What to Pack in Your Emergency Bag — With COVID-19 in Mind

The Hennessey Fire - part of the larger LNU Complex Fire - burns in the Spanish Flat area of Napa County near Lake Berryessa on Aug. 18, 2020. (JOSH EDELSON/AFP via Getty Images)

Updated Sept. 28, 9:30 a.m.

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Across California, hot, dry and windy weather conditions have once more resulted in a series of fast-moving wildfires.

Here in the Bay Area, a series of fires burning from the hills on the northeast side of the Napa Valley and west to the eastern edge of the city of Santa Rosa have prompted evacuation orders and warnings. The blazes include the Glass Fire, which started at 3:50 a.m. Sunday near the Deer Park community in the hills northeast of St. Helena, and the Shady and Boysen fires, which started on the west side of the Napa Valley just after sunset Sunday evening, then merged and burned southwest to Santa Rosa. (Follow updates here.)

The increased risk of wildfire has also spurred warnings from the California ISO, and utility providers like PG&E, that rolling blackouts and public safety power shutoffs may take place to prevent fires from sparking.

To top it off, the COVID-19 pandemic has added another layer of challenges for first responders, emergency managers and evacuees headed to evacuation centers.

"We have to have it in our minds that grouping people together and shoving them off in a hurry to one location might present an equal, if not greater life-threatening risk," L. Vance Taylor, part of the executive team for the California governor's Office of Emergency Services, told KQED.

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We gathered tips on what should be in your emergency bag during the pandemic, with advice from San Francisco’s Neighborhood Emergency Response Team (NERT), Listos California Emergency Preparedness Campaign (guide available in English and Spanish), Cal Fire, the American Red Cross and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

  • Have questions or advice on wildfire preparation during the pandemic? Let us know here.

What should be in my go bag?

Items for the pandemic:

  • Face masks or coverings (at least two per person)
  • Sanitation supplies such as hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol, soap and disinfectant wipes

People who are vulnerable to the coronavirus or are self-quarantining may want to take special mask precautions, such as using an N95 masks if you've been saving them. 

Regular emergency bag list:

  • Map marked with at least two evacuation routes
  • Medication, supplies and home-use medical devices
  • Medications list: include all prescriptions and other important medical information
  • An extra set of keys
  • Eyeglasses or contact lenses
  • A change of clothes
  • Cash in small bills
  • First-aid kit
  • Flashlight
  • A portable radio and batteries
  • Charging cables for your cellphone and a portable cellphone battery pack
  • A copy of your ID and other important documents (birth certificates, passports, etc.)
  • Baby supplies, if applicable
  • Water: one gallon a person, per day (three-day supply for evacuation, two-week supply for home)
  • Food: nonperishable, easy-to-prepare items (three-day supply for evacuation, two-week supply for home)

Remember: You may have to walk to safety, so pack your emergency supplies in something that’s durable and easy to carry, such as a backpack or duffle bag. For heavier items, such as food and water, using a tub or chest on wheels may make it easier to transport — but make sure it's still light enough to lift.

Pet emergency bag list: If you have pets, Cal Fire has put together this list of items to make sure you bring, which includes:

  • A carrier for each pet
  • Vaccination and medical records, proof of ownership, a current photo, contact information for the pet's veterinarian
  • Two week supply of food and water
  • Food and water bowls that are non-spill
  • A pet first aid kit
  • Medications and instructions on dosing
  • A cat litter box and litter
  • Waste disposal bags
  • Paper towels and newspaper
  • Disinfectant
  • Leashes/collars/harnesses
  • Blankets
  • Toys and treats

Make sure your pets have collars with identification, rabies and license tags. Check to make sure your contact information is up to date.

For more information on transporting pets, larger animals and livestock, check Cal Fire's guide here.

Items to take if time and space allow:

  • Easily carried valuables
  • Personal computer information on hard drives and disks
  • Extra chargers for cellphones, laptops, etc.
  • Family photos and other irreplaceable items
  • Emergency blanket, extra blankets or sleeping bags
  • Can opener
  • Games and activities for children

Where should I keep my go bag and other essentials?

According to Cal Fire PIO Heather Williams, keeping your bag by your front door or in your car is best. Anywhere you can easily grab it and go.

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How can I prepare my home?

Fire preparedness is multifaceted — especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

If you live in a fire-prone area, it's important to make sure your home is prepared though home hardening and maintaining a defensible space to increase the chance of your home’s survival in the case of a wildfire.

Normally, Cal Fire conducts defensible space inspections at households vulnerable to wildfires, but the pandemic has limited their ability to do so this year. So they've established a self-assessment that homeowners can complete to address where weaknesses may lie.

“This self-assessment helps our inspectors comply with social distancing recommendations while still collecting vital information,” said Chief Thom Porter, Cal Fire director, said in a press release. “We urge you to participate in the survey and do your part to protect your community by creating defensible space and hardening your home to increase its chances of surviving a wildfire."

For more information, see KQED's guide on how to prepare for fire season.

Should we turn off our natural gas?
If you need to evacuate immediately, you should follow evacuation orders and leave.

However, if you have the time, FEMA and Cal Fire recommend that you turn off the gas supply. First locate the shutoff valve, which is usually located close to your gas meter. Using a 12-15 inch wrench, turn off the gas by turning the hand wheel clockwise so that it is perpendicular to the pipe. You should also turn off any propane tanks.

how to turn off your gas safely
PG&E diagram on how to turn off your gas safely. (PG&E/https://www.pge.com/)

Do not turn your natural gas back on by yourself after an evacuation. PG&E crews will inspect each meter and turn it back on.

How will evacuation centers be different from previous years? What precautions will be taken to reduce the spread of COVID-19?

The American Red Cross — which is providing evacuees shelter due to recent California wildfires — established standard precautions based on guidance from health officials, FEMA and the CDC.

However, the Red Cross will prioritize providing refuge in individual hotel rooms or dormitory style rooms when possible.

"The biggest changes is that, when possible, we are trying to support people — who would otherwise need to be in a shelter — with non-congregant accommodations such as motel or hotel rooms. That won't always be possible, but it's our first option these days for obvious reasons," said Jim Burns, spokesperson for the Northern California American Red Cross, in an email.

The Red Cross has already provided more than 40,000 hotel stays across the country since April 16, according to Burns.

To ensure Red Cross emergency shelters are safe, here are additional precautions they are taking at evacuation centers:

  • Everyone coming into the shelter will undergo a health screening and be required to have an appropriate face covering.
  • Increasing wellness checks to identify potential illness, including self-monitoring and checking temperatures of both shelter residents and staff
  • Providing surgical masks, tissues and plastic bags throughout the shelter
  • Providing additional handwashing stations, in addition to normal restroom facilities
  • Planning for setting up an isolation care area in the shelter
  • Following social distancing practices by staggering meal times and adding extra spacing between cots, chairs, tables, etc.
  • Enhancing cleaning and disinfecting practices throughout the shelter.

Plan ahead and find out if your local public shelter is open in case you do get evacuated. Keep in mind that your evacuation center may be different from last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the case of being trapped in an evacuation emergency, you should call 911 and turn on lights to help rescuers find you.

How do you get information on fires prior to evacuation?

You should monitor local alerting systems for the most up-to-date emergency information and instructions. It’s best to set up multiple ways to receive emergency weather alerts:

  • Sign up to get your county’s wireless emergency alerts from the governor’s Office of Emergency Services, which are also available in Spanish.
  • Monitor Cal Fire’s online incident map and download its app, where you can create a readiness plan and learn about imminent threats to your area.
  • Listen to NOAA Weather Radio, which broadcasts information from the nearest National Weather Service station.
  • Follow the Bay Area National Weather Service’s Twitter alerts.

What can I do if I can’t use my smartphone to connect with family and friends?

“We’ve become so reliant on smartphones. And when it fails us, there is that panic moment,” said Capt. Erica Arteseros of San Francisco’s Fire Department, who is the program coordinator for NERT. “So, we always recommend to identify an out-of-state person to be a check-in contact.”

Here's How to Prepare for Fire Season

Arteseros said you should send a text message to that out-of-state person with the time and your location, even if you don’t have wireless service, because that text message will eventually get to that person. Phone calls will fail when cell towers are down for either you or your contact, but text messages work on a relay system between emergency beacons on cell towers, so they are more likely to reach people than voice messages and phone calls.

It's also a good idea to update your social media profiles on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram to let friends and family know your status, including where you are and when you will update your status again. This allows people to know when to expect information from you and will save cellphone battery, allowing you to go without cell service and Wi-Fi for a little while, if you must.

Remember, some smartphones allow you to change settings to make calls over Wi-Fi, and some apps like Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp allow Wi-Fi phone calls.

Will I miss important news because I don't have a smart phone?

Not necessarily. Counties increasingly rely on the WEA system — wireless emergency alerts that by and large are delivered to cellphones through the IPAWS system, the federal integrated public alert and warning system. Those alerts also go to NOAA Weather Radios, which operate on emergency cranks or battery power. NOAA weather radios broadcast official warnings, watches, forecasts and other hazard information consistently.

You can also sign up to get NIXLE alerts, which can come via texts, voice messages and emails. If you have a friend, family member or neighbor who does have a smart phone, set up a system so they can get you important info.

You can’t take everything in an evacuation that’s important to you, so what can I do about those things?

Arteseros recommends building a special box that you can take with your go bag. Those items would include heirlooms, photos and scrapbooks — anything that you consider special in your life that you would be devastated to lose, but is not practical for the go bag.

We’ve heard so many stories of people knocking on doors to alert them to evacuate. What should I do about my neighbors?

"Make a plan," Arteseros said. She said it's important to know who your neighbors are. You can help them make a go bag if they don't have one, and make sure they have a way to escape, especially if they don't have a car. (Keep your gas tank full.)

“We don’t want anyone waiting for a neighbor that just can’t get ready,” she said. “But it is important for everyone to look out for each other when something happens.”

We want to know what your questions and concerns are about wildfire preparation during the pandemic. Fill in the form below and let us know:

  • What questions you have about preparing for wildfires?
  • What you’re doing to prepare for power shutoffs during the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Anything else on your mind around wildfires, power shutoffs and COVID-19.

KQED's Molly Peterson, Danielle Venton and Michelle Wiley contributed to this report.

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