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Climate and Environment

Evacuation Terms Can Be Confusing. Here’s What They Mean And How To Sign Up For Alerts

A person stands out of their car door on the phone looking concerned. There's a long line of cars on the road with smoke in the air
People evacuate ahead of the Caldor Fire on August 30, 2021 in South Lake Tahoe, California.
(Justin Sullivan
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Getty Images)
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Evacuations during events like wildfires are the time when we need to know exactly what we should do, and when, to stay safe.

But if you’ve been around California, you may have noticed local agencies use different words for evacuation stages. Some have multiple levels of an evacuation and throw in a “notice” here or “advisory” there. Yep, it’s confusing for all of us.

It’s also true that wildfires, earthquakes and other disasters don’t like to stick inside county lines, so to help us all be on the same page, in 2019 the California Office of Emergency Services recommended agencies standardize evacuation terms.

Its guidance purged the voluntary and mandatory evacuation categories. Instead, the office recommends evacuation warnings or orders. In simple terms, it’s either get ready or get out.

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Keep in mind, local agencies aren’t required to use this language, but many already do. That includes Ventura County, CalFire, Los Angeles County, L.A. city, Riverside County and San Bernardino County. It’s not exactly the best system because it’s optional, but your agency should make directions clear, too.

What Are Evacuation Warnings?

A warning means there’s a potential threat to your life and/or property.

If you need extra time to evacuate, this is your window to get packed up and go — especially if you’re an older adult, have a disability, have animals or children.

Warnings are supposed to come before orders, but emergency situations could escalate fast. In the case of the Bobcat wildfire in 2020, there was only a day between evacuation warnings and orders in Juniper Hills. Sometimes, there could be only hours.

Remember: Emergency services in some areas might use “advisory” or “notice” instead of “warning,” but they all mean the same thing: There’s a high chance you’ll have to evacuate, so you should prepare.

What Are Evacuation Orders?

An order means there’s an immediate threat to your life and/or property. It’s a lawful order to leave the area right away, and the public isn’t allowed back in until the order is lifted.

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Let’s be clear: When orders are issued, you need to leave immediately. Staying to protect your home or stick it out is a deadly risk. When an evacuation order happens, it’s mandatory.

Some agencies may still issue voluntary evacuation orders, which means that a threat is close but not imminent. This is more like the evacuation warning.

But emergencies can get dangerous fast — even during a voluntary evacuation — so it’s safest to get away quickly when either order happens.

How Can I Stay Updated On Evacuations In My Area?

Every second counts during a disaster, so you should sign up for your area’s emergency alert systems.

For fires, there is no centralized system in Southern California. Each county in our region — Los Angeles, Orange, Ventura, San Bernardino and Riverside — uses its own emergency alert system as well as social media to share the latest information.

First things first, make sure your emergency alerts are turned on in your phone settings.

The California Office of Emergency Services already sends your cellphone emergency alerts through what's known as the Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) system. It's that loud vibrating noise that sometimes comes through in the middle of the night.

Changing your phone settings ensures that you get messages about all the biggies: presidential, Amber and imminent threat alerts. That last one covers information on severe man-made or natural disasters such as earthquakes, wildfires, hurricanes and tornadoes.

Next, find your county and sign up. You should also consider adding counties as you visit them — for example, if you're camping in Yosemite you'd be wise to sign up for emergency alerts for Mariposa County:

What’s The Evacuation Process Like?

According to CalFire, law enforcement agencies are typically responsible for enforcing an evacuation order.

The goal is to notify people of an evacuation as soon as possible, but you should stay plugged into the news if there’s a disaster near you.

During an evacuation, there will be announcements made in your area telling you what to do: either get ready to leave or get out immediately. Authorities can use automated phone calls, text messages, go door-to-door and even use a “hi-lo” siren to alert people.

You’ll most likely be told about temporary assembly areas where evacuees can go. If you sign up for those emergency alerts, they’ll have this information, too.

How Should I Prepare For An Evacuation?

You can do things now to make evacuating quicker.

CalFire says you should prepare an evacuation kit that includes a host of necessities. Ideally, you’d be heading to an evacuation point that you’ve either planned with family or a temporary spot for any evacuees.

You should make a go-bag for at least these items:

  • Animal food for any pets
  • Any essential valuables (laptops, hard drives, family heirlooms, etc.)
  • Battery-powered radio and extra batteries
  • Clothing
  • First aid kit
  • Flashlight
  • Maps (with planned routes to leave!)
  • Non-perishable food and water
  • Personal document copies and photos
  • Phones
  • Prescriptions or special medications

Keep in mind the weight of your bags so they don’t slow you down. Carrying food (about a three-day supply) and water (three gallons per person) is best in a tub or chest on wheels.

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Updated September 9, 2022 at 11:33 AM PDT
This story updates with additional information on how to activate emergency alerts.