SHTF After Action Report Worst Fire in Cal History

Share a survival experience with us and explain what you learned from it. You might help someone.

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SHTF After Action Report Worst Fire in Cal History

Post by stickle » Sun Dec 09, 2018 6:13 pm

Hi all,

This is an after-action report from someone involved or impacted by the Camp Fire in Northern California. I wanted to share some things that became very real to me and my family over the past month.

First, let me say that this forum saved my father and mother in law. I will explain in detail later, but the information and insights from this forum were vital parts of their survival. If I have not said it before, let me express it now. Thank you.

If you have not followed the Camp Fire story, you have missed an amazing event. The numbers are remarkable. The town of Paradise California, a town of almost 30,000 people was destroyed. The final count was over 20,000 structures destroyed, 17,000 homes wiped out, and over 80 people killed. It finally burned more than 150,000 acres of property. But that does not really capture the event. The town, including the roads, the shopping centers, hospital, schools, cars, bridges, all of it was covered in flames in less than three hours. People drove through flames, abandoned burning cars and lefts pets to die to escape the inferno.

Ten years before there was a wildfire just south and west of Paradise. My in-laws were evacuated for three days as a precaution. After they experienced being displaces with no supplies or plan, they came to me and wanted to change that. I set up a BOB for them and gave it to them that Christmas as a gift. But we also spent some time talking about a plan and a way of thinking. I visited them the Saturday before the Camp Fire and saw their BOB set up and ready to go, having no clue what was about to happen.

I would love to tell you that the items in the BOB were critical to saving their lives, but it would be a lie. The truth is they did not open their BOB until 10 hours and two hundred miles after they evacuated. What saved their lives was knowing they were ready, could and should go.

The fire started just on the other side of the ridge from their home. It reached the top of the ridge long before an official warning was issued. A neighbor banged on their door and told them a fire was coming and to leave. While my 85-year-old mother in law dressed, my 88-year-old father in law grabbed their prescriptions, the BOB and the dog. They drove out with fire on both sides of the road. As best I can determine, their house was lost in the first hour. The drive from Paradise to our home normally would take about four hours. That day it took ten.

By the end of the day, more than 50,000 people were under a mandatory evacuation order and more than 150,000 were on standby to evacuate. If the fire had spread that night to Chico, the large college town at the bottom of the ridge, the chaos would have been horrific. As it was, thousands were in shock at having no place to live, nowhere to go, no plan, no supplies, and no information about the fate of their home or friends. Many were gathered in the Walmart parking lot waiting on someone to come and rescue them. The outpouring of generosity from the people of Chico and the rest of California was amazing to see. As I write this more than a month later, there are still people living in the Walmart parking lot. But if my elderly family members had been forced into that option, they would not have survived. Instead, they had the opportunity to flee, the means to flee, people to flee to and we made sure they were provided for, warm and fed.

There is an irony in that. We had discussed emergency plans a number of times, but in almost every one it was my family fleeing to their house in Paradise, not the other way around. I had always envisioned an earthquake or civil unrest in our urban community forcing us to run. Instead, they are here with me having lost everything, including the town itself.

So let me share some insights and lessons from all of this.

Mental preparation is even more vital than physical prep. They only survived because they left as quickly as they did and they could only do that because they knew what to do and knew that they were prepared. Like I said before, there was nothing special in the BOB, just normal kind of preps. It was the fact that it was there and ready that allowed them to just pick up and leave. Many in the community could not get their brain around the fact that the town was being consumed around them. Many of those people died. If you are reading this in this forum, clearly this is not an issue for you. But those around you, those that you care for, have never dreamed they would need to run for their lives with five minutes warning. Talk to them again.

It happened fast. My daughter lives in an area of the country that has been threatened by hurricanes. She was commenting about the news coverage of the storms and how much warning they get and told me it is like “being stalked by a vicious turtle.” This fire was not like that at all. One report said the fire grew at a rate of “a football field every second.” Time is the thing that we cannot stockpile or cache. Be ready to go, and then GO!

How much gas is in your car right now? Hundreds of cars were abandoned because they ran out of gas as the evacuation traffic crept along. Some people died in their cars because they ran out of gas. That night the lines in Chico for gas were two to three hours long. I have pleaded with my wife and daughters to never let their cars get below half a tank. I was so proud that my father in law was able to drive for five hours before he needed to fill up. He was able to escape from the critically impacted zone and find an uncrowded gas station.

Shelter in place vs bug out. There is no easy answer to this because every situation is different and each person is different. But there are lessons from the Camp Fire story that need to be considered as you weigh your plans and options. The town of Paradise is gone. Not every structure is destroyed, (about 90% are) but the elements that make it a functioning community are gone. Not only is the power out, but the backbone transmission lines are gone. Not only is the gas and water cut off, but the main parts of those systems are destroyed. The stores are gone or closed. So are the doctor’s offices and pharmacies. Trees were down or leaning dangerously. Powerlines were everywhere. The town was under an evacuation order for a month. That means if you stayed and saved your home, you can’t leave for supplies and get back in. In the case we are looking at, my elderly father in law could not have stopped the fire from destroying his home, so shelter in place was not going to work. But even if he could have survived the fire, living there has become a trial of its own.

Shelters. There are a number of issues with going to shelters. I have seen those discussions here in the forum and they have many valid points. Here is another...norovirus. Think of the worst diarrhea/vomiting bug short of cholera that spreads very easily loose in a church fellowship hall with only two working toilets. That is what happened in Chico. Go to a shelter if you MUST, but explore every other option first.

“So, your safe is fireproof...” In the first two days of the Camp Fire, the only firefighting efforts made were to keep the flames out of Chico and from consuming the hospital. All other resources were focused on the evacuations. That meant that no one put out the fire that struck their house, but it burned until there was nothing left to burn. Nothing. The first day that their portion of Paradise was reopened, I took my in-laws up to see the remains of the house. We had hoped to search the ash for things but it was not what we expected. There was not a burnt piece of wood to be seen! All of it was consumed including the subflooring, studs, and roofing. The plaster from the walls fell into the space then mixed with the rain that finally put out the Camp Fire. What was left was a wet doughy mess that resembles oatmeal. Photo albums, letters, and documents were gone along with china and other keepsakes. Their “fireproof” safe had been opened by the heat, and all the documents and cash were gone. Worse, the interior of the safe had been plastic and that melted into a hard black mass. Coins that had been in the safe are now encased in this plastic, oily mess. Does anyone know a solvent that will remove plastic from coins? Other coins were stored in plastic coin tubes and those were in ziplock bags tucked away in a cache. More melted plastic! Please, does anyone know a chemical that will remove plastic from coins?! The lesson for me has been to make digital copies of photos and documents and spread out this archive across different locations. This will be a project for 2019. And... do not store coins in ziplock bags!!

Insurance. My inlaws will be fine because they were well insured. They are making choices now about where to live and we will support them whatever they choose. Allstate has been great about making money available for housing and necessities and will soon pay off the policy. Many do not have such options. Keep current on insurance.

They did not do everything perfectly. They did not grab the emergency cash out of the safe when they bugged out. They only grabbed the current bottles of prescription meds but not the three months of refills sitting on the shelf. They left their iPad, data backup flash drive, and cell phone charger. But they survived. If they had lingered to pull off the “perfect” bugout, they would have died.

I would also like to acknowledge the great work done by Butte County and the first responders. I would like to nominate the Sherriff for election to a higher office, he is one cool dude. Check out the 60 Minutes piece that recently aired. It will give you renewed energy to keep prepping.


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Re: SHTF After Action Report Worst Fire in Cal History

Post by woodsghost » Sun Dec 09, 2018 7:35 pm

Damn hard lessons. Thank you for sharing.
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Re: SHTF After Action Report Worst Fire in Cal History

Post by raptor » Sun Dec 09, 2018 9:45 pm

Great post thank you! Anything you can share would be greatly appreciated. First hand experience is a harsh teacher so any lessons you pass along is appreciated.

The fire and it ensuing damage will no doubt leave the community scarred for quite some time.

Still I agree with the lesson you are stating. The key to survival is preparation. The preps may or may not apply (like the BOB) but it will make you understand that you are responsible for your own safety and by planning it will provide you an understanding of your risks and options.

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Re: SHTF After Action Report Worst Fire in Cal History

Post by CrossCut » Mon Dec 10, 2018 7:40 am

Escaping a forest fire is our most likely bugout scenario, and having one start very closeby as with your in-laws is the worst case scenario. Give us an hour and we'd have our trucks fully packed, two hours and I'd have the sprinklers on the roof running before we left, but if only minutes then hope we'd do as well as they did. Thanks for the write-up and glad they made it out safely.

Questions, when they arrived what was the first thing(s) you found lacking in your preps for housing them? I'd imagine clothing, but curious what got put on the shopping list for that first trip to the store after they arrived. And anything they'd wish they'd have pre-packed in their car for this scenario? I keep N-95 masks (the fold-flat kind) in case we're traveling through a lot of smoke, anything like that your parents-in-law would recommend others have after having been through this?
stickle wrote:
Sun Dec 09, 2018 6:13 pm
Does anyone know a solvent that will remove plastic from coins?
Acetone? Dissolves LDPE and HPDE anyway.

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Re: SHTF After Action Report Worst Fire in Cal History

Post by flybynight » Mon Dec 10, 2018 9:25 am

Great write up. Glad your family made it out safe. It's posts like yours that saves lives.

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Re: SHTF After Action Report Worst Fire in Cal History

Post by stickle » Mon Dec 10, 2018 9:56 am

Funny you should mention clothes....

I gave them the BOB but gave them a second bag for bugout clothes. I gave them some guidelines for what they needed to pack but could not rummage through their stuff to pack for them. Cut to the night after the bugout. My mother-in-law unpacked two outfits, nightclothes coat, shoes, the works. I was so proud. My father-in-law had only packed four pairs of underwear and six pairs of socks...all different colors! We shopped for clothes the next day.

First needs met were things like toothbrush, soap, washcloth, and tea. None of these were survival critical, but they reduced the stress level greatly. The BOB provided these no problem. Again, we could shop the next day.

The most anxiety-producing issues had to do with meds. They only had enough meds for about seven days. Some could be reordered through CVS or Walgreens but needed a doctor's script, but all their doctors had bugged out too! Others were more complicated to refill because they had just had the refilled. They worried about this constantly. It all worked out in the end and no doses were missed, but it was an issue.

The second issues that caused stress had to do with not having people's contact info. These are people in their mid/late 80's and did not use their cellphone much. The contact list was almost empty. But the same would apply if someone more involved in devices LOST their phone in the chaos. ("Two is one and one is none!") A hardcopy backup contact list tucked in the BOB is critical. (FYI we convinced them to upgrade to a real smartphone and they love it and can use it.)

You mentioned masks. The smoke from the Camp Fire filled the SF Bay area and that was 200 miles from the fire! My son lives in Chico and they did not see daylight for more than a week because of the smoke. EVERY bugout bag should have masks. Think back to 9-11 and people in NY needed masks. Flu epidemic outbreaks and people need masks. Smoke, dust, volcanic ash, the list goes on and on. They are cheap, weigh almost nothing and take up little space, never go bad, but are lifesavers. I have added masks to every car and all my prep bags, plus extras.

Keep the questions coming.


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Re: SHTF After Action Report Worst Fire in Cal History

Post by JayceSlayn » Mon Dec 10, 2018 1:09 pm

Excellent report on what was certainly a harrowing time for you all. I wholeheartedly agree with these two takeaways:
  • Mental preparation (talking out scenarios, learning techniques, etc.) is the first, and most important step. Everything else comes after, and is in-fact less important.
  • Pulling off the "perfect" plan, is much less important than pulling off even a partial "good" plan. Murphy's law, something about the best plans not surviving first contact, etc. They made the right decision (likely because of prior planning, see above) in getting out with what they had, rather than trying to get even more together.
Foremost: I'm glad to hear that you all survived - it is demonstrably not the case for a number of others. No matter the other costs, I'm sure they are happier to bear than the alternative. I wish you all a well and speedy recovery.
Last edited by JayceSlayn on Tue Dec 11, 2018 1:57 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: SHTF After Action Report Worst Fire in Cal History

Post by 91Eunozs » Tue Dec 11, 2018 1:21 pm

What a great writeup...unfortunately for a horrible circumstance.

Still pondering what I need to take away from this (lots!), but wanted to say thank you for putting this well written and introspective feedback out there.
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Re: SHTF After Action Report Worst Fire in Cal History

Post by stickle » Wed Dec 12, 2018 1:13 pm

Thank you to everyone for the comments and feedback.

At someone's request, I would like to share some other elements that have come to light.

Government agencies have learned some lessons from Katrina, Sandy, the Carr Fire, and other disasters. In the abandoned Sears store in Chico, many government and Non-government agencies have set up a one-stop shop for fire victims. This includes FEMA, California DMV, Social Security and some insurance claim's offices. In the immediate aftermath of the fire, the wait to get through some of these lines was more than an hour, but considering how much time would be wasted going to each place to solve your problem, the waiting was a bargain.

Cleanup. One of the offices included in this space is a government program to help with site cleanup. Here is how this works. Many insurance policies include funds to remediate the site where your house burned. If this was a single house fire, the homeowner would hire someone to come and haul away the debris. But in the case of Paradise, there are more than 20,000 sites to clear. In steps the government. THey are offering "free" site cleanup. There is good news and really good news about this program. First, It is easy to sign up for it. included in the signup must be your insurance information. Second, they are cleaning the site of hazardous materials. They have set it up so that the money from the homeowner's policy is used to pay for this work. But the best news is that if the cost of the cleanup exceeds the policy limits, they are not trying to collect the difference from the homeowner.

The bad news is that if we do not rebuild, it is going to take a long time to sell the lot. The community will have at least 10,000 lots for sale in the next year. Supply and demand.

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