Disclosure: This post appeared originally in slightly different form on a private social media page.
Disclaimer: I do not work in public safety. The information in this post is based on advice the public has already received from one source or another.
Currently, the San Francisco Bay Area and parts of Southern California are in a crisis with out-of-control fires.
No matter where you live, you should have tentative plans for natural disasters and other large-scale problems that occur on short notice.
Based on your individual needs — as well as the needs of people and animals you’re responsible for — you should have a plan for whatever emergencies seem most likely. Find responsibly run websites that can recommend supplies to buy in advance, and never let the car run low on fuel. Agree on a plan to meet somewhere with your family and/or close friends in the event of a surprise evacuation, since cell phone towers may be overwhelmed or nonfunctional.
Yesterday, I saw a disturbing video on The Guardian’s site, recorded by an outdoor home security camera. It showed an adult and two kids running between their Southern California house and a minivan, packing the vehicle with suitcases. Flames could be seen in the background, within a few blocks. I couldn’t tell in what direction the wind was blowing.
The Guardian’s video stream ended before the van left, but since the recording was released to the media without follow-up information I’ll assume the family got out in time and they’re safe. It was an example of trauma everyone wants to avoid, though.
Your most important documents, photos and other possessions should be kept in containers that are easy to reach and not too heavy to lift. If a major fire is anywhere in the area, you should consider packing the car early, before your neighborhood is told to evacuate. Keep a list of important items that aren’t stored in those containers, so you can grab them quickly. Your most recent utility bill may come in handy if you seek shelter or referral assistance from an agency, although this morning I heard on the radio that people in the Bay Area are receiving help without that documentation.
Know your neighbors. Often, there’s someone in the neighborhood with no car, and no family nearby. Learn in advance who will need assistance.
If you’re one of the more vulnerable people, learn which neighbors you can trust to help you, and don’t make them wait when they arrive at your door during an emergency. If the power is out, listen for a car horn or a knock on your door. The doorbell might not be working.
If you have a pet and think you can afford to get a room after evacuating (probably the more comfortable option, when thousands are sleeping on mats in pop-up shelters), know in advance which hotels and motels will accept your domestic animals.
If you are outside a potential disaster zone and want to help transport friends who might soon be in harm’s way, do so only if you’re confident you won’t get lost en route to your friends’ homes (also, call first to determine they’re at home and actually need your help). If you drive into an unfamiliar area when a fire may approach, you risk getting trapped in the equivalent of a burning rat’s maze.
Do not enter an area where an evacuation order is in effect. Besides the obvious risk to your own safety, you might interfere with emergency vehicles or an overcrowded procession of people trying to leave.
Do not defy an evacuation order. Although some people who have stayed behind under these conditions have helped first responders, you’re more likely to get underfoot. Be advised that protecting your home with a garden hose during a firestorm is unrealistic, and the odds are you’ll get trapped and die.
If you are in immediate danger, don’t waste even a minute packing material possessions. Protecting your safety and the safety of others is the top priority. The video I saw on The Guardian’s site depicted a risk none of us should take.
And on another note:
After a widespread tragedy, you might receive an e-mailed appeal for funds that appears to come from a disaster relief agency. Ignore the e-mail because it most likely came from a scammer. If you can donate, do so through the official website of an organization you respect.
Earlier this afternoon, I called more than one agency to find out if I could help with the relief effort by donating two unopened multi-packs of toothbrushes that I’ve had in the apartment for a while. It wasn’t easy to find someone who had a clear answer, but eventually I learned that items of that type generally aren’t encouraged if they’re pre-owned — even if they’re still factory sealed.
Please don’t leave a box of items on the doorstep of any of these organizations. Call ahead, so you don’t risk wasting anything or making more work for these agencies during an overwhelming time.
If you’re more comfortable donating goods than money, inquire about whether a reputable group helping with the relief effort has an Amazon Wish List.
Every one of us is vulnerable at one time or another. We can appreciate that and either offer or accept assistance, being aware that people are interdependent.