Here’s how to create an evacuation plan in case of a wildfire

Elizabeth Kocan
Reviewed
Here’s how to create an evacuation plan in case of a wildfire

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As often as we hear about wildfires in places like California, many of us don’t realize that much of the country is potentially at risk for experiencing these devastating disasters. As the high season for wildfires—roughly May through October—approaches, if you live in one of the danger zones, it’s essential to create an evacuation plan to make sure you and your loved ones minimize your risk in a fire situation.


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Here’s how to know when you should evacuate

Before creating your actual plan, you need to know if you should evacuate.

If there is a known threat of fire near your home, any evacuation orders for your area will be announced by local agencies, including your local Office of Emergency Services and/or sheriff's department, and broadcast via social media, as well as local news stations.

You can also sign up for emergency alerts on sites such as CodeRed, which will send mobile alerts to you in the case of an evacuation.

If an alert is issued, it is crucial to follow it and get yourself out of the immediate area as quickly as possible.

When it comes to creating an evacuation plan, the common protocol to follow is “People, pets, structure,” which prioritizes the safety of people first, then animals, and then securing any personal property including the home itself.

Create a go-bag

Your go-bag should be filled with an array of essentials, from first aid to fresh drinking water.

The contents of a go-bag are different from valuables or any other important items you might want to evacuate with. A go-bag is more of a survival kit. Every person in your home should have their own go-bag, which should be readily accessible and light enough to carry if you have to travel on foot.

The nonprofit organization Fire Safe Marin, which serves Marin County, California, has created a fairly exhaustive checklist of items that should be in anyone’s emergency go-bag.

The essential items to include in your go-bag look something like this: a comfortable and sturdy pair of shoes and a change of clothes; identification and important documents like a license, birth certificate, and passport; spare house and car keys; a source of money, whether it’s cash or credit cards; a flashlight; full-coverage goggles; a respirator-style mask (such as an N-95); a map of the local area (ideally marked with any possible evacuation routes out of the area); a multi-day supply of any prescription medications; a bottle of water; a cell phone charger; extra eyeglasses or contact lenses; and a first aid kit.

In addition, an ideal go-bag would also contain things like a headlamp, a small battery-operated radio, spare batteries, personal supplies such as toilet paper and feminine hygiene products, and, if applicable to your needs, diapers, formula, and pet supplies, including leashes, food and water.

If you have under one hour to evacuate, it is imperative to evacuate immediately, prioritizing yourself and anyone you’re with, but having a go-bag prepared in advance will take the guesswork out of the most important items to grab before you go.

If you do have a little more time before you need to evacuate, there are a few more things you can do to safeguard your home.

What to do to your home before evacuation

We can’t stress enough that the most important thing to do in an evacuation situation is get yourself (and any loved ones) out of the area as quickly as possible, but some evacuation orders are not immediate, and if you have time to work quickly, there are several things you can do to secure your surroundings.

Load your vehicle and park it facing outward. Now that you’ve grabbed your go-bag, now is the time to pack it up, along with any small valuables and important documents you own. If you have an automatic garage door opener, disconnect it in case emergency personnel need access to your home when you’re not there.

Before leaving your home, close all doors, fireplace screens, vents, and windows so traveling embers cannot enter your home, and close any interior blinds on your windows too.

Turn off any propane tanks and shut off your gas if your home has it.

Make it easy for the professionals helping you

Leaving a light on to guide emergency personnel through dense smoke or fog is an act they're sure to appreciate.

In the event that emergency personnel need to access your home, there are several things you can do to make their job easier.

Turn on the lights in each room of your home to make your house visible in smoky conditions, and leave any tools you own that could be of use to first responders, such as ladders, a chainsaw, rake, or shovel, accessible.

Connect your garden hoses to the outside taps as well, and if you have time, plug the base of your downspout with a resealable plastic bag of sand or dirt and fill your gutters with water.

Do not leave any hoses or sprinkler systems running while you’re not in your home.

California Fire Science Consortium Program Coordinator Stacey Sargent Frederick explains, “With sprinklers, when the water source is part of the local supply, this could pull water pressure from where firefighters need it,” but, she adds that using a gravity-fed sprinkler system that connects a separate water supply, such as a water tank or pool, is an option if you want to keep areas of your property hydrated while you’re not home.

Hopefully at this point you’ve already worked to keep your Home Ignition Zone free of yard waste like leaves and dry or dead vegetation, but now would be a good time to bring inside any outdoor furniture or other combustible items, or move them at least 30 feet away from the exterior of your home.

If this seems like an overwhelming amount of things to remember, the University of California’s Agriculture and Natural Resources team has created an invaluable, printable evacuation checklist that would fit handily in your go-bag if you should need it.

In an emergency situation you will likely not have time to think about every single thing you need to do before you leave your home, but by planning ahead, you can hope to avoid a worst-case scenario.

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