Important lessons re-learned from the Camp Fire disaster


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.



  1. Sounds like things I've learned from self defense classes and being a prepper. Imagine that.

  2. First rule of Natural Disasters – Don't live in a crowded community.

    Second rule of Natural Disasters – If you get caught up in the evac, you're hosed.

    Third rule of Natural Disasters – One way in means one way out.

    None of this, from the article, is new. Anyone sensible has known this for forever.

    And I think that's the issue. Sensible and California politics/forestry management don't go well together.

    In reality, what we learned from the Camp Fire.

    California's forestry management sucks and will kill people and sterilize the land because between the leftist politics and the watermelon environmentalists (green on the outside, red on the inside) there is no safe and sustainable forestry management program.

    Until you have a safe and sustainable forestry program, California is hosed, because once the forests and scrub are gone, the hills melt in the rains, the hills move when the ground shakes, and people are hosed.

  3. The crusty old senior engineer was working at his desk when the staff ran into his office screaming and crying that it's just been discovered a giant asteroid will hit earth in 24 hours, destroying all life and knocking the planet out of its orbit and into the sun. Without looking up the old engineer points to his bookcase and says “Top shelf, blue binder, Section 14.”

    He had done a SWOT analysis and was prepared; SWOT- Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats – is a critical step in preparing for disasters or any other interruption to “normal” activities. A good SWOT analysis will not be done in a few minutes, it will probably take at least a couple weeks of “heavy skull sweat” and research to build a comprehensive analysis.

    Define threats, examine opportunities, build response plans, design options, procure the resources – training, education, prep supplies, training, communication options, education, priorities, individual and group responsibilities, education, medical equipment, training, the list goes on and on (and did I mention training and education?). Brush fires can happen in Florida, but hurricanes are higher on the list; As the Camp Fire demonstrated, fire was a greater consideration there than hurricanes, and folks in Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma, Arkansas would put tornadoes well above either.

    Do the analysis, build plans (go several plans deep because options are lifesavers), take your time, and get it right. Then periodically review what you've built because nothing is static – conditions change, from local construction to weather patterns to individual or group requirements, resource availability changes. It's real work to stay one step ahead but you don't want to be even half a step behind.

  4. Proactive rather than reactive… My ex and her husband got out… Barely… 7 hours to go less than 100 miles.

  5. Having two friends that lived in Paradise CA area, they really had a lot of fun with natural disasters in that year. With the dam almost washing out due to enormous flooding and then to the fire. Friend 1 and his family had gone to Friend 2’s home for the flood almost event. Friend 2, from work, had told his wife to get moving as he was not going to be able to get back to the house in time. Both are/were Law enforcement so they did have some idea of what was going on.

    She had packed up what essentials they could before, and just loaded their 3 kiddos and dog (Einstein, yes for real, his name). And she got out, the tail lights on her car were damaged by the heat of the fire he told me later.

    Their house? Well.. there was the pad and two brick/faux posts on the front of the garage that were left. Absolutely nothing else was. (Surprisingly his propane tank didn’t explode, though I’d guess it sure outgassed in an unobserved and spectacular fashion. Trees around the house were clean of branches up probably 70-80 feet etc. Not a pine needle left on the ground remained.

    One interesting thing as well I found was that Costco, at the time, would allow me to send money to him via dropping it off at the store near me and he just had to go to a Costco somewhat near to pick up the donation for help. My boss had suffered a house fire many years ago and I asked what should I send in that respect for the shipping and with the post office probably burning down. “Cash, in this case was best.”

    Friend 2 has since retired to go back to school and they moved to Idaho. The only thing “Paradise CA” is missing is probably a plague of locusts by this point.

  6. California's forest and fire management is nothing but a jobs program. Combine that situation with politics/eco-green idiocy and there is no way to fix the problem.

  7. I liked your "Respect the Math" item. It reminds me of something similar that I learned in one of my community emergency response classes: "Don't be a victim!"

    As you said, the math is overwhelming. Help may be weeks away.

  8. And now California, and much of the West, is dealing with severe drought and the summer hasn't even started yet.

    I'm stocking up on water purification tabs and emergency food.

  9. Lesson 2 – "LEAVE NOW" – strikes home.
    When I started seeing reports of the fire reaching Paradise, and saw vids of people trying to get out (and sometimes failing), I was seriously worried about an ex-GF who'd settled there.
    I eventually got in touch with her; at the first warning, she'd packed her car with her dog and a few essentials and bugged out ahead of the rush. Reached safety before those slower to move started clogging the escape route. She always was basically sensible.

  10. Van derleun at escaped by the hair of his teeth and has quite a few entries on the Camp Fire escapades if your looking for some more first hand accounts.

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