Wildfire preparedness: How to create a wildfire evacuation plan

July 22, 2021

Learn how to prepare you and your family for an emergency by creating a wildfire evacuation plan


A series of cars evacuating from a wildfire

In a previous blog, we discussed ways you can prepare your home for a wildfire with home hardening and defensible space practices. However, if a wildfire is in your area or headed your way, evacuating your home may wind up being your only option. 

If you decide to evacuate, or if a government mandate is issued, it can all happen quickly, leaving you little time to gather your family and supplies before you have to leave. That's why it's important to have a plan in place beforehand to make sure that you and your family know what to do, what to take, and where to go so that you can leave without delay. 

But how do you know when to evacuate? Where should you go, what supplies do you need, and what steps should you take to do it safely and effectively? We'll cover all of this and more as we help you and your family create a wildfire evacuation plan, so read on! 

When should you evacuate during a wildfire?


Do you evacuate when you're certain that your home is in the path of the wildfire, or do you leave at the first sign of that possibility? If a wildfire is near your community, it is possible that the local or state government will issue evacuation orders. However, waiting until these orders or recommendations are issued can often leave you in a dangerous situation.

By the time they are given, you may not be left with much time to prepare and the highways may be congested with other people trying to leave at the same time. Furthermore, it's important to remember that smoke can cover an area long before the flames, making it potentially difficult to breathe and see. Because there are often so many unknowns associated with a wildfire, erring on the side of caution is the often the safest choice. 

Regardless of when or if you choose to evacuate, you'll want to monitor the news and other official channels to keep track of how the situation is progressing. To receive emergency alerts and other critical information, such as the path of the wildfire and any recommendations or notices issued by official sources, tune in to local news broadcasts on TV, radio, or follow them on their social media channels. Additionally, NOAA/NWR Weather Radio will transmit information about wildfire emergencies, and your phone or mobile device may receive automatic notifications, too.

What you should consider when creating your wildfire evacuation plan


Similar to evacuating before a hurricane, it's important to have a plan in place when it comes to a wildfire. You'll want to think about what supplies you'll need, where you'll go, and what steps you and your family will need to take when the moment arrives. 

What supplies should you have on hand? 


Once you have made the decision to evacuate, the moments leading up to it can go by quickly. During that tense and potentially dangerous time, you won't want to have to run around the house searching for supplies, wondering if you've packed the essentials. To prevent this, you'll want to make a list of supplies and have them prepared ahead of time.

Emergency evacuation kit. Your emergency evacuation kit, or emergency supply kit, can be assembled in something like a clear plastic tote, a duffle bag, or a backpack. If you find that a single bag is too heavy or bulky, you can split it into several bags as long as you keep them together. 

Your emergency evacuation kit should include essentials, such as:
  • Several days of food and water for each person (and pet) in your family
  • Paper maps with your escape routes planned (just in case mobile devices don't work)
  • First aid kit
  • Flashlight and batteries
  • Change of clothing for each family member
  • Prescription medication
The Seven P's of Evacuation. Before you head out the door, you can use a helpful checklist, called the "Seven P's of Evacuation" to make sure that you've got everything you need. You can find a number of different versions of this list across the internet (like the "5 P's" or the "6 P's") so we've combined several into one so that all of your bases are covered. The Seven P's of Evacuation are:
  • People and pets
  • Papers, phone numbers, and important documents (or copies of those documents)
  • Prescriptions, pills, prescription eyeglasses
  • Priceless pictures and irreplaceable memorabilia
  • Personal data, computers, and hard drives
  • Plastic and paper money - remember, during an emergency cash may be the only option if credit card networks are down
  • Phone and phone charger
As a bonus "eighth P," make sure to consider "petrol," or gas for your escape vehicle. This doesn't quite fit within the main evacuation list because you should try to attend to it well before you need to evacuate, but it is essential all the same. During an emergency evacuation, you may not have time or the opportunity to fill up; pumps might be down, empty, or too packed with people. For these reasons, do your best to keep your escape vehicle filled as soon as you know that there could be a need to evacuate. 

Planning wildfire evacuation escape routes


During an evacuation, leaving your home is only half of the equation. Knowing where to go and how to get there is equally important to have planned ahead of time. 

Establish a designated meeting zone. Pick a place outside of the hazardous area that everyone can safely gather in the event that you aren't already together. This doesn't have to be a place with accomodations for an extended stay; it just needs to be a safe location that is easy to find and remember. Once everyone is safe and accounted for, you can decide what steps to take next. 

Make sure that everyone in your family knows where this location is. If you have children that drive and may potentially be away from home, or if you and your spouse work in separate parts of town, they should all be familiar with this place and the safest, easiest route to get there. Hopefully, you'll be able to have uninterrupted communication, but in the event that you are separated and can't contact one another, everyone should know where to meet up. 

To make sure that everyone can find your designated meeting zone during the potential panic of an emergency evacuation, you can save the location in their phone's map application. Of course, the cell network might be slow or offline, so it can be helpful to keep maps with the location and routes outlined in each vehicle. Depending on your phone and the map application you use, you can often download specific directions and maps to your phone for offline use. 

Pick a safe zone for an extended stay. This could be the home of a friend or family member or possibly a town with lodging that is far enough out of harm's way. It may be difficult to know exactly where that safe zone will be (depending on where the wildfire comes from and how much land it covers). For this reason, it's highly recommended that you have multiple options picked out ahead of time.

Have multiple escape routes. You'll want to have multiple escape routes planned in case one or more are congested or otherwise inaccessible. It's important to note that during larger evacuations, law enforcement officials may direct you to a specific escape route, or your community might otherwise have specific escape routes planned for emergencies. Always follow the directions of law enforcement officials. 

Service your escape vehicle. We advised keeping your escape vehicle filled with gas, but you'll also want to make sure that your vehicle is in top shape before you have to rely on it to escape a wildfire. The last thing you need is for your car to break down while you're trying to get out of the way of a wildfire. Keep up with routine auto maintenance, such as changing your tires, servicing your brakes, and changing your oil. 

Plan for family members with special needs. When choosing a meeting place, evacuation destination, or evacuation route, make sure to consider individuals in your family who might have special needs. For example, if someone in your family requires a wheelchair, you'll want to investigate your routes and destinations ahead of time to make sure they are accessible.

Plan for large livestock. If you have large pets or own livestock, such as horses and cattle, it's essential to have an emergency plan to get them to safety. During an emergency, it may be almost impossible to figure this out last minute, so you'll want to plan for transportation and find a safe place for them to stay well in advance. This may also impact how soon you decide to evacuate because even a good plan can take time to execute. 

Putting it all together


There are plenty of things to plan and prepare, but it's important to think about the actual moment of evacuation and exactly what that will entail. Don't wait until the last minute to try and think about what steps you need to take to safely evacuate with all the supplies you'll need. 

Create a step-by-step plan of action. Take the time to plan each step that comes immediately after you and your family have made the decision to leave. Place the most essential items first and have the optional, "good to do if we have the time," items at the end.

Your list might look something like this:
  • Contact all household family members who might not be home
  • Gather your emergency kits and pack the vehicle
  • Take a final look at your destination and decide on a route
  • Load the dog into its travel crate inside the car (don't forget food and a leash!)
  • If time allows, take steps to protect your home (see section below)
  • If time allows, gather valuables and memorabilia
Assign tasks or roles. When you've made the decision to evacuate, you'll need to move quickly, but there are likely to be a number of tasks you'll need to see to prior to leaving. If everyone in your household knows what to do when the time comes, you can quickly and efficiently get out of harm's way. 

Using the list you've created in the previous step, decide which family member is responsible for a specific task beforehand. For example, have one person manage pets, one person manage small children. Have someone else gather the emergency kit, food, water, supplies, etc. 

Create a family communication plan. If possible, designate a friend or family member that lives outside of your immediate area as a single point of communication for your family members in the event of an emergency where you find yourselves separated from one another. This can be incredibly useful as it is easier to contact one person who then reaches out to the rest of your family than it is to call each individual person; during an emergency, cell towers, phone lines, and internet connections can become overloaded or limited.

Practice makes perfect. Practice escape routes, double check emergency supplies, test communication plans, and practice getting things together. It's important to do this every so often so that in the event of an actual emergency, it isn't the first time you're going through it.

If time and opportunity allows, it can be incredibly helpful to actually test drive your various escape routes in advance. Sometimes, maps and even GPS may not account for certain elements that could make an otherwise appealing route a poor choice for evacuation purposes. In such as case, the only way to find out is to actually drive it, and you don't want to find that out when you're trying to evacuate.

What should you do to protect your home before you evacuate?


If there is ample warning before an evacuation, there are a few last minute steps you can take to prepare your home beforehand. However, if the threat of a wildfire is looming, or if the fire is close, make sure to listen to emergency broadcasts for evacuation orders. If you are asked to evacuate, do not hesitate to do so.

Close window shutters, vents, and other openings. By closing all openings to your house, you can somewhat reduce that amount of radiant heat from the flames outside and possibly prevent wayward embers from traveling inside. Also make sure to close any vents that lead to the outside, such as dryer vents, doors, and pet doors.

Remove flammable drapes and curtains. If you have flammable drapes, blinds, or curtains, remove them from your windows if possible. Even though they are inside your house, being close to the wall and windows means that they could possible ignite from the radiant heat alone.

Remove flammable furniture away from windows and walls. Again, even though your furniture is inside and behind the wall, the radiant heat from an intense blaze can transfer through your wall, and potentially get hot enough to catch flammable materials on fire.

Turn off gas. If you have a gas line for your water heater or your stove, it's important to shut it off in the event of a wildfire. As you can imagine, the natural gas can easily leak, feeding the fire.

Turn off your AC. Flames and heat aren't the only things that have the potential to damage your home during a wildfire - the smoke can be destructive, too. Because your AC pulls air from the outside into your home, it's important to turn it off during a wildfire. If you have a smart thermostat or any type of thermostat the runs a scheduled program, make sure to turn that off to prevent your AC from sucking smoke into your home.

Turn on lights. When a wildfire rages through an area, the smoke can obscure everything, making your home difficult to find. Keeping your porch and other outside lights on can help make your house easier to spot for firefighters. Additionally, if you've removed your flammable window curtains and the light form inside can shine through, having interior lights on can assist firefighters, too.

Close all doors in your house. Before you leave, make sure to close all of the doors to the various rooms in your house in addition to the exterior doors. This can prevent drafts, and in general has the ability to slow the spread of a fire should it make its way into your home. It may not sound like much, but every little bit of extra time helps.

A series of cars evacuating from a wildfire

To learn more about Germania's Insurance products, request a free quote online or reach out to a Germania Authorized Agent today!

by Geoff Ullrich

About the Author

Geoff Ullrich is a writer and Content Marketing Specialist at Germania Insurance.