Updated: Mar 28
On a windy October night in 2017, my teenage son came into our bedroom, concerned about a social media post reporting a wildfire near his grandmother's home in Calistoga. I immediately called my mother to check in on her. Unaware of the fire, she looked out her window and was shocked to see huge flames running up the hills along the western edge of the Napa Valley. My son and I rushed to evacuate her from what would be know as the Tubbs Fire. As we drove northward through the Napa Valley, we observed a second large wildfire which had started in the hills east of Napa (Atlas Fire). My son also noticed a red glow in the hills to the west of Napa which would rapidly grow into a third inferno (Nuns Fire). That night approximately 30 people would die in their homes after being overrun by the three fires. The resulting devastation was immense: 144,000 acres burned, 7600 structures destroyed, and over $1.2 billion dollars in economic losses.
As we approached Calistoga, the winds grew stronger and caused tree limbs to fall in the roadway. Upon reaching my mom’s home, she was ready to leave immediately. She had packed several boxes full of documents, photos, and other keepsakes. After loading my car and hitching up the travel trailer, we drove away from the Tubbs fire, but towards the expanding Atlas and Nuns Fires in the hills on both sides of the valley.
We would not have known about the fire near my mother’s home unless my son was perusing social media. That’s a sobering thought; we can’t depend on the authorities to keep us safe. On that windy night, government agencies were caught off guard and did not comprehend how fast the fire was moving toward populated areas. Many of those who died only became aware as the fire approached their doorstep.
Social media can be used as a means for situational awareness, but you must be actively engaged with the apps to "pull" essential information. However, you should ensure you have passive tools available which "push" information to you. Below are three mechanisms which can notify you of an encroaching fire.
One mechanism used by authorities to notify the public is the 911 system. Pre-recorded messages with important safety information can be sent to landline telephones within the service area. No action has to be taken on your part to receive these notifications, but you must have a working landline telephone in your residence. The public is dependent on authorities reacting fast enough to get these messages out.
For those with cellular telephones, another mechanism is emergency notification via text message. Third party entities, such as NIXLE, will send users text messages on behalf of authorities. To receive these alerts, users must pre-register for these subscription services using an on-line portal. Ensure that you set your text message alerts loud enough to wake you if asleep.
A third option is a smart phone app based specifically for wildfire notification. When the 2021 Glass Fire erupted southeast of Calistoga, the “Watch Duty” app notified us within minutes of the first report. We were able to immediately leave for Calistoga to again evacuate my mother from another encroaching fire. Watch Duty is available for four northern California counties with more counties expected to be added.
The bottom line is that you should layer the notification systems in your area. Landline, cellular, designated apps, and social media groups can work together to keep you aware of important information. Finally, develop relationships with your neighbors so that you look out for each other. If all the above notification mechanisms fail, they will actively reach out to you to ensure that you are aware of an impending crisis.
Once you’re aware of a wildfire near your home, you must decide whether to evacuate. Your decision will likely be based on a combination of information from the authorities and your own perception of the situation. Be careful of relying on your own understanding. Your information may be incomplete or not up to date. Second, unless you have experience dealing with wildfires, you may underestimate the danger posed to you and your family.
Authorities will issue evacuation orders for areas they believe are in danger of the wildfire. Depending on the jurisdiction, there are various terms for these evacuation notices, but they usually come in two “flavors:” mandatory evacuation or voluntary evacuation. Although most people comply with mandatory evacuation orders, some choose to defy them. I have listened to hours of emergency radio traffic during these fires and found that many who chose to stay eventually regretted that decision. As the fire approached, they pled for the authorities to rescue them from their predicament. By that point, the roads were impassable and/or the assets are not close enough to assist them. If you choose to stay, then you must have an effective plan to self-evacuate through the inferno. Help may not come.
How Far and How Fast
When under voluntary evacuation orders, you must make your decision whether to stay or go. You should have a grasp on 1) how FAR a fire can travel and 2) how FAST it can reach you. Fires are burning farther and faster in northern California than ever before. The Dixie Fire traveled nearly 60 miles from its point of origin! Fire departments can be spread thin quickly during large and/or fast moving blazes. They “play defense” by prioritizing life-safety operations over stopping the advance of the fire. This leaves the fires to burn unchecked for miles until adequate resources can arrive. In the case of the 2017 Napa Valley fires, the fire continued to grow until fire crews arrived from out of state to mount an offense.
The second mistake is underestimating the time it will take the fire to reach you. The Tubbs, Atlas, and Nuns Fires were powered by winds gusting greater than 60 miles per hour. The Tubbs fire traveled the 10 miles between Calistoga and Santa Rosa in only three hours. The combination of a wind-driven fire during nighttime hours was deadly.
In both the 2017 Tubbs Fire and the 2021 Glass Fire, we evacuated my mother hours before the authorities issued evacuation orders. By preemptively moving her, we avoided the mass exodus from the city when the orders were issued. It’s easier to overestimate the threat and ramp down, than it is to underestimate it and struggle to react to the situation.
When you decide to evacuate, where do you go? Do you go to a family or friend’s house, a second residence, or a hotel? You should have a plan before the crisis happens. If your plan is to stay with a family member or a friend, you should reach an understanding before you show up at their door at 3:00 am.
Having a plan is good - until the plan fails. For example, you developed a plan to stay to stay with Uncle Fred in the event you were ever forced to evacuate. However, when that day comes, Uncle Fred's home is no longer an option because he also has to evacuate due to the fire. Now where are you going to go?
Along with our “best-case scenario” plan, we should build back-up plans. The military uses the PACE (Primary, Alternate, Contingency, and Emergency) method for the planning process. This results in a primary plan with three backup plans. You move through PACE plans until you find one that works.
So in our example, since you can’t execute the Primary plan which is to stay with Uncle Fred, you must shift to your Alternate plan to stay with Cousin Larry. Unfortunately, when you arrive there, Cousin Larry’s in-laws are visiting so there’s no room for your family. Now you have to switch to your Contingency plan - stay in the Motel 6 near Larry’s house. When you call the hotel, it’s already booked because of all the other evacuees were looking for a place to stay. You are now left with your Emergency plan: pitching a tent at a national park far from the affected area. Although this was your “last ditch” plan, if you have the proper mindset, it can still be a positive experience. Think of the situation as a spontaneous camping trip!
During the 2017 fires, my mom’s Primary plan was to stay at my home in Green Valley if she ever needed to evacuate. That worked for about 12 hours, until the Atlas fire approached our home in Green Valley and we came under our own voluntary evacuation orders. We then triggered my mother’s Alternate plan which involved my brother taking her into his home. Once my mother and her belongings were safely on the way with my brother, we focused on our own evacuation strategy.
For our PACE plan, our Primary evacuation location is my mother’s home and Alternate was my brother’s home. Obviously, those were both unavailable. Our Contingency plan involved staying with nearby friends, but these friends were also heavily impacted by the fires and were being evacuated as well. That left us only with our Emergency plan: living out of our RV at a church about 10 miles from home.
Since we were under only voluntary evacuation orders and weren’t excited about living in a parking lot with numerous other evacuees, we held out at home and closely monitored the situation. Many of our neighbors had already left the area so I knew there wouldn’t be a massive traffic jam when the mandatory order was issued. The winds had died down so the fire behaved more predictably and wasn’t making uncontrolled “runs” into populated areas. I set a red-line for our evacuation: when the flames come over the ridge line, we will go. My wife and I took alternating “fire watch” schedules throughout the night to monitor the progress of the blaze utilizing several smartphone apps. When the fire did come over the ridge early the next morning, I decided to hold for 30 minutes more to see if the firefighters who had just arrived from Oregon could to hold the line. They succeeded; the fire was stopped before it made its way down the hill to our neighborhood of several hundred homes. Although we didn’t have to evacuate, we prepared and had a plan.
Similar to planning for our evacuation destinations, we should also have PACE plan for routes. When planning routes, you should look at both a micro-level (how do I get out of my neighborhood) and macro-level (how do I get out of town). If a wildfire starts near you, it may block one or more routes out of your neighborhood. Most urban and suburban neighborhoods have more than two ways out. However, in rural settings, there may be only one way out, especially if you live on a hillside or a narrow valley. This is an extremely dangerous situation in a fast moving fire, so pay attention to those micro-level routes.
With regard to the macro-level, you may run into severe traffic jams as you depart the city. The roadways may be clogged by both evacuees and emergency equipment. Using alternate routes with less traffic saves you time and frayed nerves.
To develop viable micro/macro back-up routes, gain awareness of streets in your area. Use different routes to gain familiarity with your options instead of taking the same street home everyday. For rural areas, note any 4-wheel drive routes that may be available in an emergency situation.
Go through scenarios in your head to plan for a variety of contingencies that may pop up. Will you have to pick up an elderly neighbor on the way out? If the road is blocked do I have the tools to clear it? During the 2017 evacuation of my mother, we came across a large fallen tree blocking the highway. In my truck, I carry several items for hazards that may come my way. In this case, I had a tow strap which we used to pull the tree out of the roadway.
Wildfires can be dangerous to you and your family. Taking some time now to enhance your awareness and plan your evacuation may prevent hardship if that day ever comes.
Remember to take these steps:
Layer your notification systems so you won’t be caught off guard in fast-moving deadly fires.
Study fire behavior so you understand how FAST and how FAR wildfires can travel in your locale.
Develop a PACE plan for your potential evacuation destinations. Your Emergency plan should have a self-reliance option if all else fails.
Determine your micro- and macro-level routes from your home and ensure you have some tools to clear the roadway if blocked.