Wildfires – what happens if you have to evacuate

Janet Moje
Wildfires – what happens if you have to evacuate

“I felt the strongest wind I ever felt in my life. The fire came so quickly. One minute it was calm and then suddenly they were on top of us, so we had to evacuate. I thought I was going to die,” Rebecca Hackett told ABC30 in Fresno, California.


Share her evacuation experience in this two-minute video. It will change your life.

It has been reported that most of the deaths in the Paradise, California fire occurred in their vehicles.

In the previous article, we outlined how to prepare before and during a wildfire alert. In this article, we will take a closer look at the evacuation itself.

Evacuation orders are never issued lightly. It is calculated on many considerations, such as the speed of the fire and wind, how many vehicles can safely evacuate at a given speed, on a given route at the same time without causing bottle necks or road rage. Seasoned professionals’ main purpose is getting everyone out safely and they know when it’s time to go. Trust their knowledge.

An evacuation order means Go Now.
Not when you see the fire from your yard. GO NOW.

Take no chances. Waiting to evacuate until you see the hazard may be too late. You don’t have to wait for the evacuation order to leave. You can evacuate voluntarily. Just be sure to post a note on the door saying you have done so. If you are on vacation during an evacuation emergency, call in so they don’t need to search for you at your home. Evacuation instructions and contact information will be available on official websites so you can report your status.

What you may not know: The emergency responder who delivers the evacuation order has to account for you. They need to know you have left. They have to account for everyone in their assigned area. They don’t have time to wait for you, they have others to warn. The longer you take, the more risk you add to those who still need to be notified. The longer you take, the longer the responders have to wait before they themselves can leave.

An Order to Evacuate means Go Now.
Not after you pack some last minute items. GO NOW.

During the Paradise, California evacuations, Darren Wilken reported to CBS News that the fire was everywhere. “The window is so hot I can’t even touch the window right now,” Wilken said during his evacuation video that you can watch here.

Evacuations are extremely stressful. Having everything ready to go in advance will reduce your stress and allow you to be ready to leave immediately. It is important to remain calm and follow the directions you are given in the order or by emergency crews. Drive calmly. The last thing anyone needs is an accident or traffic jam.

Reduced stress means being prepared before the emergency.

  • FireSmart principles applied to your property to give it the best chance of surviving.
  • Adequate house insurance coverage.
  • Emergency grab-and-go bags.
  • Family emergency plans.

Each will reduce your stress level before and during an evacuation. But most of all, leave when you are ordered to. Waiting will only increase your stress AND RISK.

An order to evacuate means Go Now.
Not staying behind to protect your house. GO NOW.

Contact your insurance company and ask what kind of coverage you have in a wildfire emergency. Not just house replacement, but does it include content replacement and on-the-road expenses? Know what types of receipts you need to keep if it is reimbursement coverage. Check the expiry on your policy and ask if you can change it to a winter month to avoid any deadline issues. Keep a copy of your policy in your grab and go bag. Knowing these things ahead of time will give you peace of mind. Remember, it is just stuff. And stuff isn’t anywhere as valuable as your life.

What if you aren’t home when the evacuation occurs? You may be at work, or in the dentist chair. Your children may be at school. A family emergency plan is important. Where does everyone meet up if you can’t go back to your house? An emergency kit that is always in your vehicle is a good idea for circumstances like this. Again, the more prepared you are before the emergency, the less stressful it will be.

During a rapidly spreading fire such as one caused by a lightning strike, there may be a “Tactical Evacuation.” These evacuation notices are delivered door-to-door by RCMP, Search and Rescue and/or other emergency responders that are available. There is no alert notice, and people need to leave immediately because the threat is imminent. There is no time to prepare. There is no luxury of time or repeat visits. YOU MUST GO NOW.

Nichole Jolly told ABC news that the car started to fill with smoke so she got out and started running up the hill. “The sky was pitch black and the air burned my lungs,” Jolly said. “I thought I was gonna die right there. There was no oxygen.” She recalls her ordeal in this video

The Regional District of Fraser-Fort George now has a Public Alerting System so you can be notified via text, email, and/or phone call during emergency situations. You have to sign up and select the zone you wish to be notified about. It will also notify you when it is safe to return home. You can sign up here.

Services are available for evacuees to provide their basic needs of food, clothing and shelter. If you have an RV it may be more comfortable than group lodging, and funds can be provided to cover food and camping space costs. But you still must register with the Evacuee Support Program so they know where you are. It is critical they know you are safely out of the evacuated area.

Remember: Once you are out safely, emergency staff are still working to make sure everyone is out safe. Communicate your status, make their job easier and leave immediately when ordered to evacuate.

In the next article, we will cover FireSmart progress in our community.