Wildfire safety, lessons learned; from the eyes of two survivors

  • Published
  • By Capt. Christopher S. Mendoza
  • 31st Test and Evaluation Squadron
The first and foremost item I need to address is the fact that I am grateful to be alive today. I thank God for protecting my family; and I would like to express my sincerest gratitude to the firefighters who successfully put out the fires in Palmdale, as well as the police officers who evacuated us to safety. Because of all the above, my family and I are safe; the flames, smoke, and stench have gone; we have blue skies; and our house still stands!

I am a survivor and what better way to provide lessons learned, than having an individual who was right in the middle of the action. It was Thursday night, July 29, when I came home from a very busy day at work, and I saw flames and smoke coming from the horizon. As always, one would assume that the source of the crisis was coming from somewhere else , thinking, "this couldn't happen to me." But low and behold, as I kept driving south on CA-14, I got closer to the source of the flames. By the time I got home, it was evident that the flames and heavy smoke were on top of the hills; within view from my driveway!

The police ordered a mandatory evacuation, and by 11 p.m., most of my neighbors had vacated their premises with all the necessary items in their possession. Meanwhile, firefighters were busy battling what is now known as the "Crown Fire," which at that time was only five percent contained. Evacuating the neighborhood reminded me of apocalyptic movies in which the protagonist would leave the city with his or her family to avoid impending doom.

The following day, firefighters kept fighting the seemingly never-ending inferno, amidst the winds that blew the burning embers for thousands of feet, where new fires would erupt. There were also some sophisticated aircraft that provided assistance. I saw helicopters with giant buckets repeatedly scooping water from the Antelope Valley aqueduct and dumping it onto the fires. I also saw a DC-10 and a 747 fixed-wing aircraft dumping red flame-retardant material at the peripheries of the fires to prevent further spreading.

By Friday afternoon, the flames were 62 percent contained, but unfortunately the problem wasn't over - we had to bear the fallout; smoke-filled skies. This was a health hazard, so more evacuations had to be made. We went to the Antelope Valley Mall to evade the smoke, but one could still smell the smoke inside the mall! So we had to evacuate to Edwards Air Force Base lodging.

By Sunday morning, we finally had blue skies, no smoke and the smell was gone. It was like nothing had happened. There were only four houses that burned, and most importantly, there were no casualties. The police and fire departments did an outstanding job in rectifying the situation. Since I am a military officer, people would usually come up to me when I'm in uniform, and they would thank me for my service to our country. But in actuality, these firefighters and police officers are the real heroes.

Now it is time for lessons learned and safety precautions. Major fires occur in Southern California every year and threaten people's homes and lives. The only question is where and when. Developments encroach further and further into the foothills closer to potentially dangerous burn areas. Therefore, it is important for each family to have a list of items that can be readily mobilized at a moment's notice. These items must be in a particular place in the house, which is readily accessible. When you hear the megaphone from police who are ordering mandatory evacuations, be prepared to leave. In some cases there is no time for police to approach your neighborhood, or the fire may already be in your backyard.

These items can be easily transported from that nook in your house, to your car, in less than 60 seconds. These items are, but are not limited to:
1. A safe that has your passports, important documents, social security cards, wills, deed to your house, hazard insurance information, keys to the safe deposit box, a CD or thumb drive that has digital pictures and video clips showing all your furniture and belongings (for insurance purposes). When you only have 60 seconds, you do not have time to take pictures of all the belongings in your house. You want those pictures stored from the beginning. It may also be practical to have these stored offsite.
2. All hard-copy photographs that can never be replaced. You do not have to worry about CDs with digital pictures, since most soft copies are stored in remote hard drives or Web sites like Carbonite, Facebook, or Twitter. Leave DVDs and CDs behind only if you are certain all soft copy files are stored offsite.
3. All personal computers, laptops, portable hard drives, and any electronic equipment that store important information, such as bank accounts, confidential spreadsheets, etc. Backup Web sites like Carbonite would be another avenue in storing data, in case you don't have time to unhook and carry out all your PCs.
4. A list of usernames and passwords for all financial institutions, credit card companies, investment firms and utility companies in order to revert back to normal operations without delay.
5. Jewelry, cash or any valuables
6. Any items that appreciate in value over the years, such as comic books and baseball cards in mint condition, and other collectibles, etc.
7. Any items with sentimental value. But keep in mind to minimize the weight. The heavier the cargo, the longer it would take and the more energy you will have to expend to transfer it to your car. Remember -- time is of the essence... you only have 60 seconds, or less.
8. A suitcase full of extra clothes. The clothes in this suitcase are for emergencies only and cannot be used during normal operations.
9. Some non-perishable foods. Just like with clothes, this is to be used for emergencies only.

But, in the general scheme of things, what is most important that you need to bring with you are all the members of your family.

Just like the military slogan, "Leave no person behind!" If there is no time to pack up the above items, get your family out of the house as soon as possible. Safety is paramount and always first. The above items can always be replaced; your family cannot.

Note: Maj Antony Pohl and his family were also evacuees. The above recollection, lessons learned, and punch-list of items were applicable to his situation, as well as other survivors caught in this same situation.