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Climate and Environment

Red Flag Warnings? Here's How To Prepare

Charred sign shows fire danger as very high
A sign showing fire danger levels is charred after the Station Fire swept through the Angeles National Forest in 2009.
(Justin Sullivan
/
Getty Images)
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Strong, dry winds are here again, which means that people who live in areas that are prone to burning should be ready to go in case a fast-moving fire breaks out.

Fires Can Break Out Any Time

Even if there isn't a fire nearby when you go to sleep, you could be forced to leave quickly in the middle of the night. All it takes is a spark from a power line or a passing car to kick off a small blaze. With wild winds, small blazes can become massive fires in record time.

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4:02
Listen: How Firefighter Strike Teams Prep For Fires

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

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

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

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

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Have A Go Bag

When the Saddle Ridge Fire broke out near our house in 2019, we saw the writing on the wall and packed our bags in case we had to evacuate in the middle of the night or early the next morning — which we did.

We considered what we'd pack if we had to go on an extended vacation (and for some reason had to bring tax documents and jewelry).

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 easily be grabbed and thrown in the car. If you have the option, consider keeping these things in your car overnight.
If I'd had the foresight, I also would have made sure that our car's gas tank was filled when the Red Flag Warning was issued.

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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.

Right now, firefighters are getting ready.

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There's also a chance, depending on when a fire starts and how quickly it moves, that you'll receive an alert on your phone.

If you have a smartphone, you're likely already signed up for Wireless Emergency Alerts — the same system that distributes Amber Alerts. Counties and cities can choose to utilize them in a worst-case scenario but they're sometimes reluctant to issue them unless the situation is dire. Officials 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 sign up for. You can choose to receive texts that may arrive in the middle of the night when there is 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 in the path of a fire that has already kicked off and you know the winds are blowing in your direction (pretty much out toward the ocean during a Santa Ana wind event), you should consider leaving before officials issue mandatory evacuation notices.

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

It took us about four hours to drive from L.A. to Santa Ynez when trying to escape smoke from the 2019 Saddle Ridge Fire.

When Can We Relax About Fire?

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

That should be some time in late November or early December, although sometimes it takes longer and this is a drought-prone area.

Remember the Thomas Fire that started in Dec. 2017? It burned into Jan. 2018 because of the delayed rainy season.

Fire Resources

What do you want to know about fires, earthquakes, climate change or any science-related topics?
Jacob Margolis helps Southern Californians understand the science shaping our imperfect paradise and gets us prepared for what’s next.

Updated October 15, 2021 at 10:12 AM PDT
This article was originally published in November 2020. It has been updated with the current conditions.