Fire Evacuation: What Actually Happens? And How Can You Plan?

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Digital sign in truck bed says "Road Closed to Through Traffic"
A road closure sign in Felton during the CZU Lightning Complex fires on Aug. 20, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

This post was updated Aug. 30, 2021.

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Having to evacuate your home due to threat of wildfire is a scary prospect — especially if you've never had to do it before.

Looking for information about the Caldor fire?

Fires can move erratically, says Cal Fire spokesperson Heather Williams, and they can move into communities that would never have suspected themselves to be under threat of wildfires or evacuation. That's why it's important to know about the best procedures for safely leaving your home, and to be prepared ahead of time for the worst — even if the possibility seems unlikely.

We know our audiences have questions about how evacuation works, from when you should leave to what you should bring. Here are the answers to some common questions about evacuations in a wildfire.

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What's the difference between an evacuation warning and an evacuation order?

An evacuation warning comes before an evacuation order, and is a warning that you might need to evacuate soon. The evacuation order is mandatory, i.e., "go time."

If your home is under an evacuation warning, that's the time to make sure you and your family know your emergency plan, and to prepare your emergency bag. If you or anyone in your family has medical or mobility issues, consider evacuating when you get the warning, and not waiting until a possible evacuation order.

Evacuation warnings should always be taken seriously, says Heather Williams of Cal Fire — because a mandatory evacuation order could follow "at any minute."

Referring to "fire activity happening in California that we have never seen before," Cal Fire Chief Thom Porter during a Cal OES briefing Monday afternoon delivered a stark message: "Evacuate early."

"A warning doesn't mean you have to stick around and wait for the order," said Porter. "You can go during a warning. You can go if you're sucking smoke and you have respiratory or other underlying issues, and you're in the smoke for days."

"Allow for firefighters to do what they need to do without having to rescue you," stressed Porter. "We need people to leave and we need people to leave early."

How will I know? Will there be sirens?

Cal Fire says that a “hi-lo” siren will be used to alert residents if it is time to leave, in the event of an evacuation order. If the area is remote, fire engines may also be sent to alert residents physically.

Do not wait for someone to come to your door and order you to leave. The information on whether or not you have to evacuate your home will come from your county, and it's really important to proactively stay up to date on the latest alerts:

Alameda County evacuation information

Amador County evacuation information

Contra Costa County evacuation information

El Dorado County evacuation information  

Napa County evacuation information

Santa Clara County evacuation information

Solano County evacuation information

Sonoma County evacuation information

Heather Williams of Cal Fire also recommends signing up for the state's emergency alert system at calalerts.org.

What do I bring with me if I'm evacuated?

Emergency Bag Checklist

Having a "go bag" all ready to evacuate — and keeping it somewhere you can access it instantly — is incredibly important right now. Read our checklist of items to have in your emergency bag (or leer en español). Don't wait until you're under an evacuation warning or order to make this kit.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, it's also recommended you add the following to your emergency bag:

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

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.

How should I prepare to get moving?

Make sure your family's plan takes into account the best route(s) for leaving your location. If one route were blocked, would you still be able to evacuate to safety?

If you're anticipating evacuation, Cal Fire recommends that you:

  • Put your emergency bag and supplies in your car, if you have one.
  • Once your vehicle is loaded, back it into the driveway with all doors and windows closed but carry your car keys with you.
  • Patrol your property and keep an eye on the fire situation online. Don’t wait for a mandatory evacuation order if you feel you're in danger.
  • If it's safe to do so, check on your neighbors and ensure they are planning to evacuate, too.
  • Make sure your pets are nearby and ready to leave.

If you have more time to prepare your home for evacuation, Cal Fire has more advice on how to give your property the best chance of surviving a wildfire.

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

One thing you should be sure not to do when evacuating? Leave the water on.

If you have a home with hoses or sprinklers outside, you might be tempted to leave them running in the hopes that doing so may provide additional protection.

Don't do it. Leaving your water on decreases the volume of water flow available to firefighters — and that could actually keep them from saving your home.

During the Caldor Fire, Tahoe fire officials implored residents not to leave water running when they evacuate, saying water providers noticed significant drawdowns in capacity in areas that should have been completely evacuated of residents.

"Not only is [leaving the water on] not helpful in protecting homes from wildfire, but it can be detrimental for firefighters who rely on a water supply with adequate water flow to fight fire in extremely dangerous conditions," said a press release from the Tahoe Fire and Fuels Team. "This misuse of water can leave water supplies dangerously low when firefighters need fast access to water from fire hydrants to protect homes."

What should I wear to evacuate?

When the Bay Area experiences high temperatures, Cal Fire's evacuation guide recommends that you cover up to protect against heat and flying embers, and says 100% cotton is preferable.

The guide advises you to wear long pants, a long sleeve shirt, heavy shoes/boots, a cap, a dry bandanna for a face cover, and goggles or glasses.

Where do I go once I've evacuated?

When you're making an evacuation plan, first check to see whether you can stay in a hotel or with friends and family, which may be the safest options during the pandemic. Here's how to find an evacuation center if you can't make other arrangements.

Stay with friends

If you have relatives or friends outside the evacuation area whom you think might have space to accommodate you, ask them ahead of time so they're prepared for you.

Cal Fire's evacuation guide advises that you ask anyone you're contemplating staying with if they have symptoms of COVID-19 or have people in their home at higher risk for serious illness. If the answer to one or both of those questions is "yes," make other arrangements.

Stay in a hotel

Check with hotels, motels or campgrounds outside your area to see whether they can accept you. Your county might also have a plan to free up available rooms. For example, in August 2020 Santa Cruz County officials requested that all visitors and tourists depart to leave space for evacuees.

How do I find an evacuation center?

If staying with a friend or in a hotel isn't an option, you can go to an evacuation center. It's wise to research which center you'd be going to ahead of time — because you don't want to be researching your destination as you scramble to evacuate.

Details of nearby evacuation centers will be provided by your county, so find your nearest evacuation center. Keep in mind that your evacuation center may be different from those in previous years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The American Red Cross is also providing evacuation shelters across California. Check to see whether there's a Red Cross evacuation shelter near you.

Man with blue bandana over lower half of face rests on cot in hangar-like building
Luke Piland, from Boulder Creek, takes a break from volunteering to set up cots at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds evacuation center on Aug. 20, 2020. He and his father left their home in Boulder Creek due to the CZU Lightning Complex fires. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

How will evacuation centers work with COVID-19?

The Red Cross — which provides evacuees shelter due to recent wildfires — established standard precautions based on guidance from health officials, FEMA and the CDC in 2020.

However, the Red Cross will prioritize providing refuge in individual hotel rooms or dormitory-style rooms when possible. Evacuees should go to a shelter or center first (one of the larger ones is recommended) to discuss the possibility of being housed in an individual room.

The Red Cross is taking additional precautions at evacuation centers, including health screenings and face coverings required at admission, extra handwashing stations and staggering meal times to enable social distancing. Read more about what to bring to an evacuation center.

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What if this all happens at night?

In the event of an evacuation order, a “hi-lo” siren that should be loud enough to wake you will be used.

If you're concerned your home is under threat, make sure you update yourself on the situation before going to bed. If you have alerts set up on your phone, take your phone off any nighttime mode settings and make sure your alert notification sounds have the volume turned all the way up.

The possibility of evacuation in the middle of the night is also why it's important to have your plans made and your emergency bag ready ahead of time — and to keep your supplies somewhere that you can grab them quickly and easily, even if you've just woken up.

What if I or someone in my family has a medical or mobility issue?

Ensure that your emergency bag has any medicines, supplies or home-use medical devices you and your family might need — with a medications list that includes prescriptions and other important medical information.

If you're concerned about medical supplies and facilities at an evacuation center, Heather Williams of Cal Fire recommends contacting your county and/or the Red Cross ahead of time, to find out about their plan for accommodating medical needs in evacuation centers.

Man sits on a cot petting a dog, beside a standing woman with purple hair and a red tent on a grassy field
Bill and Sharon Fisk with their dog at a campsite on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020, at the Santa Cruz Country Fairgrounds evacuation center. They evacuated from Ben Lomond, in the Santa Cruz mountains, due to the CZU Lightning Complex fires. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

What about my pets?

If you have pets, consider their needs in your emergency bag preparations. Read our checklist for pets, which includes enough food and water to last your pet two weeks.

Make sure your pets have collars with identification and 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 to animal evacuation.

What if I don't have a car?

It's important that your emergency bag is light enough to transport without a car, and be carried (or pulled, in a tub or a chest on wheels) easily. Even if you have a vehicle, you might find yourself in an evacuation situation that demands you leave it.

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If you're worried about how you'll leave your home area without a car, Cal Fire's Heather Williams recommends that you work with your neighbors — or nearby friends and family, if you have them — to coordinate. If you're relying on someone else's car to evacuate, she recommends you leave your home "sooner rather than later" because your ride might not be able to physically get to you if you leave it too late.

What if I or a family member doesn't have a smartphone?

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 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration 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 smartphone, set up a system so they can send you important information.

What should I do for my house before I leave?

If you're anticipating an evacuation and have time to prepare your house, Cal Fire has a guide to giving your home the best chance of surviving a wildfire. Their checklist includes:

  • Shut off gas at the meter; turn off pilot lights.
  • Shut off the air conditioning.
  • Shut all windows and doors, leaving them unlocked.
  • Remove flammable window shades, curtains and close metal shutters, and remove lightweight curtains.
  • Move flammable furniture to the center of the room, away from windows and doors.
  • Leave your lights on so firefighters can see your house under smoky conditions.

Find more information about keeping your home prepared for wildfires all year round — including how to create defensible space.

This story has been updated.

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