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Podcasts The Big Burn: How To Survive the Age of Wildfires
The Big Burn: The Advice Episode
A person in silhouette looks out at hills on fire with the words; The Big Burn in orange display type
LAist)
Episode 9
29:04
The Big Burn: The Advice Episode
Jacob and retired LA County Fire Captain Derek Bart answer your burning questions. This episode is sponsored by BetterHelp. Give online therapy a try at betterhelp.com/bigburn and get on your way to being your best self.

Jacob Margolis  00:00

[driving ambi] Where is this place?

 

Jacob Margolis  00:01

I'm back in Topanga Canyon in the Santa Monica Mountains, driving up a twisty narrow road lined with big ol' Oak Trees [in background- JM: Where is this place? (laughs)] and shrubby Chaparral on hillsides. [in background- JM: I think this might be it.] I'm downhill from the dome home deep in the canyon, [JM: Wow, this is...] looking for one of those houses tucked into dense greenery that hasn't burned for a long time.

 

Jacob Margolis  00:20

Sorry, I went around in circles for a, [car door slams] for a minute. [in background- JK: It happens.] That's Jared Klusner, a surfer dude in shorts and a [JM: Yeah.] [conversation continues under narration] T-shirt, with a bit of salt in his dark hair. I actually met him a few years back at a party of a mutual friend. And his house, it turns out, is this cute single-story home with beautiful stone floors, white plaster walls, and a garden outside where he's growing some really good looking tomatoes.

 

Jacob Margolis  00:42

This is beautiful. You guys have chickens?

 

Jared Klusner  00:43

We have chickens up there. [airplane flying overhead] Fruit trees. [duck under]

 

Jacob Margolis  00:48

Because I report on disasters, people often want to talk to me about scary existential things and how to prep for them. And the last time Jared and I spoke about fire was when he first moved here to this spot in the middle of all this brush. We got to talking about how much risk he was taking on by living here. And he argued that it was very little, that this place almost never burns, that prepping isn't necessary, to which I ended up saying pretty simply, it will burn bad, and good luck. Well, it's been a few years, and I wanted to see if he'd started to take fire a bit more seriously.

 

Jacob Margolis  01:20

Well, so I, I remember you guys had just moved here. And I remember asking you like, oh, what do you think about like wildfires?

 

Jared Klusner  01:28

And what did I say then?

 

Jacob Margolis  01:29

You were like, oh, it never burns in Topanga Canyon. [JK laughs] It's not gonna burn at all. It's never, nothing's ever gonna happen.

 

Jared Klusner  01:35

Sounds like something I would say. Yeah, I guess like, I guess I've changed that tune a little bit, you know. Um, I mean, at that point when I met you, I had one child who was like, super young. I was probably still living as if maybe I didn't have a family, maybe, you know, like I'm, I'm an older dad. So like, my personality was- those grooves were formed and uh, I've had to like re-dig those new grooves in of being like a family man. But um, but I, I, I definitely go back and forth with that, like, maybe we met in the winter. I don't know.

 

Jacob Margolis  02:11

[laughs] Why? Are your winter thoughts different than your summer thoughts?

 

Jared Klusner  02:15

Like I was telling you, yeah. Like when it's like now and it's like 95 degrees, and there hasn't been rain for many months, everything is so dry. I mean, like, look at this plant right next to me that just is sort of brittle. Um, yeah, you sort of feel that, just that risk, I guess.

 

Jacob Margolis  02:34

Not even Jared could deny the risk any longer. Having a family and knowing something can happen at any time can change a person. [JK talking in background] He bought go bags he saw on Shark Tank. He's got a little alarm to tell him if the power gets shut off, that might indicate issues with sparking power lines nearby. And because he too now has anxiety about fast moving fires on windy nights, he leaves his gate open and his truck backed into his driveway ready to go, so they can zoom away at a moment's notice.

 

Jacob Margolis  03:03

So, what was the turning point for you that you decided to start to prep a little bit?

 

Jared Klusner  03:07

[sighs] I wonder if it was like the Woolsey Fire. It was like, it was close to home. You know what I mean? Like it was like we were watching this thing track. And, um it was-

 

Jacob Margolis  03:20

Right outside of your canyon, basically.

 

Jared Klusner  03:22

Yeah, and like, is it coming this way? Is it coming that way. And it's sort of like I didn't want to be the guy that like got myself into a situation and didn't have anything. It just kind of like, I didn't want my own laziness or frugalness to get in the way of like something that could be prevented.

 

Jacob Margolis  03:38

What was the first thing that you went and did in terms of prep? Like, what was the thought that you had? And then what was the first thing that you did?

 

Jared Klusner  03:44

It took me like another year to actually prep after that. I think there's something psychological about not prepping, which is like just, just the basic psychology of just procrastinating, just not wanting to deal with hard things. Like really the best part you could do is like maybe not live here. [laughs] Maybe that's it. I don't know.

 

Jacob Margolis  04:05

[music in] I know. Prepping is hard because there's a lot of scary stuff attached to it. You've got to think through worst case scenarios, accepting you'll one day be out of control, that your life might be threatened. It can feel so overwhelming that maybe you haven't even started. It's okay. Don't feel bad. Those feelings are normal. But it's time we've got to do something about it together. A lot of what we've talked about throughout this series has been about the big changes we need to make, and the complex problems we don't have a ton of control over. Now, I want to focus on the practical, what you can do sorts of things, to help you prep for and survive a wildfire. This is The Big Burn. I'm Jacob Margolis. [music out] [break]

 

Jacob Margolis  05:07

This is pretty good, actually for a little booth. [DB: Yeah, it's...] It doesn't get like miserably hot? [DB: No, and I can control the air in here.] Okay. [DB: Your headphone volume's right here.]

 

Derek Bart  05:16

Yeah, talk, it's a little intimidating, right? [DB laughs] Mic in your face, like you know [JM laughs] [DB: Yeah, you tell somebody to talk and all of a sudden, uh, what am I gonna say? Yeah...]

 

Jacob Margolis  05:25

Who better to ask about how to prep for and survive wildfires than Derek Bart, a former LA County fire captain who fought them for more than 30 years. Derek's faced fire in the woods, in urban areas, all over the place. So today, we'll be hearing questions and stories from listeners talking to Derek about different scenarios. And by the end of this episode, you'll have a better idea of some of the basic stuff you should do to get ready. And if all that sounds intimidating to you, and you're like, Nope! I'm not a prepper, not gonna do any of this. Take a deep breath. Stay with me. We're gonna start super basic.

 

Jacob Margolis  05:48

All right, Derek, I've got this friend, Melissa Kuypers, who loves texting me about disaster [DB laughs] prep. She left me a message with this important question:

 

Melissa Kuypers  06:07

I am super excited for this wildfire podcast because yes, I have a lot of questions, and I really like to be able to uh, prep my way through anxiety. And yes, I have a lot of anxiety about wildfires. How do I know when it's time to start prepping my house, getting my things in the car, and organizing myself in a way that I can leave if I need to? So is there a specific calculus I use? Like, the fire is within X miles of me, or it is Y size, or are, there are Z helicopters flying above my head?

 

Derek Bart  06:45

Actually, she touched on a lot of great things there. Uh, first thing to do is go outside. Where's that smoke coming? It's coming my way; the fire is coming my way. Um yeah, if there's copters making water drops by you, yeah. If there's a big airplane dropping retardant down, they're doing that ahead of time to put that fire in check [JM: Mm hmm.] um, hopefully, but then again, they're painting a line, but winds are gonna throw embers beyond that line. Trust your instinct. I see smoke. [JM: Yeah.] I see helicopters. I see a lot of fire engines around here. I see road closures in my neighborhood. If you wait to see how bad it gets, that may be the last decision you ever made. Uh-

 

Jacob Margolis  06:45

Especially if the wind is blowing towards you. [DB: Correct.] Especially.

 

Jacob Margolis  07:31

There are also some online tools that can give you a heads up before a fire gets to you. One thing you can do is follow local fire departments, sheriff's departments, city, and state governments on social media, especially Twitter, because that's often where they end up posting their most up to date information, like if there are power outages or if they're starting to evacuate people. I'd also sign up for emergency messages for my city and county. [music in] Okay, but what if you have to evacuate very quickly and you don't have time to pack bags? Well, that's why you've got to prep for that scenario in advance. And in my opinion, it's essential to have go bags, at least one in your home and one in your car. So if a fire starts while you're at home, you can just grab your stuff quickly and go. Or at the very least, you have the basics in your car. [music fades out]

 

Jacob Margolis  08:21

So, uh, Derek, I myself like I am a bit neurotic about prepping. [laughs] Like, I want to know if this go bag-

 

Derek Bart  08:29

That's a good thing.

 

Jacob Margolis  08:29

Yeah, well that's wow. That's really good to hear. Um, well, I actually brought some stuff in studio with me and I, I want us to take a look at it really quickly if that's okay with you.

 

Derek Bart  08:37

Certainly.

 

Jacob Margolis  08:38

Um, all right. So, I always keep this bag in my car. [thump] Um, and-

 

Derek Bart  08:43

Great size.

 

Jacob Margolis  08:44

This is about the, it's like a, it's a small carry-on duffel. Yeah, I would love to open the bag [DB: By all means, let's take a look.] and show you what I've got.

 

Jacob Margolis  08:50

[music in] Oh, I have underwear in here. I have extra clothes. I have a little can opener here because you know theoretically it's the apocalypse and I come across this [DB: Right.] stash of cans. Um, I got a space blanket uh, and we have some first aid stuff. Cold compresses, my whistle, [blows whistle] I've clotting gauze, [music out] and that is about everything that I have in my kit in my car. I, I would love it if you can kind of give me a quick assessment of, of my, my stuff that I got here.

 

Derek Bart  09:19

I'd give you a B plus.

 

Jacob Margolis  09:20

Okay, okay. That's pretty, [JM and DB together: That's not bad, right?]

 

Derek Bart  09:23

You don't have uh, any canned goods in there. I would focus more on things that will sustain you. You're not gonna go through a drive thru and grab a bite to eat because those places are gonna be closed too.

 

Jacob Margolis  09:34

So it could be backpacking food or like protein bars.

 

Derek Bart  09:37

Sure. So think about it. Energy. Fuel for your body. Good fuel. [JM: Mmm hmm.] You know, not ravioli. [DB and JM laugh]

 

Jacob Margolis  09:44

Oh, I, well I- I'm glad I don't have my other car here which is just a trunk of ravioli. [music in]

 

Jacob Margolis  09:50

If you want Derek to give you an A plus on your go bag, here are the basics. Think warmth, water, food and first aid. So have a blanket or extra clothes to stay warm especially if it's cold, a first aid kit in case you get cuts and scrapes with extra medicine if you need it, food to keep yourself fed because you might not see food for a while. And finally, water because we can't live long without it. Remember, these are bare essentials. But you should also consider making your important documents easily grabbable along with any other valuables you really want to save. I keep mine by our door. [music out] Oh, and make sure if you have a pet, you've got a kit for them too, which I talked about with Mimi Teller over at the Red Cross, who told me to think about prepping for your pet like you would a family member.

 

Mimi Teller  10:39

Have a kit for your, your animal. You, you want to have their medications, their medical records, a l- an extra leash, an extra collar with extra ID. You know, sometimes people take their pets' collars off at night. I'll never do that. And, and if you have to flee in an instant, if your house is on fire, hopefully you have a kit by the front door with this information in it. It doesn't hurt to have a picture of your animal in case you're separated. It's an even better idea to have a picture with you and your animal uh, in this kit. And definitely bring their favorite toy and their favorite treats. And it's not a bad idea to also have a travel carrier or a travel crate.

 

Jacob Margolis  11:22

If you have large animals like horses, which a lot of people do here in Southern California, consider how you're gonna get them into trailers if you have to go and if there are any local evacuation centers like fairgrounds that may be able to accommodate them. Evacuating may mean being away from your home for days, if not weeks at a time, up ending everything. And it can get really complicated, especially if someone has a disability or special needs that need to be accommodated. Listener Diana Pastora Carson shared her story with us.

 

Diana Pastora Carson  11:55

My name is Diana Pastora Carson. I am first and foremost a sibling advocate to my brother Joaquin, who experiences autism, and who was institutionalized for 15 years of his life. And after a three-year court battle, he is now my next door neighbor. And we've developed a home that's designed to meet his needs as a person with some significant behavioral dysregulation at times. In 2020, we had two wildfires, and we had to evacuate twice from his personalized home setting. As soon as we knew we had to leave, we rounded up all of his medical supplies, all of his legal documents. He even has a specialized mattress that's sanitizable, and we tied that down on top of his van. It was pretty scary. My heart was racing, you know, we couldn't take him to a hotel. We couldn't take him to the high school where people were evacuating to. It was too, would be too overwhelming for him. And he would very likely be endangered um, and could possibly harm others if he were having an outburst and people did not know how to respond to him. We could not find anywhere to take Joaquin. We couldn't find a place that was accessible for his needs. Fortunately, he loves driving around in cars and we were able to keep him um, entertained in the car for as long as we could. And um, I'm just so thankful we were able to come home that same day because I don't know what we would have done.

 

Jacob Margolis  13:40

[music in] What Diana and Joaquin had to go through isn't uncommon. A lot of evacuation centers aren't set up to accommodate people with all types of disabilities. And that's something you need to consider while prepping, whether it's for yourself or a family member. For people with disabilities in California, know that you'll probably be on your own. And you really need to set up a system around you to say, help you evacuate if things go wrong, because firefighters won't necessarily be there to get you out. There's one more story that I want to play that speaks to all the different considerations in prep different people need to do. It's from Larkin O'Leary, a mom of eight-year-old James, who was born with Down syndrome, a heart condition and other medical issues. He needs specific accommodations. For example, he only eats pureed foods, which you need an electric blender to make. Well, they had to evacuate from Sonoma County back in 2017, which was really tough. And since then, Larkin's put an entire prep system in place to help make things easier for her son. [music fades out]

 

Larkin O'Leary  14:47

Some of the solutions we've come up with um, at the beginning of fire season when we see that there's a fire near or a potential for fire, we have a story that we read to James so that James is aware of the sounds and he's aware of the smoke and the fires. We also start to prepare early so we have a go bag for the hospital anyways. Um, but keeping things like his medicine close, um and then a checklist of the different things like his Instapot, the blender, and the different uh, things we need from his bed in order tuh, to make sure that he's able to sleep when we're not at home.

 

Derek Bart  15:28

I, I take my hat off to those two ladies, uh for what they've had to deal with and the way they've dealt with it and what a great job they've done. Advice I would give- Whatever community you're in, interact with your neighbors. Given that you can, think about that lady down the street. Let your neighbors know that you have somebody with special needs. You have a mom at home on oxygen or needs electricity. So if power goes out, a neighbor's got a generator.

 

Jacob Margolis  16:00

Like we talked about in episode seven, power shut offs are becoming more common, which is an issue if you need to power medical equipment. The good news is that there are some power companies that offer backup batteries for things like infusion pumps, respirators, suction machines that you may be pre-qualified to get if you live in a high fire risk area. Disabilityrightsca.org can help you with information about shut offs, which pharmacies are open, or how to get additional batteries. [music in] Now let's talk about your home. You're not necessarily going to stay behind and fight the fire yourself. In fact, I'd recommend against it. So what can you do to help save it?

 

Jacob Margolis  16:40

Derek, I am curious. You have fought a ton of fires, especially in canyon areas with lots of homes tucked into a lot of trees that do burn. What kind of landscaping drives you nuts? [music out]

 

Derek Bart  16:54

You know, we love Palm trees here in California, right? But nobody likes to trim those old dead palm fronds [JM: Mm hmm.] and if you know what a Roman candle is, basically, Palm trees on fire are Roman candles. So I'll tell ya- Woolsey fire in 2018, uh we're on the backside in Decker Canyon, we're going to fires coming down Decker, and we find these homes that we want to protect. So okay, we, we're gonna make a stand here. [clears throat] There's a group of homes we're gonna protect. A couple of them had good defensible space. They did what they were supposed to do. Now mind you we're in November. They were supposed to clear this out by summer. This one guy had a ton of palm trees, had never trimmed any of his palm trees. He had shrubs and brush and duff you know, just old leaves just ev- it is as though he was inviting, he was asking Mr. Fire, please come clean my place out for me, which it ended up doing. Now as, as hard as we worked to save that place, um eventually, unfortunately, it did burn.

 

Jacob Margolis  18:02

Derek says help firefighters help you. Build defensible space around your home. Clear things that can burn. You want to keep embers and flames away. Another big reason for the prep? You want to make sure that if firefighters come to save your home, they feel safe doing so.

 

Derek Bart  18:19

You have to make an assessment. Hey, if we go and sit in here and fire comes through here, can we survive? Well, with certain things like defensible spaces, yes, we can. Others, oh my god, no. This is a death trap, and I'm not gonna send my guys in there.

 

Jacob Margolis  18:35

Because you might be caught at the end of the road with just- [DB: Correct.] Yeah.

 

Derek Bart  18:39

You know, you have a one lane road, uh, you have nothing, no defensible space. And when that fire comes at you, it's gonna throw everything at you and you're, you're toast. And those houses usually get cleaned out from those fires. So it's not a matter of saying oh, because you didn't do anything, I'm not going to help you. It's a matter of, can we survive if we're here protecting this home?

 

Jacob Margolis  19:07

Okay, so Derek, my friend Melissa also had another question.

 

Melissa Kuypers  19:12

If I do have to evacuate what's the best state to leave my house in? Like, should I shut off the gas? Do I want to leave doors unlocked? Do I want to leave hoses in a specific way or turn on the water? Basically, what can I do to help any firefighters give me the best chance of coming back to a house that's still standing? Okay, just talking about this is giving me more anxiety. Um, okay, thank you for taking my questions and I am for sure gonna take you up on your offer to text you my questions anytime I want because I have a lot. Bye.

 

Derek Bart  19:46

Great question. Great question. If you have a pool, it's great to put a marker on your curb right next to your address with a picture of a pool or "pool in rear." It gives us an opportunity when we roll into an area, and let's say hydrants being down or, or no hydrant there. Oh, we got a pool here. We can draft out of this pool. You know?

 

Jacob Margolis  20:09

Firefighters can actually use pumps on their trucks to pull water out of your pool to spray flames, which may be really important because in fires, water lines can fail, and your pool might be the only water they have available. Sometimes winds shift and firefighters get surrounded by flames while trying to save a house, which is why Derek says to Melissa, leave your garage door unlocked.

 

Derek Bart  20:32

And the purpose of that is, we can go into your home uh, if need be, and we need to retreat, uh we can go into that garage. We can hide out in there til that thing blows over, come out, and then knock down the smokes.

 

Jacob Margolis  20:47

Prepping your property could save your home and a firefighter’s life. When we come back, whether you should shelter in your garage if you get caught in a house that catches on fire. [break]

 

Jacob Margolis  20:57

[music in] All right, so far we've talked about how you know when it's time to evacuate, what to prepare if you're gonna have to leave your home suddenly, and what you can do to help keep it from burning down. But what if everything goes pear shaped and you get caught?

 

Jacob Margolis  21:16

Okay, let's say that someone doesn't evacuate in time, or sometimes fires start in the middle of the night and people are sleeping and they just don't know, and they get caught off guard. What if you're- What should someone do if they're stuck inside a home, and there's a wildfire burning around them, and the house is on fire? [music out]

 

Derek Bart  21:33

Stay outside, make an assessment of the fire. If it gets really bad, find a defensible area in your home, i.e. your garage. Unlatch that garage door. Hide out in the pool room or the garage. Do a group text, have a group text or- somebody, let them know that you're there. And the hope is that it's gonna blow through there and you're gonna hear it. And it's gonna sound like a freight train. Let it come through, and then come out on the other side of it. And you can survive, you know, the smoke and the heat and all that. But you don't want to be there when that fire front hits your home and eats up all the fuel outside.

 

Jacob Margolis  22:17

But should I, should I buy some Nomex, like a fireproof [____] just in case?

 

Derek Bart  22:21

See, the problem with that is people start buying things, then they start thinking "I can do this." And that gives you a false sense of protection.

 

Jacob Margolis  22:31

So no, no Nomex?

 

Derek Bart  22:33

No.

 

Jacob Margolis  22:35

Derek says don't put your hope in fireproof Nomex gear, that you should prioritize leaving early. So again, set up your alerts. Pay attention to if a fire breaks out near you. The point is, don't get caught in a burning house if you can avoid it.

 

Jacob Margolis  22:53

Derek, thank you. Thanks for coming in.

 

Derek Bart  22:56

Thanks for having me. Appreciate it.

 

Jacob Margolis  22:58

[music in] Now, lots of people in California live in places that don't regularly burn. But during wildfire season, you could very well be breathing really nasty smoke for weeks at a time. And it could do a number on your health, including increase the risk of heart attack. You can try to keep smoke out by sealing leaky windows and running air purifiers. Although that equipment can be really expensive. [music out] We've talked about a number of practical ways to prep for fire. You can get your house ready, build an emergency kit, talk to your family and friends about how you might evacuate last minute. But there's one big thing that Derek can't help us prepare for. What happens to your life when you lose everything, something I started thinking a lot about after hearing listener Ana Maria Montoya's story.

 

Ana Maria Montoya  23:50

So the morning of November 8th, 2018, I got on the road very early for an overnight trip to LA. And a friend of mine had texted me while I was driving and asked, "Are you okay?" And it wasn't someone that I speak to all the time, so it was kind of an odd text and I thought, Yeah, I'm, I'm good, you know? Um, and then he said, "I'm asking because of the fire in Paradise." And it was just like, um, like a sickening feeling. So I tried to call my mother, and she couldn't be reached. All of the um, circuits had been destroyed. And honestly, I was just in a state of shock. I was just frozen. I, I could not let my mind entertain the possibility that something had happened to her. And then several hours later, she reached out to me. So she had escaped through the mountains, and she's elderly. She's able bodied, which is a gift, but she had this old like 2005 Buick that was literally held together in parts with duct tape. And that's what she drove out of there. We found out that the house had been destroyed to the ground. To the ground, nothing left. Um, I later saw photos and there was a washer dryer, and even the metal on the washer dryer was mangled. It was all so surreal. I felt very detached in a way. Like it, it's such an overwhelming event, losing things from your childhood, your, your, like my father passed away when I was a little girl, like all the photos that exist of him, all the photos of my own childhood, those kind of things that you will never get back. I think, I think I'm still recovering. I think that the most important thing is looking on the plus side, which can be very hard to do when you're tallying up big losses. But [music in] if you're alive to tally them, if you have family members who also are with you, you have a huge gift. And none of those things can be replaced. All right. Bye bye.

 

Jacob Margolis  26:38

We often talk about what life is like for people in the immediate moments after a disaster. But disaster lingers. Even though Ana's finding the bright side four years later, she says she's still very much recovering. And that's something that I heard and felt from countless people I talked to for this podcast. And it left me wanting to know how do we come to terms with this very scary world we find ourselves living in?

 

Lev  27:05

I just wanted to go home and not see the smoke cloud because it made me worried. I was starting to get scared.

 

Jacob Margolis  27:17

That's next episode on The Big Burn. [music out]

 

Jacob Margolis  27:22

[music in] The Big Burn is created, written, recorded, and hosted by me, Jacob Margolis. Shana Naomi Krochmal is our Vice President of Podcasts. Antonia Cereijido and Leo G are the executive producers for LAist Studios. Our producer is Minju Park, with additional production by Anjuli Sastry Krbecheck and Monica Bushman. Bruno Lopez-Vega is our intern. Natalie Chudnovsky is the senior producer. Editing by Meg Cramer. Fact checking by Caitlin Antonios. Professor Theresa Gregor is our Native cultural content reader. Sound design and mixing by E. Scott Kelly. Original music by Andy Clausen. Our website LAist.com is designed by Andy Cheatwood and the digital and marketing teams at LAist Studios. The marketing team of LAist Studios created our branding. Artwork for this show by Dan Carino. Thanks to the team at LAist Studios including Taylor Coffman, Sabir Brara, Kristen Hayford, Kristen Muller, Andy Orozco, Michael Cosentino, and Leo G. Support for this podcast is made possible by Gordon and Dona Crawford, who believe that quality journalism makes Los Angeles a better place to live, the Strelow Family, and by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people. The Big Burn is a production of LAist Studios. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.