Whether you live in a rural area year-round or just travel to one on occasion, wildfires can be a major source of concern. These fast-moving natural disasters can crop up with a little warning and sweep across the landscape obliterating everything in their path. Wildfires often cause devastation that affects the surroundings far beyond the point of origin. If you only had a short time to prepare to evacuate or possibly stay to battle an inferno, do you have a battle plan in mind?
Are irreplaceable belongings stored in such a way that they can be quickly loaded into a car? Have you thought about how to defend your home proactively by preparing items such as a pool pump, fire extinguishers, or sprinkler system? Have you taken the time to create a defensible space and clear dry brush surrounding your house that could exacerbate an approaching fire? Do you know what (if anything) your insurance will cover if a fire destroys your home and belongings? Whether you've begun planning for such an event or not, we hope this topic will spark your interest in better preparation to deal with a fire.
The Setup: Every year we hear of the increasing incidence of wildfires. From the Caldor Fire to the El Dorado Fire to the Dixie Fire, these events can devastate thousands of acres within hours. Whether it begins with a lightning strike, car fire, arson, or just plain irresponsible behavior, they can often be impossible to predict. Even those who believe they're far enough from rural areas to avoid problems such as the recent fires in Boulder, Colorado, or the Glass Fire in Napa and Sonoma, California - can often be taken by surprise at a fire's ability to spread in a short amount of time. You and your family live in a rural area of Plumas County, California, known for its thick forests and sparsely populated surroundings.
The state's continuing drought has been an ongoing concern, not only because of falling trees, but also because the deadfall creates more fuel for potential fires. To make matters worse, the season in which fires are most dangerous only seems to grow longer each year. The local fire station is about 15 minutes from where you live, with others in the general area, as well as several state agencies within your county. One thing is for sure though, the amount of vegetation in the area and long, isolated escape routes means that the odds are stacked against you if a fire were to start in the worst possible part of the year - summer.
The Complication: You wake up early on what starts out as a seemingly typical Monday to go to your job at an auto shop in nearby Quincy, California, when you smell smoke in the air. A feeling of dread washes over you. You walk outside as the sun is coming up and see a plume of smoke to the north. It appears to be about 30 miles away. The winds feel moderate at the moment, but you know they may change and take the fire in your direction. As you ponder for a second on the situation and what to do, you begin to hear emergency vehicle sirens that only seem to get more frequent with each passing minute. You wake your wife and young son to let them know what's going on. You decide to start packing things into your car in case you need to evacuate.
After about 20 minutes, you begin to hear deep booms in the distance. You assume those are propane tanks exploding, which will only exacerbate the fire. You look outside at the direction of the fire, and by this time it seems to have grown exponentially. The sky is turning dark orange, and it's going to get worse before it gets better. A short time later, a police car begins cruising down your street announcing over the loudspeaker to the residents that a mandatory evacuation is now in effect. Do you send your wife and young child away and stay behind to pack more of your possessions, or to attempt to safeguard your home against the fire? Do you all leave together immediately and hope your home and belongings aren't wiped out? What should you do? We've asked retired game warden Lt. John Nores and firefighter Scott Finazzo for their recommendations.
With California suffering through two peak droughts over the last decade, the Golden State has experienced an unprecedented loss of life and property through several large-scale wildfire campaigns. As a recently retired California game warden, I reflect on moments when I did one of the most dangerous, frightening, and rewarding jobs of my three-decade career - assisting firefighting and allied law enforcement agencies during wildland fire incidents. When wildfires get out of control and hit the public safety disaster level due to hot temperatures, bone-dry conditions, abundant fuel, and high winds, it's a top priority for all first responder agencies in the area.
During several massive fire campaigns throughout my active-duty years, I found myself coordinating and assisting on residential evacuations for people, domestic pets, and livestock, coordinating and manning public safety roadblocks, and providing medical assistance from fire, smoke, and heat exposure impacts. I also assisted with perimeter security for firefighting crews in rural communities, as well as deep in the backcountry where only four-wheel-drive and tracked vehicles could operate.
A recent and personally impactful California wildfire I witnessed the aftermath of firsthand was the 2020 SCU Lightning Complex fire that burned 55,000 of the 87,000 acres within Henry Coe State Park. This pristine and remote backcountry was where I learned outdoor survival and backpacking skills firsthand as a teenager.
When I checked on several friend's private land ranches throughout Coe Park, I saw that remote and pristine Silicon Valley backcountry ravaged by the largest wildfire in that region's history. It was eye-opening. The devastation was extensive, and I found carcasses and bones from deer and other mammals overrun by the fire in areas I grew up exploring. This was humbling, and a reminder of just how fast and devastating wildfires can be.
For purposes of this scenario, I wouldn't send my wife and child away so I could stay behind and pack more possessions or attempt to safeguard our home against the fire. We would all leave together when the time came to go.
As my friend and Florida firefighter Marcos Orozco points out, wildland fire and hurricane preparedness are remarkably similar, since general preparation tips apply to most disaster scenarios. His input on this article was invaluable.
Since we live in wildland fire terrain, it's critical that we have "go bags" already packed and ready to go for each family member. These bags contain all necessary provisions needed to be self-sufficient for at least three days and up to seven days, depending on how prepared we may need to be. Our "go bags" also include enough food for any pets on the move with us for that three- to seven-day window, as well as enough water for all family members, including the furry ones.
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