Lessons from the Butte Fire

As I write this, the Butte Fire in Northern California has burned more than 71,660 acres around me. More than 110 square miles.

It started in the Mokelumne River Canyon. I am nearby in Mokelumne Hill, writing in a small notebook by the light from a Coleman lantern as we have had no power for five days. I can't decide whether to continue sweltering in the closed up house or open the windows and let the dense smoke in.

Three times the fire whipped up the sides of the canyon toward our town, and three times the fire fighters beat it back. There are still tree stumps smoking and small fires burning, but they won't travel far over blackened earth now. The overhead planes bringing and dumping water have stopped, and the feeling of being in the middle of Apocalypse Now is starting to subside. Our roads are still filled with fire trucks from all over the State. But mostly they are heading West or South now as the fire moves on.

Now the counting begins. My neighbors came for burgers last night (the grill works without power). They had just heard of eight more friends who have lost their homes. Every time you hear of another one your stomach sinks a little and you want to cry. It piles on. Someone bulldozing on the fire line says it could go over 1,000.

Fires, floods and storms are getting worse. Take what I've learned this week and tuck it away for the day it may happen to you.

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Getting out

1. Evacuate early.

It is incredibly hard to leave your home when it is in danger. But evacuation is not just about saving your life. It is also about getting out of the way so fire and emergency crews can do their jobs. When you get an Advisory Evacuation, start packing and moving before it becomes a Mandatory Evacuation. Establish the safe place you'll be going to and get your key belongings there and get settled in.

When it becomes Mandatory, it will mean this thing is almost on top of you. Or it's going to feel that way. You are going to have choked up roads or something equivalent to where I was a couple of days ago, trying to help get someone and their belongings down the hill as the shifting winds are pushing a black and orange plume way too fast up the hill.

If it doesn't become Mandatory you can come back the next day and check on the house, and the day after that. You can hang out, you can walk around and see what's going on. But you won't be running around trying to figure out what you can afford to lose and throwing things into your car as danger is charging in your direction.

This is particularly true if you have pets or livestock. There are burned animals coming into the evacuation centers (and some pretty wonderful vets there to treat them) from areas that knew this was coming. Waiting until you have to move a panicked animal is just not fair.

2. You know how people are always saying you should take pictures of what's in your house? They are right.

If you haven't done this, grab a camera and start shooting pictures as you are packing. (That's another reason to start this before it hits Mandatory).

If you want to be ahead of the game now, scan your family photos, at a high enough resolution to reprint.

3. Think now of the essential items you would take.

Include your tax receipts, passport and insurance papers. Put your essential papers in one section of the house now if you can, even in one portable file cabinet, as when you are packing to evacuate you will be mentally scattered.

While you are thinking ahead: have D batteries. For lanterns and flashlights. Plenty of them. I have just learned that batteries have dates. The ones in my lanterns were dated 2004. Wonder why this lantern doesn't turn on.

4. Don't forget the storage units.

If they are in the vicinity they are in danger too. Do you have anything in there that must be gotten out? I didn't even think about mine and found out this morning that the fire came within feet of the units. Yet another reason to start early.

5. Your food is going to rot.

When you hear that your power is going to be out for an extended period of time, if you can, empty your refrigerator. If you can't, even after you come back, leave it closed. It is going to smell. Badly. Garbage trucks are not going to run and the dump won't be working if the power is out. Coming home and still without power, we all have refrigerators full of rotting food and don't know what to do about it. If we take it out to the garbage it is going to get worse, stink up the driveway and attract animals.

Getting through

6. Limit the communication.

If you have friends out of town in an emergency situation, do not keep calling them to ask if they are ok. If you are sending them texts, do not panic if you don't get an answer. Their attention is pretty much riveted on making sure their family members and animals stay safe, that their neighbors are ok, and following the path of the emergency. The rest of their mental processes are tied up on trying to process what is going on around them.

Once you have established that they are alive, relax and wait. When the time is right you will hear from them. If you want to support them, find out who is raising donations for the evacuees and see if they need anything. We have been well covered on food, water, etc. but they have needed blankets for the evacuated dogs. A nearby Rotary Club or other service organizations can probably tell you. But really just letting them know you are checking on them, letting them know to call if they need anything and letting them get on with it is enough.

If you are in an emergency and have email on your cell phone, set up a bulk email to friends and family who are going to want to know what is going on. Then don't pay too much attention to it. You'll find a few moments to send something here and there. But the people around you need your attention more than your iPhone does right now.

7. You will be able to charge your phone from your car.

In most cases it charges even when the car is off and is not a significant drain on the battery. When I was traveling in the developing world I had something I could plug into the cigarette lighter of a car that had six plugs. If I had this now I could charge the laptop as well.

Side note: once you are evacuated you can use your cell phone to call your land line at home. If it rings, chances are your house is still standing.

The Waiting

8. Believe nothing you don't see with your eyes.

The flow of information on this fire is atrocious. Yesterday I was told by someone who should have known that a key highway was reopened. Today I drove past it and there are still roadblocks. This is crazy common. For three days they were saying six homes had been destroyed when we knew of three times that number just among friends and neighbors. They have now put it at 166 which has people on the ground scratching their heads. It is almost certainly twice that and could easily go much higher.

I don't know if they are trying to avoid panic or deliberately misreporting. More likely they are not going up the closed roads where the fires have been the worst so haven't looked. If this is the case, they should at least say "we haven't assessed 80% of the region yet but here's what we know so far."

In a vacuum of data, or hearing obviously wrong information in the media, people fill in. Rumors and stories fly. Take all data cautiously until you see it with your eyes.

9. Looting

If you are low enough to steal things from the house of someone who has been evacuated for a life-threatening emergency, your chances of being shot have just gone up dramatically.

If an area is calm enough for you to get into to loot, you can be pretty sure there are also a few homeowners who have quietly gone back to protect their neighborhoods. People like that (they seem to be the ones with military training) have shotguns. If you are in a rural area, they also have backhoes.

10. Country, let's think about the use of technology for emergencies.

People who have been evacuated are having a terrible time finding anything out about their homes. The updates on evacuations, etc. are sometimes days old online. We are finding that our government authorities in many cases are not authorities at all, that the left hand often doesn't seem to know what the right hand is doing, making getting even the most basic information about what is happening in the evacuated areas difficult at best.

In some cases people are taking back roads into areas that are still under evacuation because they need to know what is going on at their house. If we had better information we could stay away and stay out of the way of the firefighters and other crews.

Meanwhile my niece in Portland is sending me photos of burned houses from the news feed from the NBC satellite flying over our region. Message to news media: if you have a satellite going overhead you must be able to ascertain addresses. How about making this information available to the fire agencies to put up on the web so traumatized, evacuated residents can get a bit of information on their homes?

Sadly this fire is not an isolated incident. Before this one was even under control the Valley Fire started in another county and looks to be just as big. Maybe in California it's fire, maybe in your region it will be floods or something else. Making some adjustments and a little intelligent co-operative planning could help us all get through it.