How to prepare for wildfire evacuation

Residents load up their truck as they evacuate on Wednesday, October 11, 2017 in Boyes Hot Springs, California . (BETH SCHLANKER/The Press Democrat)


This story was originally published on Oct. 12, 2017:

The fires that have struck or threatened multiple neighborhoods throughout Sonoma County, destroying homes and forcing thousands to evacuate, are a stark reminder, once again, of the importance of preparing for the worst. The spate of blazes have underscored that even mobile home parks and neighborhoods in flat urban areas in Santa Rosa, are vulnerable to fire. And it still isn’t over.

Other disasters like earthquake, or storms that disrupt power, don’t discriminate among neighborhoods either. Wherever you live, it’s smart to be prepared.

Want a little more peace of mind? Here are some things you can do right now:

1. Sustenance: Even if you are not directly hit by disaster, losing power is common. Or you may have to shelter in place. Set aside at last a three-day supply of food and water that doesn’t need refrigeration or cooking. Put food in sealed, air-tight containers. If you have cans include a manual can opener. Don’t forget food for pets. Experts recommend at least two quarts of water per person. When deciding what food to set aside, make your calories count with high nutrition foods low in salt because water may be limited. Throw in multivitamins as added assurance.

2. Stash nearby: Have a working flashlight, lantern and fresh batteries easily accessible, even in the dark. Candles only make you more vulnerable to fire. Consider buying a hand-cranked radio and flashlight (under $100) that will also charge your cell phone. A minute of cranking can give you up to 20 minutes of power without electricity. Some are also solar powered. Make sure your smoke alarms are working. Assemble tools like a shovel, hoe, rake and bucket and fire extinguisher reader for use if a small fire erupts that you can manage. But if you’re told or feel you need to evacuate, leave the firefighting to the professionals.

3. Pets: Keep roaming cats and dogs inside until danger has passed. Put pet carriers by the door. During ongoing danger, keep smaller pet cages close and easy to grab. In the sad event you’re evacuated and a pet can’t be located in a house in time, leave out big bowls of food and water. It might be days before you’re allowed back in to your home.

4. Make a list: Of valuables and sentimental items, the most important things you would want to save if possible. While fires are raging –– or any threat is immediate and ongoing –– you may want to box them up ready to go near the door. If ordered to evacuate, you may have only 20 minutes to get out and no time or light to search. If you have time take photos of your valuables now.

5. Protect your house: It is state law to create a 100-foot zone around your house to reduce the chance it will catch fire and make it easier for firefighters to defend. Legally they call this “defensible space.” You won’t be able to wave a wand and immediately make your property firesafe. But for the time being, remove any flammable vegetation within 30 feet of you home. If you can, within the next 70 feet create a “reduced-fuel zone” by trimming horizontal and vertical space between plants, removing lower tree branches to at least 6 feet from the ground, taking out flammable plants under large trees and moving woodpiles to at last 30 feet from all structures. Also keep the wood pile area clear and remove vegetation near it. Remove any dead branches overhanging your roof and make a 10-foot vegetation clearance around your chimney. If you have the time, consider covering your chimney outlet and stovepipe with a nonflammable screen of ½-inch or smaller mesh to keep embers from entering your home. Clear out any dry leaves, needles or other flammable garden waste from your yard. Water down the landscape near your home to keep it moist but otherwise turn off sprinklers to preserve critical water pressure.

6. Access: Identify at least two escape routes from your neighborhood. Make sure your address numbers are at least 3 inches tall and on a contrasting background to be visible to emergency responders. If possible, make sure your street name sign is visible and not covered by trees.

7. Create a Go Bag: If you have to evacuate you probably won’t have time to pack. So pack ahead and keep your “Go Bag” stored at all times and ready to go, possibly even in your car. A jumbo duffel bag works well. Pack for the possibility of surviving on what you have for at least three days. Have at least a half-gallon of purified water a day per person, food that is nutrition dense and light like energy and granola bars, trail mix and dried fruit. Put in a mess kit for each family member. Pack a first aid kit, an extra pair of clothes for each person in your family, including shoes and jacket and diapers. Include a flashlight and fresh batteries to last at least three nights. Pack personal care items like toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, deodorant, shampoo. If possible, see if your doctor will advance fill-critical prescriptions so you can keep an emergency supply in your Go Bag. If you wear contact lenses, pack solutions and a pair of glasses. Have a hand-cranked radio and charger, one blanket or sleeping bag per person. Assemble copies of your most important documents like insurance policies, birth and marriage certificates, deeds, passports, etc., as well as copies of prescriptions and other paperwork and place in protective plastic. Add in additional cords and chargers, including car chargers, for cellphones, pads and laptops.

8. Helpful apps: Suzanne Bernier, an emergency management consultant and author of the book “Disaster Heroes,” recommends two good free smartphone apps for emergency communication. Zello lets you use your phone as a walkie-talkie or two-way radio as long as you have a network or WiFi connection. Users can join channels and instantly send voice messages or photos. It was used heavily during the recent hurricanes. Always free, always connected. The NextRadio app lets you tune in to every local FM station by using your smart phone’s built-in FM chip. Social media can be a fast way to communicate your status, get neighborhood updates, etc. FEMA has said that Twitter is the most agile platform and uses less battery power than Facebook if you’re low on juice. Public safety officials recommend getting familiar with social media platforms before an emergency. When posting, be as specific as possible when describing a situation and pinpointing its location, and pass along only verified information from official sources. Don’t spread rumors.

9. Draw up a family evacuation plan: Draw up a plan of how you will leave and where you will go if advised to evacuate. Identify several places you could go, such as a friend’s home in another town well away from the danger zone. Choose destinations in different directions so that you have options. Consider in your choice whether you can bring your pets. Brush up on alternate routes out of your area. Develop a family/household communication and re-unification plan so that you can maintain contact and re-unite if you are separated. Be aware that if you have an electric garage door opener you can manually override it if you lose power. There will be a cord, usually red, hanging from a bracket on the chain that operates the garage door. Jerk on the cord with the knot which will release a spring-loaded lever and grab the door with both hands and lift it. You may need a ladder to get to the cord. A Google search will turn up links to safety instructions on how to do this.

10. Write yourself a note: In an actual emergency, priorities become muddled. Start the note with the words, “Stay Calm.” In your own writing, this will calm you in an emergency. Make a systematic checklist of what you would need to gather and do in different kinds of emergencies, based on the above, so in the moment you will actually be able to go step by step and get everything done. Laminate the note and tape to the top of your emergency bin. It should remind you about everything you need to do, in order, from grabbing your valuables, to bringing your phone charger and keys to locking up the house before you leave.