The Cambrian

How do you escape a wildfire? A survivor shares her life-saving tips

A home is fully engulfed in a fire caused by a fast burning wildfire in the section of South Lake near Lake Isabella, Calif. on Friday, June 24, 2016. Dozens of homes burned to the ground as a wildfire raged over ridges and tore through rural communities in central California, authorities said.
A home is fully engulfed in a fire caused by a fast burning wildfire in the section of South Lake near Lake Isabella, Calif. on Friday, June 24, 2016. Dozens of homes burned to the ground as a wildfire raged over ridges and tore through rural communities in central California, authorities said. AP

What would you do if there was a wildfire right outside your window? Would you be ready?

Recently, about 100 people learned how to be better prepared in case a wildfire should come too close for comfort … or safety.

It’s sage advice for residents of a wildfire-prone area and state that weather forecasters say are slipping back into serious drought conditions.

Attendees at the Cambria FireSafe Focus Group’s Jan. 31 forum heard some cautionary tales, tips and more — including how to survive, recover, persevere and thrive during and after such a disaster — from a motivational speaker who’s been there and, indeed, done that, all of it.

The forum’s speaker, Sandra Younger, wrote “The Fire Outside My Window,” a chilling but inspirational tale of how she and husband Bob Younger fled, she said, through “a tornado of red embers and a wall of flame” from the epic 2003 Cedar Fire in San Diego.

Their hillside home was on a steep, skinny road, surrounded by chaparral that had been thinned to provide defensible space. There was one way into their neighborhood. One way out.

The house didn’t survive the fire.

The Youngers did.

IMG_Sandra_Younger_4_1_KPD4V9Q2_L366855396
Sandra Younger offered tips on surviving a major fire in Cambria. Courtesy photo

Handy hints

Some of Sandra Younger’s suggestions at the Jan. 31 forum in Cambria were about how advance planning and preparation could help prevent the kind of things that went wrong as the couple awoke in the wee hours of the morning and discovered they had only moments to escape a massive, rampaging blaze that consumed an estimated 100,000 acres in less than 12 hours.

During their panicked, 7-minute departure, she grabbed lightweight shoes instead of her hiking boots. They forgot to close the garage door, and left behind much of his life’s work in photography and her writings. And he couldn’t find the keys to his Suburban, so they had to load two massive Newfoundland dogs and a “totally brainless cockatiel” with cage into Sandra Younger’s much smaller Acura coupe.

There was, however, a beacon of hope.

As she drove to escape the flames, Younger hit dense smoke at the “steepest, most precarious” stretch of their narrow, rural road. She was “teetering on the edge of oblivion,” because she literally couldn’t see the road.

She wrote in her book, “It never occurred to me to turn back; it never occurred to me that we might die. We had to keep moving; we had to get through.”

Then she saw the bobcat.

The wild creature kept running ahead of them, obviously along the road. So, with no other option, Younger followed it, she said, for at least a mile “between two curtains of flames.”

The Youngers made it through to clearer air beyond the immediate fire line; they hope their miracle guide did, too.

Younger’s mantra is now “follow your bobcat.”

Rob Derrick, who lives off of Huer Huero Road, describes his actions during the Stone Fire. The fire broke out east of Santa Margarita on Sunday, July 9.

Planning ahead

Some advance preparation can help save your life. As Sandra Younger wrote, “When Mother Nature throws a tantrum, the difference between life and death can come down to a few critical decisions.”

Planning ahead can also pay off after a fire. The Youngers did a frenzied search for her passport a few hours before she was to go out of the country. In the post-fire upheaval, she’d forgotten that she’d wisely put their passports and other essential papers into the “Ready-Set-Go” bag that everybody in fire-prone areas should have set up before disaster can strike.

What to do

Sandra Younger warned that, with global warming and drying forests, the Cedar Fire “is the benchmark of the kind of fires we’re seeing now,” like the Thomas Fire, which recently surpassed the Cedar as the state’s largest wildfire in recorded history.

In her book, she wrote that “at the time of the Cedar Fire, extended drought and a related bark beetle infestation had killed hundreds of thousands of trees across Southern California, filling forested land with massive stores of standing firewood primed to burn.”

That should sound painfully familiar to North Coast residents, many of whose homes are surrounded by a rare, aging native forest of Monterey pines and other trees and shrubs.

“This is our new normal,” Younger said, “so we must adapt in the face of challenge and change.”

Devastating wildfires in Northern California and the wine country that are becoming the deadliest and most destructive in California history leave lives lost, towns evacuated, residents displaced.

Prepare, prepare, prepare

▪  A fire’s “super-duper winds” carry embers for long distances, she said, and some of those embers “are big chunks” that can start a large spot fire very quickly or lie smoldering for days before a blaze flares up there.

Younger’s first tenet of fire prep is “maintain defensible space. Yes, it’s expensive, but it’s an investment,” like insurance. “Taking down dead trees and thinning thick areas” must be a priority.

Eliminate all flammables around the house, she said, which includes more than the obvious chores of trimming back tree branches close to the roof and cleaning the pine needles out of the gutters.

She advised doing a pre-fire blitz: If it can burn and it’s movable, move it.

This is our new normal, so we must adapt in the face of challenge and change.

Sandra Younger, author

Put inside the “doormats, cushions, umbrellas, furniture, yard art, porch signs and flags, pool and grill tools,” and clear away “leaves, trash, firewood, mulch” and more.

And those house vents? Winds can carry the tiniest embers through fine metal mesh covering the vents. She and fire professionals at the meeting recommended installing inexpensive, louvered “barrier” vent covers.

▪  Younger also urged attendees to “read your insurance policy,” even though it’s dry, dense and boring. Key phrases such as “full replacement value” and “living expenses” can make a huge difference in what a fire survivor receives toward a new home and life.

Reassess your situation and update your policy before you need it, she said.

Other tips

There was plenty of audience participation in Younger’s presentation. At one point, she asked, “What if Cambria saw a fire like (the ones) in Santa Rosa or Ventura? What would you be glad you’d done, or wish you had done” before the fire struck?

Other suggestions from Younger and attendees included:

▪  Maintain a neighborhood phone tree.

▪  Give a house key to someone you trust who can get into the house when you cannot, perhaps to rescue pets or grab your “go bag.”

▪  Scan into your computer images, photos, videos and hard-to-replace papers, and an inventory of your home. Copy it to the cloud and/or a thumb drive and keep it offsite. Or make several copies, and send them to trusted friends who live elsewhere.

▪  Always keep your go bag in the same place.

▪  Make a list of where the things are that you’d want to grab in an emergency instant (clothes, shoes, coat, car keys, wallet, phone, cash, prescriptions and medical devices, pet collars, photos, computers, and so on) … “the things you need when there’s nothing to go home to,” she said.

▪  Make sure the car(s) have plenty of gas.

▪  Shut off your natural gas.

▪  Make sure everybody knows where to meet.

▪  Designate someone outside the area who can act as an information hub for your household and family. Make sure everybody knows who that person is and how to reach him or her. Then as soon as each of you is safe, call that person, so the information can be shared with others.

Younger’s LIVE formula

To survive a natural disaster, Younger says to:

1. Listen to your gut. “If you feel you’re in danger, you probably are, and you should leave.”

2. Inform yourself any reputable way you can, including via social media, Reverse 911 and Nixle notifications, the Cal Fire Twitter feed, news and weather reports and more. Find out what’s happening via reliable sources.

3. Value your life more than your stuff. Don’t waste time packing.

4. Evacuate early. Get out while you still can. “Don’t hang around taking selfies and video of you and the fire,” she said, shaking her head in disbelief. “Don’t try to be a garden-hose hero. Most people killed by wildfire waited too long to leave.”

5. And when it’s over and you’ve survived, encourage your sense of resilience. Younger recommends “coming to a place of gratitude … be patient and believe … accept help and ask when you need it. Then choose your story, decide if you will be a victim or a survivor, and keep moving forward.”

More information

The Cambria FireSafe Focus Group and the countywide Fire Safe Council, which co-sponsored the Jan. 31 forum, have planned three more informational sessions: Feb. 27, Bruce Fosdike’s well-received class on specific steps toward preparing yourself and your home, such as structure triage, planning evacuation routes, sheltering in place and where to go after your escape; March 27, on community preparation; and April 24, on advocacy for possible policy changes in local and county government.

For details on Younger’s book and her pamphlet, “The ComeBACK Formula,” go to www.sandrayounger.com, www.wildfiresurvivor.com or www.comebackformula.com.

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