HSToday is proud to present a multi-part series from Emmy award winning director Christopher Allan Smith, a survivor of the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, and documentary filmmaker. Following the fire, Smith took his talents and devoted them to helping others learn from the tragedy on the Paradise Ridge, and the impact of disaster on families, communities and the first responders and disaster planners whose responsibility it is to take these lessons into the future. This series, Lessons Learned from the Camp Fire, describes how preparedness plays out in reality: from running for your life away from the danger to emergency finances to the aftermath, told only like a survivor could share. HSToday presents this series to bring a voice to the victims of disaster and add some personal texture and experience to the impact of disasters, terrorism, and other tragic acts of violence.
When I was 4, I watched Godzilla vs. King Kong on TV with my father. It made a mark.
One part megalophobia, one part awe of nature, one part primal terror, the image of a towering monster moving with a purpose – in a context where human efforts are irrelevant – left in me a dreadful thrill. For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by the moments when human hopes and ingenuity are rendered to soot by the forces of nature.
Along with my predilection for over analyzing, this fascination has put me on some strange paths. I need to know why things go so wrong. I’ve read more books than I can count about the sinking of the Titanic. YouTube knows me well enough now to serve me, unrequested, real-time CGI reconstructions of NTSB crash analysis. I’ve read the Rogers Commission report on the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.
Here’s an awful fact: the orbiter stack did not actually explode. Turns out a leak in a solid rocket booster burned through the connecting strut to the external fuel tank, causing the booster to rotate and smash into the tank and rupture it. When the oxygen and hydrogen mixed into an erupting cloud of fuel and fire, Challenger was ripped apart by the resulting instability and aerodynamic forces. But given this all happened in less than a second, it’s easy to misunderstand.
That kind of weird detail somehow gives me comfort when staring into the churning maw of life that we all face. Weirder still is digging into a similar government report about your own hometown.
This series of columns is about the lessons that first responders, government officials, business leaders and my fellow citizens and I learned from living through the Camp Fire in November 2018. As of this writing, it remains the worst wildfire in California history, killing 85 of my neighbors and destroying more than 19,000 structures. This spring, a long-awaited report from the National Institute of Standards and Technology was published: “A Case Study of the Camp Fire – Fire Progression Timeline.”
Reading that report, after a lifetime of poring over other people’s disasters, feels something like being a fan of an obscure band and being thrilled they’ve landed a spot at the Super Bowl halftime show – and then, when you tune in to watch, their big song is about your hometown, the street where your kids learned to ride their bikes, and the factors in your neighbors’ divorce. It’s disquieting. It’s hard to ignore.
Based on that report, and a myriad of other personal and professional sources, I’m here with the next installment of the lessons we learned on the Paradise Ridge. Part 1 of this series (here and here) was about preparing for disaster. This part is about what to do once the disaster has started. This part is about running for your life.
When the… Stuff… Hits the Fan
LESSON 1: Stay Calm
There will come a moment when you realize that the normal flow of events has been broken – when you see some awful development with dangerous implications for your safety and think, “Oh, this is really happening.”
That is the moment to rely on yourself and your preparation and get to work. That is the moment to stay calm and assure those around you. This is the moment the maxim “Keep calm and carry on” was made for. The fact is, your composure can save your life. Every moment not wasted in turgid emotions is a moment you have to help yourself.
Even if your escape is slow, even if the streets are clogged and danger seems to be mounting, as it was in the Camp Fire, keeping your cool may prevent you from making a rash mistake that stops you altogether.
In our evacuation, those who made snap decisions to drive around the flow of traffic, up on curbs and whatnot, often found themselves mired in ditches or running over something that flattened their tires. They went from moving very fast to not moving at all.
Calfire Chief John Messina had a memorable term for this lesson: “Sometimes slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.”
LESSON 2: If You’re Asking, “Should We Evacuate?” LEAVE NOW
A retired firefighter who has watched wildfires get bigger, faster and deadlier since the 1970s said this best: “If it occurs to you that you need to evacuate, you already should have evacuated.”
As we learned in Part 1 of this series, in the early stages of a disaster our minds have a difficult time absorbing normalcy-shattering developments and their full implications. Because it takes us a little while to discern the gravity of our reality, by the time we realize mortal danger is at play, it is likely the moment to leave has already passed.
Trust your spidey-sense and get moving.
LESSON 3: Implement YOUR Emergency Plan A. And B. And C…
While in Part 1 of this series we mentioned the difficulty of anticipating every possible situation that could confront you or your organization in a disaster, it is prudent to come up with a Plan A, Plan B, and Plan C.
The nice thing about a plan is it gives you a head start when time is of the essence. While it’s true that the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry, that does not mean the planning is wasted.
As the emergency sirens (or your own good sense) reveal to you that a disaster has arrived, follow your plan. Trust that in more tranquil moments, you’ve thought about priorities and needs. Begin checking things off that list.
When I was evacuating, I did not have time to think deeply. I grabbed what my household’s plan directed. And when the explosions sounded, and the sky went from oak brown to slate black, I drove away.
It was only days later that I realized the most essential things – family photos, irreplaceable heirlooms, animals, important documents – were safe. I did not get everything. I did not go into my bedroom for clothes. I did not go into the bathroom for medicine. I did not make it into my youngest son’s room for his favorite guitar. But everything I left behind was of lesser importance than what I took.
I evacuated in relative safety. Our family’s plan, while not completed, did its job.
LESSON 4: Get as Much Information as Possible. Accept that It Won’t Feel Like Enough
In the early moments of any catastrophe, you must strike a terrible balance. To make the best decisions about risks, you will need to get as much information as possible while at the same time accepting that it won’t ever feel like enough.
While a later part of this series will deal with good information and communication in more depth, it’s worth a mention here as we consider how we respond to the early stages of disaster.
Many of us who manage companies or organizations are used to doing research. We study everything from market trends to competitors to the Consumer Reports ratings for microwaves. But the danger of “analysis paralysis” is never more pressing than when you are dealing with disaster. Here, the perfect literally is the enemy of the good.
When my neighbors and I were preparing to evacuate from the Camp Fire, we felt the need to know which routes were safe. Which direction the fire was heading. Whether our loved ones across town had gotten out. But perfect information – having all knowable and relevant details – is not perfect if the opportunity to execute on that information has passed. It does no good to have the full Japanese navy’s attack plan on December 8, 1941.
So as you realize you are involved in a developing disaster, gather as much information as you can from friends, coworkers, the news media, and emergency responders. But gather it as you’re moving. Ask what your gas station clerk has heard. What about that stranger in the elevator? What has she heard?
You might have time before you must act, but accept that you must act. As soon as you feel like you have a reasonable picture in your mind of what’s happening, get going. You won’t have all the information you need. This is not a failure, but respecting reality and doing your best. Accept it and move on.
LESSON 6: Semper Gumby–Be Flexible
By their nature, disasters are chaos. They shred our ambitions to control. So when you realize your plan does not perfectly match your situation, know that this is not a mark of its failure.
There’s an expression Butte County Emergency Manager Cindi Dunsmoor introduced me to: Semper Gumby.
“You have to be flexible,” she advises. “You have to have plan A, B and C and know in the back of your mind ‘Ok, I know this is the plan, but sometimes that plan doesn’t work out and we’ve got backups and backups.’”
Improvisation is not the tap dance you do when you’re intending something else. Improvisation IS the dance.
Has a hurricane destroyed the main bridge off your island and cut off your preferred escape route? What other paths are there to safety? Another bridge? A ferry? A private boat? Or is moving no longer the best course of action? Can your best safety now be found by hunkering down and riding it out?
These are possibilities A, B and C you should have thought about. Now is the time to act.
Lesson 7: Respect the Math
In our modern western world, we’re quite buffered from many of the brutal forces of history and nature. Those buffering us are law enforcement, first responders, experts and officials. Our first impulse in an emergency is often to call 911 and wait for someone else to either deal with the issue or at least advise us.
In a normal emergency situation – a co-worker’s heart attack, a shooting, a building fire – those first responders “outnumber” the forces causing the danger. They can arrive and deal with it. But in making your plan to deal with disaster, this ‘call someone’ impulse works against you.
What separates disasters from emergencies is that they are overwhelming and cannot be controlled. The math goes in the opposite direction.
On the day the Camp Fire swept over the Paradise Ridge, thousands of firefighters, police and sheriff’s deputies, and emergency medical responders rushed to Butte County. Combined with those already in the county, the rough number of those dealing with the disaster was somewhere between 5,000 and 7,000.
Those moving off the ridge numbered about 52,000. Even if every responder was doing nothing but helping people evacuate – not fighting fire, not treating injuries, not directing resources – the math makes the task impossible.
So you need to plan as though you are on your own. Not because those responsible for dealing with disaster don’t care or planned poorly, but because it is mathematically impossible for them to help everyone. Your job is to accept this, escape the danger zone and live to deal with the aftermath.