The so-called Camp Fire in California in November 2018 was “the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California’s history, and the most expensive natural disaster in the world in 2018 in terms of insured losses”. It was a catastrophe for those who lost everything in it, and a tragedy for all who lost loved ones (at least 85 people were killed).
Extensive investigations into the causes, development, and aftermath of the event have been ongoing. Based on them, Homeland Security Today is publishing a series of articles under the series headline “Lessons Learned from the Camp Fire”. The three so far published are:
To illustrate how useful those lessons are, here are some excerpts from the third article in the series.
LESSON 1: Stay Calm
There will come a moment when you realize that the normal flow of events has been broken – when you see some awful development with dangerous implications for your safety and think, “Oh, this is really happening.”
That is the moment to rely on yourself and your preparation and get to work. That is the moment to stay calm and assure those around you … keeping your cool may prevent you from making a rash mistake that stops you altogether.
In our evacuation, those who made snap decisions to drive around the flow of traffic, up on curbs and whatnot, often found themselves mired in ditches or running over something that flattened their tires. They went from moving very fast to not moving at all.
Calfire Chief John Messina had a memorable term for this lesson: “Sometimes slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.”
LESSON 2: If You’re Asking, “Should We Evacuate?” LEAVE NOW
A retired firefighter who has watched wildfires get bigger, faster and deadlier since the 1970s said this best: “If it occurs to you that you need to evacuate, you already should have evacuated” … Because it takes us a little while to discern the gravity of our reality, by the time we realize mortal danger is at play, it is likely the moment to leave has already passed.
Trust your spidey-sense and get moving.
. . .
LESSON 6: Semper Gumby–Be Flexible
By their nature, disasters are chaos. They shred our ambitions to control. So when you realize your plan does not perfectly match your situation, know that this is not a mark of its failure.
There’s an expression Butte County Emergency Manager Cindi Dunsmoor introduced me to: Semper Gumby.
“You have to be flexible,” she advises. “You have to have plan A, B and C and know in the back of your mind ‘Ok, I know this is the plan, but sometimes that plan doesn’t work out and we’ve got backups and backups.’”
Improvisation is not the tap dance you do when you’re intending something else. Improvisation IS the dance.
Has a hurricane destroyed the main bridge off your island and cut off your preferred escape route? What other paths are there to safety? Another bridge? A ferry? A private boat? Or is moving no longer the best course of action? Can your best safety now be found by hunkering down and riding it out?
Lesson 7: Respect the Math
In a normal emergency situation – a co-worker’s heart attack, a shooting, a building fire – those first responders “outnumber” the forces causing the danger. They can arrive and deal with it. But in making your plan to deal with disaster, this ‘call someone’ impulse works against you.
What separates disasters from emergencies is that they are overwhelming and cannot be controlled. The math goes in the opposite direction.
On the day the Camp Fire swept over the Paradise Ridge, thousands of firefighters, police and sheriff’s deputies, and emergency medical responders rushed to Butte County. Combined with those already in the county, the rough number of those dealing with the disaster was somewhere between 5,000 and 7,000.
Those moving off the ridge numbered about 52,000. Even if every responder was doing nothing but helping people evacuate – not fighting fire, not treating injuries, not directing resources – the math makes the task impossible.
So you need to plan as though you are on your own. Not because those responsible for dealing with disaster don’t care or planned poorly, but because it is mathematically impossible for them to help everyone. Your job is to accept this, escape the danger zone and live to deal with the aftermath.
There’s more at the link, and in the first two articles in the series (linked above). Highly recommended reading.
I suggest keeping an eye on Homeland Security Today for future articles in the series (if any – I don’t know how many are planned). They appear to be coming out at weekly intervals. If so, and if there are more, the next one should appear tomorrow. See the author’s page there for links to all his articles.
It’s far better to learn from others’ experience than to learn things the hard way ourselves. As Will Rogers famously put it:
“Good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment.”
Let’s avoid making bad judgments by studying the experience of others, and learn good judgment from what they can teach us.