Peak Prosperity: Survival Learnings from a California Fire Evacuee

Today’s survival lesson comes from Peak Prosperity‘s Adam Taggart enumerating some of his lessons learned from mandatory evacuation from California fires.

As I type this, there are over 16 large wildfires currently burning across northern and southern California. Hundreds of thousands of residents have been displaced. Millions are without power.

My hometown of Sebastopol, CA underwent mandatory evacuation at 4am Saturday night. I jumped into the car, along with our life essentials and our pets, joining the 200,000 souls displaced from Sonoma County this weekend.

Even though I write about preparedness for a living, fleeing your home in the dead of night with a raging inferno clearly visible on the horizon drives home certain lessons more effectively than any other means.

I’d like to share those learnings with you, as they’re true for any sort of emergency: natural (fire, flood, hurricane, tornado, earthquake, blizzard, etc), financial (market crash, currency crisis) or social (revolution, civil unrest, etc).

And I’d like you to be as prepared as possible should one of those happen to you, which is statistically likely.

Your survival, and that of your loved ones, may depend on it.

No Plan Survives First Contact With Reality

As mentioned, I’ve spent years advising readers on the importance of preparation. Emergency preparedness is Step Zero of the guide I’ve written on resilient living — literally the first chapter.

So, yes, I had a pre-designed bug-out plan in place when the evacuation warning was issued. My wife and I had long ago made lists of the essentials we’d take with us if forced to flee on short notice (the Santa Rosa fires of 2017 had reinforced the wisdom of this). Everything on these lists was in an easy-to-grab location.

The only problem was, we were 300 miles away.

Reality Rule #1: You Will Be Caught By Surprise

There are too many variables that accompany an unforeseen disaster to anticipate all of them. Your plan has to retain enough flexibility to adapt to the unforeseen.

In my case, we were down at Parents’ Weekend at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, where my older daughter recently started her freshman year.

As the text alerts warning of the growing fire risk started furiously arriving, we monitored them closely, reluctant to leave the festivities and our time with our daughter. But once the evacuation warning came across, we knew it was serious enough to merit the 6-hour mad dash home to rescue what we could.

The upside of that long drive was that it gave us time to alter our bug-out plan according to the unfolding situation. We decided my wife and younger daughter would go directly to safety; that reduced the lives at risk in the fire zone down to just 1 (mine). And I used the phone to line up neighbors who could grab our stuff should I not be able to make it home in time.

The learning here is: Leave plenty of room in your plan for the unexpected. If its success depends on everything unfolding exactly as you predict, it’s worthless to you.

Reality Rule #2: Things Will Happen Faster Than You’re Ready For

Once an emergency is in full swing, things start happening more quickly than you can process well.

Even if developments are unfolding in the way you’ve anticipated, they come at an uncomfortably fast rate that adrenaline, anxiety and fatigue make even more challenging to deal with.

Just as The Crash Course chapter on Compounding explains how exponential problems unfold too fast to avoid once they become visible, it’s very easy to get overwhelmed or caught off-guard by the pace required to deal with a disaster.

The Kincade fire started at 9:30pm the night before I left Sebastopol for Cal Poly. When I went to bed that night it was a mere 300 acres in size. Two days later it was 25,000 acres. (it’s currently at 66,000 acres).

It went from “nothing to worry about” to “get out NOW!” in less than 48 hours.

Watching who fared well during the evacuation and who didn’t , those who took action early out of a healthy sense of caution had much more success than those who initially brushed off the potential seriousness of the situation.

Here’s how much of a difference timely action made:

The ‘evacuation warning’ advisory became a ‘mandatory evacuation’ order at 4am on Saturday night. My car was ready to go and I was on the road out of town within 5 minutes.

Several friends of mine left home just 45 minutes after I did. By that time, the fleeing traffic made the roads essentially immobile. My friends had to turn back to ride things out in their homes, simply hoping for the best.

So I’m reminded of the old time-management axiom: If you can’t be on time, be early. In a developing crisis, set your tolerance level for uncertainty to “low”. Take defensive measures as soon as you detect the whiff of increasing risk; it’s far more preferable to walk back a premature maneuver than to realize it’s too late to act.

Reality Rule #3: You Will Make Mistakes

Related to Rule #2 above, you’re going to bungle parts of the plan. Stress, uncertainty and fatigue alone pretty much guarantee it.

You’re going to forget things or make some wrong choices.

Case in point: as I was evacuating, the plan was to take a less-traveled back route, in order to reduce the odds of getting stuck in traffic. But, racing in the dark and checking in on the phone with numerous friends and neighbors, muscle memory took over and I found myself headed to the main road of town. Too late to turn back, I sat at the turn on, waiting for someone in the line of cars to let me in.

It then hit me that perhaps no one might. Folks were panicked. Would someone be willing to slow down to let me go ahead of them?

Obviously someone did, or I wouldn’t be typing this. But that mistake put everything else I’d done correctly beforehand in jeopardy.

So, as the decisions start to come fast and furious, your key priority is to ensure that you’re focused on making sure the few really important decisions are made well, and that the balls that get dropped won’t be ones that put your safety at risk.

Forget to pack food for the cat? No big deal, you’ll find something suitable later on. Miss your time window to evacuate, as my friends did? That could cost you your life.

Reality Rule #4: When Stressed, All You Care About Is People & Pets

A good bug-out plan covers preparing to take essential clothes, food & water, medications, key documents, communications & lighting gear, personal protection, and irreplaceable mementos.

But when the stakes escalate, you quickly don’t care about any of those. It’s only living things — people, pets & livestock — that you’re focused on.

The rest, while valuable to have in an evacuation, is ultimately replaceable or non-essential.

I very well might have rolled the dice and stayed down at Cal Poly if it weren’t for the cat. But family is family, no matter how furry. I just couldn’t leave her to face an uncertain fate. And I believe strongly you’ll feel the same about any people or pets in your life — it’s a primal, tribal pull to take care of our own. If you don’t plan for it, it will override whatever other priorities you think you may have.

So prioritize accordingly. Build your primary and contingency plans with the security of people and animals first in mind. If there’s time for the rest, great. But if not, at least you secured what’s most important (by far)…

Click here to continue reading at Peak Prosperity.

WRSA: Unprepared People Can Kill You

From a Pat Hines comment over at Western Rifle Shooters Association, describing one man’s Hurricane Michael incident, this short story shows how people who are mentally or physically prepared can be a danger to everyone involved. Edited for language.

“4 of us men (out of a hallway full of people) were desperately trying to tie doors shut in the shelter in the middle of a category 5 hurricane, with a 140-160 mph wind ripping down the breezeway right in front of it in a storm of debris, doing its best to suck those doors open, which would have resulted in people being sucked out.

We need to cut cord, so I produce a Leatherman. Two people gasp, “I didn’t think you were supposed to have THOSE THINGS in a school!”

In sheer disbelief, but in the interests of not escalating the situation, I went with my second-best response of “It’s a tool, not a knife, just a set of pliers with an auxiliary blade,” rather than my first instinct of, “Who gives a ****, you ****ing idiot! What are they gonna do, expel me?”

It turns out that my daughter and I were the only ones with knives in the place. Go figure.

Meanwhile, a woman is asking, “But how can the rescue squad get to us if the doors are tied?”

“The rescue isn’t coming until the wind stops and it’s over, lady, and we’ll untie it then.” The “if any of us are still alive to do it, and if not, it won’t matter, will it?” was left unsaid.

Another woman was whining, “You need to leave those doors open; it’s hot and stuffy in here, and we need a breeze.” No, I’m not lying.

She kept complaining about it to anyone who would listen, until she was finally silenced by a rawboned redneck woman who suddenly shouted, “B****, there are little kids in here handling this **** better than you are! If you don’t shut the hell up right now, I’m going to knock the **** out of you!”

End of complaints.

Lessons learned:
1. Be prepared with basic tools (like knives).
2. Something like 90% of people are passive observers in an emergency, only a few will take action without being told directly, and tiny number are so incredibly stupid their mere presence can threaten the survival of the entire group.
3. The best way to deal with that tiny percentage is with the real threat of violence, complete with the full intention of following it up if necessary.” – Gregory Kay

Emphasis added.

ARRL: 2017 Hurricane Season After-Action Report

The ARRL released their after-action report on the 2017 hurricane season. Click here to download the pdf. (11MB file)  This is actually a bunch of separate reports glommed together, so it doesn’t read very smoothly. Much of it does not get into very good detail on what went wrong and what could be improved, but it looks like they spent more time on that at the ARRL level rather than the responder level.

From the Puerto Rico response, what amateur radio equipment did you need but not have?

Items mentioned included electrical tape/duct tape, volt-ohm meter, cable ties, SO-239 connectors, insulators, soldering iron, 50′ runs of coax and barrel connectors, mini mag-mount VHF/UHF antenna, VHF/UHF J-pole antenna, compass, headset with boom mic and footswitch, extension cords, power strips, hook-up wire, wire strippers, end-fed antenna, cheat sheets for radios.
From the Puerto Rico response, what did you add to your kit and where did you get it?
Generally, additional equipment was acquired through the Red Cross, FEMA, fire stations, local radio amateurs, or home improvement stores. Items acquired were left with the Red Cross in San Juan. Items included: Extension cords, antenna wire, car battery, hex nuts (used as weights for antennas), rope, notepads, pens, markers, electrical tape, crimpers, wire connectors, pulleys, shackle, slingshot, power strip, coax seal, HP OfficeJet printer, printer paper, headphones, batteries, terminals, PVC pipe, hose clamps, tape measure, power inverter.
The key observations offered on lessons learned included (Puerto Rico):
  • Clearer chain of command
  • ARRL representation at the staging point
  • Deployable VHF repeaters
  • Better screening of volunteers
  • Screen out those who have no experience in Amateur Radio disaster communications
  • Screen out those who have no experience in the needed forms of communications
  • Factor in personality to the screening process; some personalities are not suitable for such deployments
  • ARRL needs to provide education to Red Cross on the capabilities of Amateur Radio
  • ARRL representative on site during deployment (at JFO/EOC)
  • Form a national response cadre that is pre-screened for deployments such as this
  • Smaller and lighter Ham Aid kits
  • Encourage radio amateurs to volunteer with Red Cross Disaster Services Technology
  • Language was a barrier; being bilingual is important
  • Clearly defined list of capabilities of all deployed volunteers
  • Substantive pre-deployment briefing
  • Substantive debriefing
  • Better net structure
What do we need to change? (Irma and Maria)
  • Radios worked well. Possibly replace Icom IC-7200s with IC-7300s for consistency and ease of use.
  • Make sure every radio is digital-capable, with all needed cables and accessories.
  • Vetting process.
  • Improve training, especially with digital communications.
  • Multiple band antennas or several antennas for individual bands.