More than 30 structures, including residences, have been destroyed in the Dixie Fire and more than 10,700 others are threatened. When the flames approach — and an evacuation order is issued — residents sometimes have mere moments to pack up and move out.
“DON’T WAIT, EVACUATE,” read a tweet from the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. “Seconds could save your life.”
California fire officials and emergency response experts say that means it’s helpful, especially if people live in an area at high risk of wildfires, to plan for such emergencies.
Here’s what you need to know to help you prepare in case of an evacuation.
How to know when to leave
Familiarize yourself with alert levels. In California, when an evacuation order has been issued, it means there’s an immediate threat to life and that people should leave immediately, according to Cal OES.
An evacuation warning, meanwhile, means there is a potential threat to life or property. But Cal OES says anyone who requires additional time to evacuate or those with animals should leave when an evacuation warning has been issued.
In Oregon, where the largest active fire in the United States has torched more than 413,000 acres, there is a three-tiered evacuation alert system. The level 1 “Be Ready” encourages people to monitor emergency service websites and local media outlets for related information about fires and evacuations. The level 2 “Be Set” urges people to pack and prepare to leave at a moment’s notice, and the level 3 “Go” means just that: people must evacuate immediately.
Christine McMorrow, a Cal Fire spokeswoman, suggested finding out who issues evacuation orders where you live and signing up for alerts. She said Cal Fire isn’t the one to issue evacuation orders or warnings — that’s usually done by local law enforcement officials.
“Most counties do have some type of emergency alert system,” McMorrow said. “And that’s not just for fire emergencies, that’s for all other emergencies as well.”
Cal Fire’s website has a page to sign up for text messages and updates about active wildfires in the state near your Zip code or city.
What to prepare ahead of a wildfire
Fire officials urge people to prepare a wildfire plan ahead of time. That means setting up a “go bag” that you can grab if you have to leave last minute, and making a communication plan with family or others in your household.
“That will include having a meeting location and knowing who to call, where to go, what to do,” McMorrow said.
That communication plan may also include knowing whether any nearby relatives or household members need assistance or extra support when evacuating.
“That’s the first thing you grab if you have five minutes to evacuate,” she said, noting that it should include items that “you need to keep yourself, your family and your pets, if you have them, self-sustained for potentially two or three days.”
That bag can also include a multiday supply of food and water for you and any pets.
“There are instances with the fire behavior that we’ve seen in the past several years where unfortunately people don’t have time,” McMorrow said. “So if you grab one thing, then you want to make sure that one thing has got those essential items.”
If you have a longer warning time before needing to evacuate, that’s when it would help to know where other sentimental items are that you may want to take, such as a box of family photos.
“Otherwise you’re going to end up taking things that are right in front of you, not the things you really wish that you could have taken,” she said.
Where to go when you evacuate
Part of your communication plan may include deciding where to meet if you are separated — that could be a shopping mall or a parking lot, something that’s outside of the evacuation zone. Some people may also meet at a shelter or evacuation center set up to help evacuees, McMorrow said.
Stephen Walsh, a spokesperson for the American Red Cross, said that evacuees may go to a family member or friend’s home when they have to evacuate or they may stay at a hotel or motel. If those options are not available to them, they can go to a shelter. A Red Cross website lists all the open emergency shelters nationwide.
Walsh said Monday that for the Dixie Fire, the organization had set up four shelters, and that the most populated shelter in Chester, Calif., had 17 evacuees.
“We open the shelter based on need and it essentially stays open until everyone who is at the shelter can transition out to a safe place,” Walsh said.
In 2018, during the Carr Fire as well as the Camp Fire, the state’s deadliest and most destructive ever, Walsh said the Red Cross had 11 shelters open for more than 99 days.
He said the modest shelter use this week may suggest that “people have a place to go, they have all their needs met.”
The Red Cross shelters, he said, provide people a place to sleep, something to eat and drink, as well as trained volunteers who can provide spiritual and mental health care.
While at a shelter, he said, evacuees are “dealing with actual human beings, the volunteers, many of whom live in those communities, to lend an ear, have a cup of coffee, commiserate.”
In a Tuesday post, Cal Fire confirmed that the Dixie Fire has ballooned into the 14th-largest fire in the state’s history, and reminded residents: “As fire activity continues to ramp up please take the time to ensure you and your family are #EvacuationReady,” providing a link to a website that has even more tips on how to plan around wildfires.
McMorrow said it may also be helpful to be familiar with evacuation routes, how to get out of town, or how to get to your meeting spots.
“In the heat of the moment, it’s easy to forget those things or you’re not going to be making the best decisions in that situation,” she said. “So thinking about it ahead of time, having it written down to remind yourself, is a good thing to do.”