation, trees, and ground cover. This includes assuring all dead vegetation, trees, grass, leaves and pine needles are removed.
  • Ensuring gutters, pool screens, and gullies are cleared of fallen leaves, pine needles, and other articles that could clog them.
  • Being aware that topography matters! If you reside on a hilltop or slope, wildfires will move faster because of convection air currents and wind. This is an important consideration when you’re evacuating your home.
  • Listening to your local fire, police, and emergency management officials and evacuate immediately if so ordered. Wildfires not only can damage your property, but they can also impede means and routes of egress.
  • Being sure to HAVE A PLAN!!!

Power Blackouts and Language Difficulties Add to Evacuation Problems

Scheduled power blackouts designed to prevent downed transmission lines from sparking new fires have added to the misery of those in the midst of the dangerous wildfires.

Among those hardest hit by the recent evacuation orders are the many migrant families in California’s wine country. They include Gregorio Alvarez and his family. Their story underscores the importance of early emergency preparations.

“An immigrant worker at a vineyard north of Cloverdale, Alvarez understood that he and his family needed to leave,” the San Jose Mercury News reported. But “because his English was limited, he did not understand what exactly was happening, how long they would be gone, or where they would go.”

The family gathered some clothing, got in their car and “raced down the hills in search of a safe spot, away from the growing flames of the Kincade Fire.” In their haste to leave, however, they forgot to take extra cash or the insulin Alvarez and his wife needed.

“We were scared and afraid,” Alvarez said through a translator. “I didn’t know what was going to happen.”

They took shelter in a fairgrounds parking lot because Alvarez didn’t have enough gas to go much further. So he and his family joined other migrant families who had gathered in the parking lot and slept in their cars. With nearly all area stores closed, the family was unable to find food, water, medicine and other essentials.

Alvarez and his wife rationed their insulin “to make it last until they could finally return home.”

The fairgrounds was never designated as an official evacuation site because of its proximity to the fire and its lack of power. Fairgrounds CEO Kate Young told the Mercury News, “Unfortunately, without gas and money, many of them were stuck here and personally, I couldn’t just close the gates.”

An Official Evacuation Site Would Have Had Portable Toilets and Other Resources

If the fairground had been designated as an official evacuation site, it would have had necessities like portable toilets, face masks, food, and access to medication and other resources.

“It wasn’t until Wednesday — just hours before evacuation orders were lifted and power was restored — that the American Red Cross and the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services got involved and started considering the need for resources like portable bathrooms and face masks,” the Mercury News observed.

As Brian Ferguson, a spokesman for California Office of Emergency Services, pointed out, “You never want to be in a situation where you have to evacuate folks twice.”

David E. Hubler brings a variety of government, journalism and teaching experience to his position as a Quality Assurance Editor. David’s professional background includes serving as a senior editor at CIA and the Voice of America. He has also been a managing editor for several business-to-business and business-to-government publishing companies.

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