Aftermath of the 2018 Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif. (Christopher Allan Smith)

COLUMN: Camp Fire Lessons on Planning for the Worst Case Imaginable

HSToday is proud to announce 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.

 

Read Part One of this’s week column on Preparation: Battening Down Your Hatches here.

Lesson 5: Sign up for Emergency Mass Notification Systems

Most municipalities have evacuation plans in the event of catastrophe – fire, flood, chemical release, hurricane (check your local listings). Often they’re called something like a Community Evacuation Plan.

Our town was broken up into 14 numbered geographic zones. The idea was to know your zone and sign up for the automated alert system (we used CODE RED). When a wildfire threatened, some zones would be advised of the possibility of needing to evacuate, some zones would be warned of the need to evacuate, and the zones most threatened would be ordered to evacuate. It was a way to manage the crush of traffic safely. Those not threatened could stay home and not clog the roads for those in most immediate danger.

I lived in Zone 11. In the half-hour I was at home after the school drop-off, I received two calls. One was a warning. The other, about 20 minutes later, listed the zones under an evacuation order. Those calls played a big part in focusing my mind and spurring me to move quickly.

They let me leave in time. I did not know it then, but I was supremely lucky that day. I got out without driving through flames. I got out without seeing people running from walls of fire. But I was running against the clock. According to the NIST timeline, everything my family had owned or built in the previous 13 years — everything that was not in my car — would be cinders and ash by that afternoon.

Lesson 6: Train Like Your Life Depends on It

It becomes clear to any skilled leader that training is an essential element in improving an organization or maintaining excellence. Before we can do new things well, we have to try them. Elon Musk is famous for building rocket bodies that are never intended to fly. They’re intended to shake down the building process of a new design.

Training serves exactly the same purpose, and bestows exactly the same benefits, when it comes to practicing your disaster plan. This is especially helpful when you first create your plan.

As anyone who takes a paper plan into the real world knows, adjustments, improvements, and unanticipated details will emerge. It’s even more important in disaster training, because the stakes are higher than can be valued in a spreadsheet. We do earthquake drills in schools, fire drills in high rises, and lifeboat drills on ships for a reason. We train like our lives depend on it, because they do.

Lesson 7: Plan for Transportation

Staggered evacuation plans, like the ones the Paradise Ridge had, are smart and efficient. Unfortunately, some disasters make the need to escape much more urgent than our plans foresee.

When the roads are gridlocked, what will your escape plan be? How will you get to your designated meet-up location if your first, second or third preferred routes are either destroyed or commandeered by disaster response officials? How will you escape, assuming you are on your own?

As Calfire Chief David Hawks, who grew up in Paradise and fought the Camp Fire, reminds us: public safety officials will do all that they can, but in a broad-scale emergency developing that rapidly, there’s just too many people for them to be able to help everybody.

In areas where personal vehicles will play a key role in the evacuation, this means keeping reliable ones, their tanks filled and road worthiness verified. Many people who fled the Paradise Ridge had to abandon their cars when they ran out of gas after being stuck in hours-long traffic jams. Others had to use cars they rarely drove or hadn’t driven in years, and those vehicles predictably failed.

Planning for transportation may include the realization that you won’t be able to transport. In some areas on the Ridge, the single road out was impassable and people were forced into Concow Lake as the fire blew over them. In other areas where community leaders anticipated this problem, they had pre-cleared wide open spaces where people could shelter as the fire burned around them. These plans worked and saved lives.

So think about getting out, and about what you would need to do to survive if you can’t get out.

FEMA National Incident Management Assistance Team (IMAT) West Team Leader Kevin Hannes and Region 9 Operations Branch Director Mike Jolly tour the devastation in Paradise with Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea on Nov. 9, 2018. (Bradley Pierce/FEMA)

Lesson 8: Think About Your Organization’s Continuity

Figuring out how you or your organization will endure comes before the calamity. When something sweeps away all you have built, how do you save what’s essential? How do you outsmart fate?

As in most of these lessons, the secret is thinking ahead.

When you lose every physical thing in your life, it becomes clear just what is important.
When I think of what was lost for my family, what comes to mind are letters my wife wrote as 18th birthday presents for our boys, letters that she began when they were born. A set of audiotapes which contained my late grandmother’s voice. A set of videotapes with my first films.

Everything else escapes my regrets. Not because those things weren’t important, but because they can simply be replaced with money.

That’s why insurance is essential.

While a commercial tool, in many ways it’s what makes it possible to absorb the blow of a disaster without being destroyed. While it was a torture I can’t express to watch my family move through this experience, we were never destitute and never in danger. We had purchased good homeowner’s insurance and had money for living, expenses, and more within days.

I had also thought about how my business would endure. Running a film production house, I had thought about what was essential to my business (the footage and files of my own and my clients) and created a robust on- and off-site backup system to ensure that if the worst happened, my organization would remain. And it did.

I did not lose a frame of anything I had ever created for a client. I did not lose a family photo or video of my sons. What I did lose was lost because I didn’t follow my own procedures fully. The business I had spent 15-odd years building survived.

Others were not so lucky. Paradise had many retired folks who rented out a house or two to supplement their income. More than a few of them did not get insurance. These are friends and neighbors so I won’t go into their personal details, but several decided not to pay for insurance, found their homes and rental properties paid off but destroyed, and now have little in the waning days of their life. They will never be made whole.

Coping after the smoke has cleared is a subject so important we’ll be expanding on it in future installments.

Lesson 9: It’s Not Worst-Case Scenario. It’s Worst Case Imaginable

While these lessons are meant to shake people out of their comfort zones and realize the chance of living through a disaster is very real, I close with the mirror image of that reality. Think even bigger.

One of the drawbacks of our planning on the Paradise Ridge was that we did it through the lens of the previous wildfires we had experienced. We considered their traits and dangers, features and effects. Then we thought through what would happen if we faced a fire like those, but worse. Best to leave ourselves a margin, right? If we plan for the worst case, our job is done, right?

The Camp Fire wasn’t just worse than previous fires. It was exponentially worse. While outside commentators cited our clogged roads and close escapes as evidence of our failure to anticipate (I’ll admit my sensitivity here, because it was those preparations that saved us), the truth is: we could not imagine how bad it would be.

No one had seen anything like it in California history, outside of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. And we were not alone. The American government had been thinking about terrorism since at least the 1960s, but could it have planned properly for a September 11?

Among the first responders and emergency managers I have interviewed since the Camp Fire, one consensus has emerged: Imagine the worst thing you can, and then imagine it 10 times worse.

What plans would you make then?

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An Emmy-Award Winning documentarian, Christopher Allan Smith lived in Paradise, California, with his family until the Camp Fire consumed his home in November 2018. Since then, he has been conducting interviews and research into the history of the fire as well as the lessons taken by first responders, civilians, government officials and private disaster planners, with an eye toward producing multiple projects based on those lessons. He also acted as a Field Producer for Ron Howard’s REBUILDING PARADISE as well as the writer/director of the PBS broadcast documentary A HIGH AND AWFUL PRICE: LESSONS LEARNED FROM THE CAMP FIRE. He is the owner and founder of RocketSpots.tv, a video production company that produces a wide range of documentary, promotional and online projects.

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