Firefighters continue to battle dozens of wildfires up and down the West Coast — from the Canadian border down to San Diego. Millions of acres have been scorched and thick smoke and ash blanket our coastline, creating some of the worst air quality levels in the world.
Wildland fires are a fact of life in Southern California, home to hundreds of miles of scrub brush and canyons rimmed with homes and businesses. It takes mere moments for an ember to jump a road or race up or down a hillside, putting dozens or thousands of structures — and people — at risk.
"Unfortunately, many Americans say they are not very prepared for a disaster," says Sharon Carlson, director of disaster preparedness for Sharp HealthCare, citing research from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). "If you are ready, you have a much better chance of survival than if you have no plan and don't know what to do."
A wildfire action plan can help your family think through and prepare for an emergency. Each plan will be different, depending on where you live, but the process of talking through what you would do if asked to evacuate is an important step in being ready to go.
A typical evacuation plan includes:
- An agreed-upon emergency meeting location outside the fire or hazard area. All members of the household should know how to get to this location. This is critical in determining who has safely evacuated.
- Several different escape routes from your home and community. Practice these often so everyone in your family is familiar in case of emergency.
- A plan for pets and large animals, such as horses or other livestock.
- A communication plan that designates a point of contact outside the fire area to act as a single source of communication among family members, in case of separation.
Preparing vulnerable family members
Evacuation plans for families with young children should include helping toddlers understand how to quickly respond in case of fire, and how adults can escape with babies, according to Cal Fire's "Ready for Wildfire" website. Seniors and people with disabilities also need special consideration when preparing for a disaster. Prepare ahead of time by practicing your family's fire escape plan, and what to do to be safe when there is a wildfire nearby.
Ready, set, go
Determining what you will take in case of emergency evacuation now can save time later and ensure that you bring the most important items with you. Carlson suggests keeping supplies in rolling plastic containers in multiple locations, in case you cannot access some part of your property.
If you decide to or are called upon by first responders to evacuate, don't forget the six Ps:
- People and pets
- Papers, phone numbers and important documents
- Prescriptions, vitamins and eyeglasses
- Pictures and irreplaceable memorabilia
- Personal computer hard drives and disks
- "Plastic" (credit or debit cards) and cash
Here are other emergency preparation tips from Cal Fire:
- Have fire extinguishers on hand and train your family how to use them (check expiration dates regularly).
- Know where your gas, electric and water main shut-off controls are located and how to safely shut them down in an emergency. Make sure others in your home know this as well.
- Assemble an emergency supply kit for each person in the household, as recommended by the American Red Cross.
- Maintain a list of emergency contact numbers posted near your phone and in your emergency supply kit. Keep an extra kit in your car in case you cannot get to your home.
- Have a portable radio or scanner so you can stay updated on the fire.
- Tell your family or neighbors about your wildfire action plan.
If you live within a fire hazard zone, be ready to go at a moment's notice. Pay attention to mobile phone apps, radio and television for updated information. Make sure you have gas in the car, your emergency kit and a change of clothes for each member of the household — and a pair of tennis shoes in case you need to get out and walk.
"Preparing for a disaster isn't hard or expensive," says Carlson. "You just have to do it."
For more information on preparing your family's evacuation and communication plans, visit Ready San Diego, which includes a wildfire hazard map showing areas at greatest risk, and links to download emergency notification apps for your mobile phone.
This story was updated in September 2020.