January 11, 2022 – Days before New Years Day, residents of suburban Boulder, Colorado encountered a shocking site: a massive wildfire, something virtually unheard of in the past. Fire season was a real season, but with climate change, not anymore. It is an event all year round.
In the end, around 600 homes burned to the ground, fueled by excessively dry conditions and winds reaching over 100 miles per hour. Not many people were ready to grab a bag and evacuate at the end of December, but that’s exactly what thousands of people had to do.
The same was true a few weeks earlier in Kentucky, when a massive tornado ravaged a 200-mile swath of towns and communities. This happened after flooding along the east coast in the fall and fires along the west coast in the summer and early fall. As extreme weather events turn from rare to common, no one is immune. But you can prepare for the worst.
Christine McMorrow, resource management communications manager for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or CAL Fire, says the first step is to know what the risks are near you.
“No matter where you live, there are disasters and disruptions all year round that can take you away from home,” she says.
At CAL Fire, as the name suggests, the focus is on wildfires, but McMorrow says the organization has tips for dealing with many types of risks.
“For example, if you live near an area that had a recent burn, the ground still hasn’t recovered,” she explains. “If there is a heavy rain, there will be a potential for flooding and debris flow. “
McMorrow says CAL Fire recommends that everyone be prepared to evacuate, no matter what.
“It could be fire, flood, wind or snow,” she says. “If you have a plan, you’ll feel more stable and know you’ll have everything you need and your essentials if you have to leave. “
Make a plan
Preparing for a potential evacuation should be a family affair, says McMorrow, which includes all generations.
“If there are elderly people at home who can move more slowly, or if you have multiple pets or large pets, take that into account,” she says. “In these cases, pay attention to warnings and alerts and be aware that you may have to move earlier than others. “
Your plan should include a meeting place outside of the house and the danger zone. Also, know the evacuation routes in your area – some can become clogged with congestion as residents try to evacuate all at the same time. Practice and walk the routes and the meeting place with everyone in the house. This should also include a management plan for your pets.
“Practice the plan with your family, especially if you have young children,” McMorrow says. “Perform exit drills so everyone is ready when needed. “
After that, make sure you have a communication plan for contacting a friend or relative who lives elsewhere. They can be your point of contact and share information with other family members and loved ones, avoiding overloading cellular and internet services in the event of a disaster.
Prepare a bag to go
One of the most important steps you can take to prepare for an evacuation is to have a packed and ready to go bag. This should include an emergency supply kit for each member of your family – a mix of non-perishable food and water, medicines and prescriptions, glasses or contact lenses, a first aid kit, a flashlight, a change of clothes and copies of valuable documents like passports, birth certificates, etc.
If you have the luxury of having more time, add family photos and other irreplaceable items, as well as chargers for your phones, laptops and other devices.
All in all, you should plan to have enough supplies to carry you around for about 3 days, McMorrow says. “It gives you time to regroup, determine your next steps and meet your needs while you wait,” she says.
On Ready.gov, a site created by the federal government, officials have created a checklist to follow when preparing a backpack. In addition to the above, it includes:
- Battery or hand crank radio and NOAA weather radio with audible alert
- Additional batteries
- Whistle (to ask for help)
- Dust mask (to help filter contaminated air)
- Plastic sheeting and tape (to cover in place)
- Wet wipes, garbage bags and plastic clips (for personal hygiene)
- Wrench or pliers (to deactivate utilities)
- Manual can opener (for food)
- Local maps
In the era of COVID-19, the CDC also recommends even more items for your survival kit, if applicable:
- Masks (for everyone from 2 years old), soap, hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes
- Prescription drugs. Organize and protect your prescriptions, over-the-counter medications, and vitamins.
- Over-the-counter medications such as pain relievers, anti-diarrhea medications, antacids, or laxatives
- Infant formula, bottles, diapers, wipes and diaper rash cream
- Pet food and extra water for your pet
- Cash or traveller’s checks
- Important family documents such as copies of insurance policies, IDs and bank account statements recorded electronically or in a waterproof portable container
- Sleeping bag or warm blanket for each person
- Complete change of clothes necessary for your climate and sturdy footwear
- Fire extinguisher
- Matches in an airtight container
- Feminine supplies and personal hygiene items
- Plastic pencil cases, paper cups, plates, paper towels and utensils
- Paper and pencil (pens will not work in wet weather).
- Books, games, puzzles or other activities for children
Warning against order
In most natural disasters, emergency management services will issue evacuation warnings first, before moving on to the critical evacuation order. You need to know in advance how you are going to operate under one or the other.
“It’s really a personal decision,” McMorrow says. “The point of a warning is to prepare – put your pack in the car, round up your pets and implement your communication plan. “
But if you live in a rural location, like with only a two-lane road to evacuate, you might want to move when there is a warning. The same applies to your situation at home – with slower moving family members or larger pets, consider getting out as soon as possible.
To get warnings and orders, you must sign up to receive them from local, county, and state emergency services. The exact source of these alerts will vary depending on where you live. In California, for example, the local sheriff’s office will issue the alerts, but in other areas it could be a county government system.
The alerts themselves can take the form of “reverse 911” calls. Check with your local TV and radio stations, if you can.
In addition: “We recommend that you sign up to follow these offices on social media,” says McMorrow. “We post accurate information on all of our social media accounts. “
To help with your planning, CAL Fire has compiled a list of six “Ps” in case you need to evacuate: people and pets; important papers, phone numbers and documents; prescriptions, vitamins and glasses; irreplaceable photos and memories; hard disks and personal computer disks; and “plastic” in the form of credit cards and ATMs.
According to McMorrow: “It’s about being prepared in advance so that you can leave your house quickly if necessary. When you are in a state of panic, your brain is not thinking rationally.