I had 5 minutes to evacuate from a California wildfire. Here’s what I learned


I had just changed into my pajamas when I smelled the smoke. I had heard the fireworks earlier, but fireworks aren’t exactly unusual in Vallejo in the run-up to Fourth of July, so I didn’t think anything of it. Still, I went to the window. What I saw was a wave of embers, like a wall of glowing red, raining down from the sky. I didn’t know anything else, I couldn’t see anything else, but I slammed the window shut and started shouting.

“Fire! Fire! Get out! Get out! The house is on fire!”

I ran through my mental checklist as I ran to the family: call 911, get the kids, get the pets, get out. As we assembled, I sent one kid around the house to close windows. My partner said the air conditioner’s filter could help keep out smoke, too, so I cranked it down to 65. As I stood at the door, checking everything, ready to head out to our escape vehicle, I realized I couldn’t remember where we had stashed the important documents, which had been carefully compiled in case of emergency.

There was no time. I figured whatever burned could be replaced and herded the kids, dog and cats out to the van. As we pulled out of the driveway, a fire truck with lights flashing and siren blaring pulled into our spot.

We spent several hours the night of June 21 mostly sitting in a Target parking lot as the firefighters contained and put out the 10-acre Swanzy Fire, which torched a few fences but didn’t do any major damage to homes. Our evacuation was relatively short compared with what many families face during California’s increasingly brutal wildfires. But as peak fire season bears down upon us, I wanted to look back at how I evacuated with the help of experts to understand what I did well and what I absolutely failed at.

How to plan

The first step to evacuating in an emergency, experts told me, comes long before any evacuation order: You need to have a plan.

“Create an evacuation plan, a place to go, a meeting place, numbers to call, family or friends outside the area that you can call and let them know that you are safe,” said Christine McMorrow, a spokesperson with Cal Fire. The meeting place, ideally, should be public, like a fairgrounds or parking lot where you can safely reassemble if you’ve been separated. It should also be far enough away from the evacuation zone that you don’t risk having to move again if the evacuation order expands.

We didn’t have a plan in place but drove across town to the Vallejo Target because it seemed like a good thing to do, and because we’d all forgotten our phone chargers. This was fortunate because the evacuation zone did expand as the wind pushed the brushfire across the hill behind our house.

You should also plan for how to get people with mobility issues, like older family members, and pets out of the house, McMorrow said.

Sometimes evacuation warnings are issued, giving you plenty of time to grab everything and get out, and sometimes, as in my case, the fire is right outside and you have no time to reflect, so plan for multiple contingencies.

“You have your 5-minute plan, your 15-minute plan and your 1-hour plan,” McMorrow said.

Evacuation orders mean you must leave immediately. Evacuation warnings, on the other hand, can give you as much as several hours’ notice before an evacuation order is issued. But if you’re given an evacuation warning and know from your planning that there’s only one road out of where you live, you may want to consider leaving early to avoid traffic jams, McMorrow said.

Finally, make sure everyone in your household knows the evacuation plan and have it posted somewhere in your home that is visible to everyone. ReadyForWildfire.org has more information on how to create an evacuation plan that’s right for your circumstances, as well as an app to help you build your plan and get alerts in the event of a fire.

“Once you have a plan in place, what you’re going to want with that is a go-bag,” McMorrow said.

What to pack Like planning for a possible evacuation, a go-bag should be packed ahead of an emergency. Essentials include food, water, a change of clothes, any medications or eyeglasses and money.

“If you only have 5 minutes, if you only have 15 minutes, you know steps one, two and three to take. It’s get the go-bag, grab grandma, grab the cat carrier,” McMorrow said.

If you haven’t packed those items ahead of time, think about grabbing what you most need to function before you head out the door, said Don Ryan, emergency services manager for the Solano County Sheriff’s Office.

“The real important ones would be medications if you need those to maintain your health and life, then you can go down to money would be helpful, if you can grab your wallet or ATM cards, credit cards, and then take care of your family members,” Ryan said. “Like the airplane model where [you] put the mask on yourself before helping others, make sure you’re ready to go, make sure your family members are ready to go, and then you can get pets.”

My partner and I learned this the hard way when we were sitting in the Target parking lot and realized I’d forgotten my glasses and he’d forgotten his medication and phone. I wasn’t legally allowed to drive, and if we’d been evacuated for an extended period, his stomach would have started paining him and both of us would have been at the mercy of our allergies.

“Whatever you need to function as a human being, that’s the stuff you want to grab first,” Ryan said.

If you’re given an evacuation warning and know you have more time, that’s when you can think about packing mementos and photographs, items that would be irreplaceable if lost in a fire.

Cal Fire advises people to remember the “Six P’s” when evacuating:

– People and pets

– Papers, phone numbers and important documents

– Prescriptions, vitamins and eyeglasses

– Pictures and irreplaceable memorabilia

– Personal computer hard drives and disks

– “Plastic” (credit and debit cards) and cash

Ryan also added that if the smoke is very thick, you can use a wet towel or cloth as a mask to help you breathe as you evacuate.

How to protect your home

Both Ryan and McMorrow agreed that closing windows as we left our home was the right move. And though it’s hard to protect your home when a fire is at your doorstep, both of them recommended tips to fire-proof your home ahead of time.

“The only thing you can do really quick is basically close the house down like you did, but in the long term, you should take the steps to remove any flammables away from your home,” Ryan said.

That includes stacking firewood away from the house, clearing dried brush and either keeping patio furniture far away from the house or storing it inside when not in use. Ryan also advises regularly cleaning the areas where leaves pile up during windstorms because “the wind will take the embers to the same place that they take leaves.”

If you are given an evacuation warning and have some time to prepare, McMorrow suggests taking down flammable window treatments and bringing in doormats and other items that could catch fire.

Ryan also recommended unlocking gates, especially in rural areas, so that fire crews can get to the fire and so that animal rescue organizations can rescue livestock, if needed.

Unfortunately, neither my partner nor I thought to unlock our gate when leaving and returned to find it axed down by firefighters, which is a small price to pay for being safe and having a home that’s still standing. But as a firefighter told my partner when he apologized for leaving the gate locked, “You were told to get out and you did exactly what you were supposed to do. We’ll get through.”

What not to do

“I have never heard turn the air conditioning on,” Ryan said. “An air conditioning unit out by the side of your house that’s blowing a lot of air could fan a fire.”

McMorrow also mentioned that you should turn your gas, electricity and air conditioning off when leaving, before I even mentioned my own a/c folly.

You should also never try to hose down your house or lawn, or turn on the sprinklers. Because of how dry California has become, it would take huge amounts of water to wet the earth and plants enough to do any good, Ryan said. Most of the water will just evaporate. In addition, running hoses and sprinklers can lower water pressure for fire hydrants, making it harder for firefighters to do their job.

And absolutely do not ignore an evacuation order, Ryan stressed.

“If you get an evacuation warning, that means pack your bags, get prepared, get ready to go. If you get an evacuation order, that is immediate,” Ryan said.

“It’s better to leave immediately than wait,” he added. “There’s too much fire for too few engines and we can’t get in and rescue everybody.”

Victoria Sepulveda is a copy editor and writer from California’s Central Coast.

Victoria Sepulveda | Columnist

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