Survival Learnings From A California Fire Evacuee

As I type this, there are over 16 large wildfires currently burning across northern and southern California. Hundreds of thousands of residents have been displaced. Millions are without power.

My hometown of Sebastopol, CA underwent mandatory evacuation at 4am Saturday night. I jumped into the car, along with our life essentials and our pets, joining the 200,000 souls displaced from Sonoma County this weekend.

Even though I write about preparedness for a living, fleeing your home in the dead of night with a raging inferno clearly visible on the horizon drives home certain lessons more effectively than any other means.

I’d like to share those learnings with you, as they’re true for any sort of emergency: natural (fire, flood, hurricane, tornado, earthquake, blizzard, etc), financial (market crash, currency crisis) or social (revolution, civil unrest, etc).

And I’d like you to be as prepared as possible should one of those happen to you, which is statistically likely.

Your survival, and that of your loved ones, may depend on it.

No Plan Survives First Contact With Reality

As mentioned, I've spent years advising readers on the importance of preparation. Emergency preparedness is Step Zero of the guide I've written on resilient living -- literally the first chapter.

So, yes, I had a pre-designed bug-out plan in place when the evacuation warning was issued. My wife and I had long ago made lists of the essentials we’d take with us if forced to flee on short notice (the Santa Rosa fires of 2017 had reinforced the wisdom of this). Everything on these lists was in an easy-to-grab location.

The only problem was, we were 300 miles away.

Reality Rule #1: You Will Be Caught By Surprise

There are too many variables that accompany an unforeseen disaster to anticipate all of them. Your plan has to retain enough flexibility to adapt to the unforeseen.

In my case, we were down at Parents’ Weekend at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, where my older daughter recently started her freshman year.

As the text alerts warning of the growing fire risk started furiously arriving, we monitored them closely, reluctant to leave the festivities and our time with our daughter. But once the evacuation warning came across, we knew it was serious enough to merit the 6-hour mad dash home to rescue what we could.

The upside of that long drive was that it gave us time to alter our bug-out plan according to the unfolding situation. We decided my wife and younger daughter would go directly to safety; that reduced the lives at risk in the fire zone down to just 1 (mine). And I used the phone to line up neighbors who could grab our stuff should I not be able to make it home in time.

The learning here is: Leave plenty of room in your plan for the unexpected. If its success depends on everything unfolding exactly as you predict, it’s worthless to you.

Reality Rule #2: Things Will Happen Faster Than You're Ready For

Once an emergency is in full swing, things start happening more quickly than you can process well.

Even if developments are unfolding in the way you’ve anticipated, they come at an uncomfortably fast rate that adrenaline, anxiety and fatigue make even more challenging to deal with.

Just as The Crash Course chapter on Compounding explains how exponential problems unfold too fast to avoid once they become visible, it’s very easy to get overwhelmed or caught off-guard by the pace required to deal with a disaster.

The Kincade fire started at 9:30pm the night before I left Sebastopol for Cal Poly. When I went to bed that night it was a mere 300 acres in size. Two days later it was 25,000 acres. (it’s currently at 66,000 acres).

It went from “nothing to worry about” to “get out NOW!” in less than 48 hours.

Watching who fared well during the evacuation and who didn’t , those who took action early out of a healthy sense of caution had much more success than those who initially brushed off the potential seriousness of the situation.

Here’s how much of a difference timely action made:

The ‘evacuation warning’ advisory became a ‘mandatory evacuation’ order at 4am on Saturday night. My car was ready to go and I was on the road out of town within 5 minutes.

Several friends of mine left home just 45 minutes after I did. By that time, the fleeing traffic made the roads essentially immobile. My friends had to turn back to ride things out in their homes, simply hoping for the best.

So I’m reminded of the old time-management axiom: If you can’t be on time, be early. In a developing crisis, set your tolerance level for uncertainty to “low”. Take defensive measures as soon as you detect the whiff of increasing risk; it’s far more preferable to walk back a premature maneuver than to realize it’s too late to act.

Reality Rule #3: You Will Make Mistakes

Related to Rule #2 above, you're going to bungle parts of the plan. Stress, uncertainty and fatigue alone pretty much guarantee it.

You’re going to forget things or make some wrong choices.

Case in point: as I was evacuating, the plan was to take a less-travelled back route, in order to reduce the odds of getting stuck in traffic. But, racing in the dark and checking in on the phone with numerous friends and neighbors, muscle memory took over and I found myself headed to the main road of town. Too late to turn back, I sat at the turn on, waiting for someone in the line of cars to let me in.

It then hit me that perhaps no one might. Folks were panicked. Would someone be willing to slow down to let me go ahead of them?

Obviously someone did, or I wouldn’t be typing this. But that mistake put everything else I’d done correctly beforehand in jeopardy.

So, as the decisions start to come fast and furious, your key priority is to ensure that you’re focused on making sure the few really important decisions are made well, and that the balls that get dropped won’t be ones that put your safety at risk.

Forget to pack food for the cat? No big deal, you’ll find something suitable later on. Miss your time window to evacuate, as my friends did? That could cost you your life.

Reality Rule #4: When Stressed, All You Care About Is People & Pets

A good bug-out plan covers preparing to take essential clothes, food & water, medications, key documents, communications & lighting gear, personal protection, and irreplaceable mementoes.

But when the stakes escalate, you quickly don’t care about any of those. It’s only living things – people, pets & livestock – that you’re focused on.

The rest, while valuable to have in an evacuation, is ultimately replaceable or non-essential.

I very well might have rolled the dice and stayed down at Cal Poly if it weren’t for the cat. But family is family, no matter how furry. I just couldn’t leave her to face an uncertain fate. And I believe strongly you’ll feel the same about any people or pets in your life – it’s a primal, tribal pull to take care of our own. If you don’t plan for it, it will override whatever other priorities you think you may have.

So prioritize accordingly. Build your primary and contingency plans with the security of people and animals first in mind. If there’s time for the rest, great. But if not, at least you secured what’s most important (by far).

Essential Bug-Out Resources

Beyond the universal rules above, my current experience as an evacuee has emphasized the out-sized importance of several essential resources for those bugging out. These are the things that have proved most valuable during and after the emergency evacuation.

I will share these in tomorrow’s post (update: this post Essential Bug-out Resources can now be read by clicking here). But before I do, I want to express my thanks for the many of you who have sent well-wishes and offers of assistance. Literally hundreds of friends, acquaintances and near-strangers have contacted me via email, text, social media and over the past 72 hours. I’ve received offers to put up my family from folks throughout California and 4 other states. It has been a tremendous honor to be on the receiving end of such kindness.

So many of you who have asked “What can I do to help?”. Personally, I’m safe and being well-cared for where we’re currently staying.

But I’ll be honest: the gesture that would benefit me (and my business partner Chris Martenson) the most at this point would be for anyone with the means and interest to purchase a premium subscription to

The thrash that these fires are inserting into my bandwith is impacting at an important time, when Chris and I are taking big strategic steps to substantially expand this website’s audience and offerings.

So if you want to help us with that mission, while enjoying valuable insight in return, please subscribe. Even just for a single month.

Signing off until tomorrow…

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

Adam, I’m glad that you & your family are safe.
Adam’s points are all spot-on. Please re-read and then re-read his words again. Last year in Tasmania, Australia [where I live, and one of Adam’s favourite spots in Australia, I recall] we were on full fire alert for a week. The anxiety, the restlessness, the half-hourly property patrols through the night, the red puffy eyes, the acrid smoke, and the fear for loved ones - human and animal… they’re all starkly tangible. Eventually the fire stopped 2-3 miles from our home. This year’s bushfire season has only just begun, and there’s already been one fire.
A precursor to what follows in this post -: do not attempt to be a hero, do not overestimate your abilities, do not even think about ‘having a go’ if you aren’t physically fit and practised in firefighting.
An Australian author Joan Webster wrote, hands-down, the most definitive book on preparing your property and yourself for fires. It’s called The Complete Bushfire Safety Book and it’s written for Australia in mind, but hey, fire’s fire wherever you are. She posits that almost every property is defendable from fire with the right planning, design and training. “Defendable” means - in its absolute extremity - staying on your property and fighting a fire yourself. The book is superbly researched, and it deals with a huge range of factors from fire-retardant garden design to appropriate clothing materials, to the deeply emotional and life-changing effects of such a massive event.
It IS possible to successfully defend your home, but you have to be 100% certain of what you’re doing, have a rock-solid escape route [ours was to jump into the river with our dogs and inflatables], and decide on your exit point LONG BEFORE the fire arrives. Above all, with the basics you must drill, drill, drill, practise, practise, practise.
One last point about the fatigue factor which Adam mentioned. A neighbour nearer to our fire zone last year was super-prepared, right down to full scuba gear stored in a water tank near our river’s edge, in case he had to abandon his firefighting. The stress and exhaustion as the fire approached were so extreme that he eventually couldn’t even remember the basic layout of his property’s crucial irrigation system. He found himself staring at his pipe couplings in his hands, without a clue about which pipes needed to be switched / diverted before the fire arrived. He’s been living in the same home for 30 years, with the same irrigation system that he built himself, and his mind simply could not process basic recollection tasks. Do not underestimate the impact of stress.

Thank you Adam and wishing you and your loved ones well. I appreciate your mentioning pets. It is so common to hear about people who don’t prepare to get their animals to safety in a fire and then die trying to save them. I live in a communal arrangement and keep my carriers stored by the door and easily accessible. The building next door to me burned down a few years ago and we were fortunate to be upwind from it but sitting for a day waiting to evacuate (if our building had caught fire) was scary enough. I have ready access to their food and can clear out in a few minutes (though that may not be quick enough it is the best I can do).

Adam wrote

Take defensive measures as soon as you detect the whiff of increasing risk; it’s far more preferable to walk back a premature maneuver than to realize it’s too late to act.
This is the opposite of the long delays that denial gives: "It won't get too bad." "I don't want to overreact." "What if I evacuate and nothing bad happens? I would be so humiliated." "I'll just wait here and see if others start to evacuate before I decide."

We too were caught out away from home during the Mayhill Fire, we were not allowed to go into the fire zone. A friend drove into the smoke, broke into our house and grabbed our dog and cat.
All of the planing we had done previously was for not, but we were safe and sound.
The one thing that I will never forget was the fog of war, it is very difficult to think clearly in the middle of an emergency, all the pre-planning and list building you can do in advance will be helpful.
Get silly with pre-planning, if your prospective homestead paradise is at the top of a dead end road, it may not be a good choice. Options are good in an emergency, plan them in. Leave early as Adam points out, look to the safety of the living beings in your life, the rest is just stuff.
It is funny how we humans have different values during a crisis, there was one beehugger in our beekeeping club that suggested I should breach the fire line, drive in and rescue my colonies…I did not.
So glad to hear you and yours are ok!

Sadly, I’ve gotten a bit deaf to hearing about wild fires in California. It’s like hearing about tornados in Oklahoma, or Kansas.
I don’t know enough about California to understand why the state is prone to wildfires and mudslides, but I’ve been hearing about them for decades.
I guess it is one of the things you choose to live with, if you choose California as your place of residence?

Les -
As a born New Englander, I see your perspective looking at California from the outside.
But in talking with longtime California natives, it really does sound like the fire incident rate & intensity is substantially higher today vs a generation ago.
A Cal Fire chief was interviewed on the radio this weekend saying that a blaze like the Kincade Fire used to be called a “career fire”, meaning you might see one once-in-a-career as a firefighter. Now he says Cal Fire deals with at least one career fire a year.
My brother-in-law grew up in my current town of Sebastopol. When asked how many major wildfires he remembers in the area growing up, he reflected for a while and replied “none”. We’ve had two massive ones within in the past two years.
My mother-in-law grew up in Southern California before moving to Northern California for her adult life. She remembers regular fires in the San Fernando valley when the Santa Ana winds arrived, but says the downtown LA fires and the appearance of similar regular outbreaks up north now seem very different than the conditions she knew as a child.
It really does seem that, due to sprawling urban development and drier/warmer weather (and PG&E incompetence), elevated fire risk is now the ‘new normal’ in California.

Hi Adam,
Thanks for sharing what you’ve learned. As someone who lives on the edge of a forest, I am constantly open to new tips.
I want to really underscore what’s been written about the impact of stress. Not only does it impact our cognitive functioning during the event but also afterwards. When we have to mobilize our fight, flight, freeze system, there is payback on the other end unless we take the time to discharge all of that mobilized survival energy. I have attached here a resource that my Sonoma County colleagues and I created that helps with this discharge. Please put it in your toolkits and share it widely.
I deeply appreciate this community and how we help each other through all of this. What a blessing.
WhenItsTooMuchToolkit Modified

Hi all - I wanted to post this in the most recent thread where people are commenting. Glad to hear you and family are well Adam!
Here is a panel discussion about upcoming financial crisis from a recent Porter Stansbury conference. I have to say several comments turned my stomach. The “full of himself” Porter Stansbury was pretty shocking in his point of view that the rich are superior and the poor are lazy, drags on the economy and deserve what pain they are going to get. This community may find interesting their comments of financial preparedness for an upcoming financial collapse. - Karen

yes… another option besides “cut and run” and hope cal fire will save you is “prepare, stay and defend”. adding sealed attics, metal roofs, under eave sprayers with back-up pressurized water can make the difference. i designed and installed my system in 2000… and then last year read about a similar system detailed below:

Can’t image having my home in harm’s way. Hope everyone here a PP is ok.
Thinking about this for a second makes me realize that making checklists might not be a bad idea. In my former life I was an engineer & trained astronauts. Astronauts do just about everything via checklists from blastoff to using the commode. Checklists provide extra redundancy and ensures timely completion of important tasks with the minimization of mistakes. I think I’ll go through the process of making some checklists for myself for things such as an evacuation, an interruption in gas/food chain, social unrest, a breakdown in cellular communications, EMP, etc. Stress produces errors and inefficiency as sure as anything; no one is immune. If astronauts, fighter pilots, surgeons, etc., routinely use checklists, then I suspect common folks would also greatly benefit from them.
As I found out from my days of training astronauts it takes not only a lot of conceptual thought but also much time actually going through the process of using a checklist to validate its trustworthiness. People with extremely high IQs had difficulties at simply sitting at a table with each other coming up with successful working checklists. It was only after actually simulating various scenarios was it obvious that there were serious errors in the original thinking. Also, I’d recommend making small laminated versions once completed so they won’t be easily destroyed while crap is hitting the fan.

I like the idea of multiple checklists. I use them for my generator start-up, for travel, and for fishing expeditions but I didn’t think of using them for the scenarios you described. Great idea! BTW, I hope you meant to say “laminated” rather than “lamented” versions?:wink:

“Lamented” fixed! Haste makes waste.

I’ve been to LA three times, but no where else in California.
I wonder if forest management practices are possibly contributing to the issue? Under harvesting forests, in conjunction with excessive wildfire control can result in dense forests with dangerous wildfire capability.

Now that you have been through a fire evacuation, I guess you can consider yourself a true Sonoma County resident! Hope this isn’t the norm for future Octobers, but seems as though it could be.
We are currently on the edge of a evacuation zone and also got to experience the Tubbs fire of 2017 up close. Half our neighbors lost their homes. We fought and saved ours. Based on this, would like to pass along what I learned and what we have done as a result. Please note that I am a contractor and have access to a lot of equipment, so what may seem normal for me to do is probably not realistic for many others- but there are definitely elements that you can use:
You can protect your home against spot fires & embers. You can’t protect it from an advancing wall of fire fueled by 50 mph winds. During the Tubbs fire we evacuated and came back when alerted by neighbor that our house was still standing but surrounded by spot fires (the winds had stopped). We had the tools to deal with the spot fires until fire crews arrived 12 hours later. Note that embers can travel over a mile to cause a spot fire and embers can be the size of a softball or larger (I know as we found many scattered across our property).
Make sure you have defensible space: Keep the area around your home clear of anything that can burn. The more distance you can keep clear the better.

  • Don’t use things like stringy redwood bark, pine straw, wood chips, ground rubber for ground cover. They may look good and help with weeds, but they burn like crazy!!!
  • Plant natural ground cover or use 3/8" gravel. We have a 3ft walkway around the entire home with 3/8" chipped gravel. Chipped gravel looks good, prevents weeds, allows for drainage, and stays in place. Round or pea gravel looks good, but displaces when walked on- so don’t recommend for pathways.
  • Trim trees up so branches are 15ft off the ground. This makes a big difference. The lower fuels can burn and not get into the trees. Having a large tree burst into flame next to your home is not a good experience.
  • Lawn/grass - over the last few years, many lawns have been removed due to drought concerns and replaced too often by landscaping with highly flammable ground cover. However, green grass doesn’t burn and is a great fire break. However it has to be green. Dead grass burns! I recommend using “no-mow” style grass. This is a meadow grass that is a very fine fescue blend. It grows about 6-8" tall then falls over. Looks really nice. It requires much less water than a normal lawn and you don’t have to mow it! It tolerates light use, and lots of shade.
    Building materials and strategies for your home: Use these to reduce the likelihood your home will catch on fire
  • Use fire resistant materials. Fiber cement product like Hardi-panel are great for this. However, I often see homes that use fiber cement for the walls, but still use wood for trim. The trim will burn. Use fiber cement for the trim as well. Note- there are many materials that may be considered fire resistant and meet WUI (wild urban interface) requirements. These can be special treated cedar and other wood based sidings. I tested a lot of these with a blow torch before choosing. Many of them eventually catch fire. With 1/4" thick fiber cement, you can hold the blow torch for as long as you like and nothing happens. Boral is a similar product (fly ash based).
  • Make sure any attic access is covered with mesh screen. An attic is an extremely dry and dusty environment. Once an ember gets into the attic, you have a major problem. Even better- build a home without an attic. Our home has a low slope roof with no attic. So no chance for embers to get into an attic that does not exist.
  • If you have eaves (roof overhangs) make sure the underside are also fire resistant. Many builders save money by leaving the undersides of the eaves exposed- this is just plywood and wood rafters. Enclose the eaves with fire resistant materials as well.
  • Use crawlspace vents that self seal. These have a honeycomb material behind the mesh. The honeycomb will melt if exposed to heat and seal the vent to prevent fire/embers from getting into the crawlspace. They are expensive at $50 each vs. $5 for your standard vent.
  • Use fire resistant insulation. The best and most cost effective alternative to fiberglass is Rock Wool. If you are building new, use Rock Wool and forget about fiberglass. Rock Wool is rated to 2,000F vs. 600F for fiberglass. It also has a higher R value/inch, is much better at sound dampening, and doesn’t absorb water.
  • New construction in CA also requires an interior sprinkler system. Most think this will help in a wildfire. It won’t. These are designed to put fires that start in the home.
  • Install a sprinkler system that saturates the perimeter of your home with water. This can be used to wet down the area around you home prior to a fire and to wet down area during a fire. This is pretty involved to do properly. I installed a 3,000 gallon storage tank to feed a 2HP booster pump that supplies impact sprinklers on the fence around our house. I can run this in advance of a fire to saturate the ground. Then recharge the tank and run during a fire or when evacuate.
    Power Sources: How to have power when the power goes out
    Generators: Generators are a great source of back-up power, but realize the following:
  • They are noisy unless you get a high quality liquid cooled unit or a very high end portable unit. These will be irritating over time. Your neighbors may get upset. You will announce to everyone you have power as well.
  • They require fuel. This can get expensive. Your fuel supply is also limited. Many home generators runs on natural gas. PG&E has shut down natural gas supply in many areas of Sonoma County as a fire precaution. So consider how long you can realistically run your generator
  • They require maintenance if you expect it to work when you need it
  • They can KILL you! NEVER EVER run one indoors. Also make sure the exhaust is not under a window. Carbon monoxide is odorless and can kill you without warning.
    Solar & Storage:
  • Solar requires a battery storage system to operate when off grid. Solar without storage will not provide power when the grid goes down (expect for a few rare exceptions that I won’t cover here)
  • Storage systems provide power and are recharged by solar. Their output and storage is limited, so you have to understand the capabilities of your system and plan accordingly
  • Storage systems are very expensive, but they are quiet and recharge for free from solar.
  • The sun has to come out for the system to recharge. So not a great solution if lose power during rains or heavy smoke that can greatly reduce the solar systems output.
  • You can have storage without solar, but without a way to recharge it, it will only be good for one cycle. Not recommended.
  • If you want to cover all your bases and $ is not a limiting factor, you can have solar/storage/generator system
    Other considerations:
    Test everything you expect to use prior to needing to use it.
    -A few weeks ago in anticipation of the upcoming power outages, I fired up my generator. It ran great for about 10 seconds and then shut down. It would not restart. I eventually traced it to the fuel being contaminated with water. Lesson learned - diesel fuel return systems cause condensation in fuel tanks. This caused by water filter to overload. I got it all cleared out and the generator started right up. Now I make sure the diesel tank is full to minimize condensation and I use fuel stabilizer.
  • I got my chainsaws out and ready. One is gas and one is battery. The new 50 Volt battery chainsaws work very well and require minimal maintenance. So I made sure it was charged. I then pulled out the gas one and tried to start it. The pull cord snapped. So I had to replace the pull cord. Easy to do in advance, not desirable when in critical need.
  • Make sure you have escape routes. Over that last several days of high winds, I had 3 times when very large branches or a trees fell across our driveway and blocked it. Chainsaws to the rescue. But I checked before I needed to use the driveways! For one of the trees I had to use our mini-excavator to remove the branches. Do you have an excavator at your disposal?
  • Fill up 5 gallon buckets with water. These are very good for having ready to put out spot fires
    I hope this helps. I am in no way advocating that you stay behind to save your house in the event of an evacuation for fires. If you make this decision, make sure you know what you are getting into and determine if you are an asset or a liability to the fire crews that will come. If you have to ask, you are a liability- leave. However, many of the items discussed above will help save your home after you have evacuated.

I have no idea as to whether this is true or not but I remember reading about how chemtrails are depositing nano-aluminum particles over the many areas in the Western US prone to wildfires leading to intensification of the ferocities of these fires.
And yet the deadliest wildfire in US history, the Peshtigo fire, occurred in 1871 in an area a couple of hours drive from where we live.
We’ve visited the museum and memorial there but it’s still difficult to grasp just how devastating that fire was. Also, reading both personal accounts as well as historical accounts of the Dresden fire bombing, one is shocked by the horror, destruction, and death wreaked by that event. I’ve never read firsthand, on-the-ground accounts of the Tokyo fire bombings but the death toll was worse than that of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It’s almost beyond comprehension how intense, destructive, and deadly such fires can be.
Glad Adam is safe and our prayers go out to the affected people in California. When I first visited California in the mid 80s, it seemed like the promised land and I made many very enjoyable return visits. Now, due to a host of changes, it seems like it’s becoming something out of a nightmare. Very sad to witness this decline.
P.S. I have no idea why the fonts seem to be mixed on the posted version but not when I’m writing it. Strange.

Dude has paid over a million dollars in fines to the SEC for defrauding the public…

Lesphelps brings up an excellent point, forest mismanagement. When I was living in Utah, the county commissioners of multiple Southern Utah counties after the Pole Creek fire were infuriated with the mismanagement of national forest land within their counties. Where there used to be 40 mature pine trees per acre, there were nearly 10 times as many, a large number of them standing dead due to beetle kill. The commissioners were trying to get USDA to allow cutting of timber, but every time they would get close they’d get sued and it would be tied up in court and they’d need feasibility studies yada yada. Inept bureaucrats combined with clueless “environmentalists” are at least equally to blame for wildfires as are negligent companies.

I’d go back for a dog. If you died tomorrow, that cat would be playing with your toe tag.

I’d go back for a dog. If you died tomorrow, that cat would be playing with your toe tag.
You're making my point for me, Macro. Atlanta is an outdoor farm cat. She spends less than 5 minutes per day in the house (usually wanting to come in/out at 4am), is not affectionate and hates to be touched. More than most cats, she barely 'tolerates' our existence. All that said, I still couldn't leave her fate to the fire. To take care of one's own is a hugely powerful tribal pull. It just takes over your decision-making. Even in regards to cats.