In June 2012 the Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado burned more than 18,000 acres, destroying 347 homes and forcing the evacuation of thousands of residents. After the initial fire sighting on the evening of June 22, the fire erupted in full force around noon the next day. An hour later evacuations were ordered for two residential areas. By that evening, mandatory evacuations were in place for 1,240 people. Within less than three days of the initial sighting of the fire, over 6,000 people were evacuated with more to follow in the days after.
When and Why Evacuations Occur
Evacuations are actually more common than we realize. They most often occur due to natural disasters, such as fire, flood, and hurricanes. In addition, evacuations can occur when transportation and industrial accidents result in harmful substances being released. Some evacuations are mandatory, as determined by local officials based on the severity of the situation. Other evacuations are advised or occur when people decide to evacuate on their own because they believe the situation is potentially dangerous enough to warrant leaving.
The amount of time you have to prepare before an evacuation depends on the hazard. Some weather conditions may allow a day or two to prepare. Other disasters occur with no warning and leave no time for gathering even basic supplies. In the example of the Waldo Canyon Fire, some residents had less than an hour to vacate their homes, while others had pre-evacuation orders for several days. Making plans now will allow you time to plan for different scenarios and gather basic supplies.
Here are a few things to do or keep in mind during the planning process:
- Local media, sirens, text alerts, emails, and telephone calls can be used by local officials to provide information to the public. Find out what emergency response communication tools are in place in your area, and make sure you are signed up for emergency notifications.
- Know the risks for the area in which you live (or visit). While you may not be at risk for hurricanes or tornadoes, you could be in an area prone to wildfires or flash floods.
- Always heed severe weather watches and warnings. Though the weather may be calm at the moment, conditions can deteriorate quickly.
- Be aware of elderly or disabled neighbors who may need help during an evacuation.
Creating a Family Emergency Plan
It is important to plan in advance for different scenarios. Depending on when a disaster occurs and the amount of advance warning you have, your family may or may not be together when the need arises to evacuate. Here are a few things you can do to be prepared:
- Identify how you will assemble your family in the event of an emergency. You should identify two places to meet if you are separated from each other:
- A location outside of your home (for emergencies where you can get to your home but can’t get inside, such as a fire).
- A location away from your neighborhood (for emergencies where you are not able to return home).
Returning Home After an Evacuation
Return home from an evacuation only when local authorities have instructed you to do so. Stay tuned to local media through radio, television, or social media for recovery information. Once you are safely home, continue to monitor local media for further official information. Let your emergency contacts know you have returned home as well. Depending on the disaster that led to the evacuation, you may need to exercise caution when entering your home and inspect the utilities, including checking for gas leaks, looking for electrical system damage, and checking for sewage and water line damage. If any damage has occurred to your home in your absence, contact your insurance agent immediately.
- Once your family is gathered, where will you go? Choose several different destinations in different directions and outline routes to get there. Consider locations you can reach by foot in case the need arises.
- Consider the needs of your pets or service animals. Some emergency shelters may not have accommodations for or allow pets.
- Complete a family communication plan with emergency contact phone numbers. You can download a template at http://www.fema.gov/media-library/assets/documents/34330
- Assemble a basic disaster kit. For tips on building, maintaining, and storing a basic disaster kit, visit http://www.ready.gov/build-a-kit
- Be familiar with the evacuation and emergency response plans at your children’s day care or school.
- If an evacuation seems likely, keep a full tank of gas in your vehicle. Otherwise, during normal circumstances, it is a good idea to keep a half tank of gas in case of an emergency.
- If you don’t have a vehicle, make plans for how you will evacuate if the need arises.
Assemble a basic disaster kit. For tips on building, maintaining, and storing a basic disaster kit, visit http://www.ready.gov/build-a-kit
Other Helpful Tips
There are many things to consider when planning for an emergency or evacuation situation. The website Ready.gov has some great resources and ideas. Check them out at http://www.ready.gov/evacuating-yourself-and-your-family.
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