Red Flag Warnings Issued. Why You Should Be Ready To Evacuate

LA County firefighters work to stop flames from reaching a house under construction on Dume Drive in Malibu during the Woolsey Fire on November 9, 2018. (Brian Feinzimer/Fein Image)

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So far this year, more than 8,100 wildfires have burned more than 3.7 million acres, destroying thousands of structures and killing 26 people in California.

The crazy thing is, we've just arrived at what's typically the worst part of the year for fires: fall.

Not only is vegetation dangerously dry and ready to burn, but strong Santa Ana winds have started to show up, meaning wind-driven fires are a very real concern.

With wind gusts that can top 100 mph, fires can be pushed along so quickly that they can trap people in their homes or cars before they've had a chance to evacuate. The fires can become all but unstoppable, consuming entire towns. Or, in the case of the Woolsey Fire in 2018, burn all of the way across L.A. to the ocean.

The Woolsey Fire reaches the ocean along Pacific Coast Highway (Highway 1) near Malibu, California, November 9, 2018. (Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images)

In short, if strong winds show up, you need to be ready to go in case the worst occurs.

FAST MOVING FIRES CAN SHOW UP AT ANY TIME

Just because there's no fire nearby when you go to sleep, doesn't mean that you won't be forced to leave quickly in the middle of the night. All it takes is a spark from a powerline or a passing car to kick off a small blaze that quickly grows in size because of wild winds.

If the National Weather Service issues a Red Flag Warning — high winds and low humidity — you should get ready to go, especially if you live in an area that's prone to burning.

Obviously, the threat depends on the intensity of the wind event.

But the L.A. County Fire Department understands what can happen and regularly positions strike teams in places like Santa Clarita, Malibu, and other dry, mountainous areas, that they know could get hit.

If they're ready, you need to be as well.

HAVE A GO BAG

When the Saddle Ridge Fire broke out near our house last October, we saw the writing on the wall and packed up bags in case we had to evacuate in the middle of the night or early the next morning (we did).

We considered what we'd pack if we had to go on vacation (and for some reason had to bring things like tax documents and jewelry with us) for an extended period of time.

We packed:

  • A week's worth of clothes for each family member
  • Medicines
  • Baby formula, diapers, wipes, etc.
  • A few gallons of water and snacks
  • Camping gear
  • Jewelry and cash
  • Important documents (we keep these in their own box ready to go whenever)
  • Hard drives and computers

I set these by the door so they could be easily grabbed and thrown in the car. If you have the option, consider keeping these things in your car overnight.

If I had had the foresight, I also would've made sure that our car's gas tank was filled when the Red Flag Warning was issued.

HOW TO KNOW A FIRE IS COMING

You may or may not find out until there's a conflagration bearing down on you.

In that case, obviously, get out as quickly as possible.

But there's also a chance that you could get an alert on your phone depending on when the fire started and how fast moving it is.

If you have a smartphone you're likely already signed up for Wireless Emergency Alerts — the same system that distributes Amber Alerts. Your county or city could choose to utilize it in a worst-case scenario, but they're sometimes reluctant to issue them unless things are really bad. They don't want people unsubscribing from the system because they're getting pestered with messages.

Both L.A. County and L.A. City have their own alert systems that you need to proactively sign up for. You can choose to receive texts which may arrive in the middle of the night when there's some sort of emergency event, like a wildfire.

That said, your power, cell, and internet service might be down. So listen for law enforcement or firefighters outside telling people to get up and go.

CONSIDER LEAVING EARLY

If you're right in the path of a fire that's already kicked off and you know the winds are blowing in your direction (pretty much just out towards the ocean during a Santa Ana wind event), you should consider leaving before mandatory evacuation notices are issued.

Much like leaving Dodger Stadium in the 7th inning, it could help you avoid getting stuck in bad traffic out of your area.

It took us about four hours last year to drive from L.A. to Santa Ynez when trying to escape smoke from the Saddle Ridge Fire.

WHEN CAN WE RELAX ABOUT FIRE?

That's a deep question, but in this context, we'll be in much better shape when the rainy season shows up.

That should be some time in late November, early December, but sometimes it takes a while.

Remember the Thomas Fire? That burned into January because of the delayed rainy season. And just last year we didn't see substantial rain until March.

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