The wildfires raging (once again) across California have likely stirred up a roller coaster of emotions here in Wine Country. After all, the healing and rebuilding has only just begun. Every time I sense the wind picking up or receive a Nixle alert, my entire body tenses up. As much as I’d like to brush it off, we live in fire country. And this is already looking to be a rough season, so fire season preparedness is at the top of my list.
When the fires struck Wine Country last October, my family evacuated for eight days. I’m a planner and organizer, and I consider myself pretty positive. But I was completely unprepared when evacuation became a reality. Frozen. This was not something that had ever crossed my mind. And with two toddlers in tow, I felt overwhelmed and terrified to care for us all.
We were extremely fortunate to have a home to return to, and no damage to our property or our neighbors’ property. As desperately Googling “how to evacuate” didn’t help in the moment, when we returned we activated our family disaster plan. Here’s what we did, and what I urge you to do.
10 Ways to Prepare Your Family for Fire Season
1. Create a Go Bag
Prior to October 2017, I had never heard of a Go Bag. Now, it’s the hottest item in California. Here’s a list of suggested items to pack to get you started. Young kids can assist with packing, helping them to become familiar with the concept, so it’s not as scary if/when the time comes to use it (here’s a video for toddlers). Older kids can even make their own bag to store in their room or with the family supplies. Need a family gift idea? Order extras while making your own and gift a Go Bag!
2. Talk with Your Neighbors
I recently had the pleasure of meeting Robert “Priest” Morgan, who was responsible for saving dozens of lives and homes at Journey’s End Mobile Home Park in Santa Rosa. He rescued several elderly neighbors, including a woman confined to a wheelchair who was unable to call for help. Take note of neighbors that may not be physically able to evacuate. If you or your family has mobility issues or any special needs, be sure to loop in folks nearby that can relay the message to first responders. Make sure your community is signed up for updates from Nixle and SoCoAlert.
3. Designate an Evacuation Buddy
When we decided to pack up and head out of town, we found ourselves scrambling to designate a place to go. We ended up breaking into a friend’s house in the East Bay (with their permission, as they were out of town). When we returned, we designated each other as “evacuation buddies” and swapped spare keys, in the event that something happens to either of us. We also mapped out some areas in other locations (ideally about an hour or so drive away) that we could run to if needed. If you don’t have friends or family in outlying areas, pick a couple hotels that would suffice. In an emergency, hotels book up fast as everyone is panicking. Having targeted locations will eliminate the research time and hopefully get your family taken care of quickly.
4. Back Up Photos
In many of the interviews with fire survivors who had lost everything, “My photos are gone” was a recurring, heartbreaking theme. Thankfully, technology exists to easily back up your special memories. We backed up all our important photos onto an external hard drive which is stored in our valuables bin. I also copied our digital albums to a Google Photos cloud server, although Apple iCloud is another option.
5. Save Documents
While often times the hard copy is what’s valid (like a pink slip or birth certificate), it’s better to have a digital copy than nothing at all. We made digital copies of everything, and stored to a Google Doc folder. We also made photocopies of our drivers license, passport, birth certificates, and stored them in an accessible location that someone could retrieve for us if needed (a desk drawer at work or a relative’s house is perfect).
6. Make a Digital Album of Your House
In the event that something does happen to your home, you’ll want to have photos of every inch for insurance purposes. Many fire survivors struggled to remember all the items they lost when it came time to file their claim. Take photos of each room, closet, garage, storage area, etc., and backup on your cloud server. Here’s a guide from Cal Fire, as well as some insurance tips.
7. Learn Your Garage Door Release
Originally filed under “Things I never thought of,” garage doors are a disaster hot topic. If a garage door isn’t able to open during a power outage, there’s typically a manual method which can open the door in an emergency. Become familiar with it, and teach family members. If you have a battery powered opener, be sure to keep it somewhere easily accessible, and consider throwing a copy in your Go Bag.
8. Plan Your Way Out
Roads may become blocked or inaccessible during a fire. Map out different routes to safety, as well as multiple ways out of your home. Practice all the routes with your family so you become comfortable and familiar with the paths.
9. Download the Cal Fire App
As we saw in Wine Country, the team at Cal Fire are the masters of disaster preparedness. They’ve created a great app that can send wildfire alerts to your phone and has step-by-step guides to help get you prepared. There are also educational tools with important topics including defensible space, bark beetles, and even a family communication plan.
10. Condense Your Valuables
It took what felt like an eternity to find and define my valuables as we were packing up to evacuate. My wedding veil, our kids’ coming home outfits, and old love letters became very time consuming to gather. If it doesn’t have to be on display in your home, condense your valuables in one bin. Keep it easily accessible in case it needs to be grabbed quickly. Fireproof safes are also an option, although be sure to research as many aren’t as “fireproof” as they claim.