Veteran reporter offers tips to keep yourself safe covering wildfires

Photo: Lance Cheung/USDA via Flickr

So you’re working away — perhaps at home — on a story about vaping or high prescription costs or results from a new clinical trial, not paying much attention to the news. All of a sudden your editor calls to tell you that winds have stoked a grass fire that’s now raging and headed your way. Your editor wants you to jump on it. All the other reporters are out covering other blazes or emergencies.

But you’re a health reporter, not a fire reporter! What do you know about covering this stuff? And oh, by the way, an hour later, you learn you’re going to have to evacuate your family and precious belongings from your own home as well.

My long-time colleague Leslie Wolf Branscomb spent 18 years at the San Diego Union-Tribune, most of it covering courts, crime and public safety. She knows all about jumping into action on both counts. She’s covered lots of fires on the ground. And during the Harris fire of 2007, she had to evacuate her own family from their home in Chula Vista a few miles from the Tijuana border in California, and couldn’t get back in for several days. Fire fighters stopped the blaze about two miles away as it was burning across and down San Miguel Mountain, right toward her family’s home.

Branscomb left journalism in 2007, taking the second of three buyouts.

She posted these tips on her Facebook page for her friends and fellow journalists, and gave me permission to share a lightly edited version of them. She asked me to emphasize that they are her own views from her personal experience, and do not necessarily reflect the views of her current or former employers.

Branscomb shares some tips that I’d never thought about myself, even though I had hot embers blown onto my front lawn during the San Diego fires in 2003, and despite the fact that that Cedar Fire was miles away.

For example, make sure your car is on the street for a quick getaway, not parked in the garage, because your garage door may not work in an emergency! Start the car while you’re loading it, because the smokier it gets, the more problems you might have starting the car.

And don’t wear polyester, because it can melt and stick to your skin.

Here are Branscomb’s 15 tips and wisdom for covering and dealing with wildfires:

Leslie Wolf Branscomb

I first posted this in 2014, but feel it is time to re-post.

As the Northern California wine country is reeling from the fires, and deaths and destruction, we need to remember it could still happen near you. October is the most dangerous month, when fields are dry and full of fuel, and the temps go to 80, 90 and above, with low humidity. When the Santa Ana winds begin, it’s a recipe for disaster. I covered the great wildfires in San Diego County in 2003 and 2007, and many smaller ones. I was trained by Cal Fire, covered many fires, interviewed many who’d lost everything, attended the funerals of those who couldn’t get out in time, and was evacuated myself in 2007. Here’s my advice, for residents and news reporters, based on my personal experiences. (Please copy and share at will)

I fear that due to lack of resources for today’s newsroom training, new young reporters might not receive the Cal Fire training that media used to get. I have so much to say, having covered numerous wildfires and being evacuated myself.

  1. Do not wait for police or firefighters to knock on your door and tell you to evacuate. The 2003 wildfire blew through Lakeside in seconds — there was no time. The UT reporter covering that area called the fire chief on his cell phone and he was in tears.. “We’re losing people…” was all he said. You must take care of yourself.
  2. If there is black smoke and you can’t see, that means the fire is blowing your way. Do not wait to see the flames. Go now. My sister was the last person to evacuate from her apartment building because she didn’t see any fire and didn’t realize the seriousness of the situation. I am not saying she was foolish or stupid… at the UT we had a few very experienced fire reporters who did the same thing. (Thinking, if I can’t see flames, I’m OK.)
  3. If you are a reporter, I know you want to get the best shot, but don’t be stupid. I know you think you are awesome, brave, intrepid, you’re gonna get the A1 story and the lead story on the 11 p.m. news and all, but if you feel the hot air searing your lungs you are too close. Go now. Trust me on this. Take care of yourself first. I know it goes against your reporter’s “news at all costs!” values. Love yourself first.
  4. If you are living/working near a fire, make sure you have lug-soled boots in your car or workspace within easy access. With running shoes, the rubber soles will melt in a fire situation. Trust me.
  5. Also, for reporters or evacuees, pack cotton socks, jeans, clothes if you can, plus a cotton handkerchief to tie over your mouth. Polyester will melt and sear onto your skin.

    By NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio

  6. Again, leave earlier rather than later. Don’t wait for the call. The deaths I had to write about in 2003 and 2007 occurred when people waited for the call, then got trapped on the road in a line of cars trying to get out. Some people drove off the road because you can’t see in the dark in black smoke. Others decided to hide under their cars, which didn’t help. This is not like a hurricane or tornado.Although I covered a number of deaths of people who died in their cars trying to escape, CalFire says if you are in your car and about to be overrun by fire, do this:
    • Turn off your ignition.
    • Turn off your AC or outdoor air to minimize smoke coming into the car.
    • Get down and cover yourself, if you can, with a blanket or towels. Once you feel the car “settle,” that means the tires have melted. Then you should get out and run back in the direction the fire came from. (This is where the boots come in handy; you can’t do this barefoot).
    • Do not delay; if the car is on fire and there is gas in the tank, it may blow up. Remember, these are last-ditch instructions only if your car is overrun by fire.
  1. Leave your garage door open. If the power goes out, so does your garage door opener. Can you open it by hand? My husband can. I can’t.
  2. If fire is nearby, pack up what you need for your pets (food, and a carrier and litter box for cats), a couple days’ worth of clothing, medication, financial info, family heirlooms, important papers (insurance info especially), phones, laptops and electronic device chargers. If you have small children, put car seats in place, and pack enough baby food, formula and diapers and wipes to last several days. In our family the evacuation list includes surfboards. Don’t laugh — they’re expensive and custom ones are irreplaceable! Take family heirlooms, photos and wedding/baby albums if you have time. Do not wait. In the worst case you will simply have to unpack later. I heard later from a neighbor who had to evacuate that she decided afterward to mark all of her important work files with a bright orange sticker, so she could find them quickly in an emergency, with the lights out. Good idea.
  3. If you see smoke anywhere nearby, park your car on the street. I interviewed several people who were ready to evacuate but couldn’t because their garage doors couldn’t open or fire trucks were blocking the street. If the fire is close, turn on your car’s engine while you are preparing to evacuate. I wrote a few stories about people who wanted to leave but couldn’t. Once the smoke is too thick, your car’s engine won’t start due to lack of oxygen.
  4. If the fire is really right there, do not hide in a bathtub, bathroom or closet. Unfortunately, I have covered several funerals for people who did so. For California transplants: A wildfire is not like a tornado or hurricane. You cannot “ride it out” by hiding in your house. I hate to say this, as I would NEVER recommend driving through fire… but I do know a few people who survived by doing this. As opposed to staying. But it all depends on your circumstances.
  5. If you have to flee and feel your house may be burned up and you have a swimming pool (or even a pond) nearby, toss your valuables into the pool. Seriously, I wouldn’t have thought of this, but I interviewed people who were able to save the family silver, china and wedding rings by throwing them into the pool, even though the rest of the house burned down.
  6. Don’t think that having a tile roof will save your house. I also interviewed people who came back to piles of roof tiles where their house had been.
  7. If worse comes to worst and you have a swimming pool, dive in. Smoke inhalation will kill you, but not as surely as flames. I’ve interviewed several people who survived by staying submerged as long as possible and surfacing only to take breaths as their homes burned.
  8. If you lose your house and all your possessions, try to put it in perspective. You are not alone. Use services provided by the Red Cross, FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) and other help systems. Lean on your insurer to rebuild your house. If they don’t do it do not hesitate to contact your state or federal representatives. One woman I interviewed after the 2003 wildfires that devastated major parts of San Diego County said that her family went back to their house only to find rubble. As her son walked back to the car, hopelessly, she shouted at him, “Don’t forget to lock the door!” For some reason this made them all laugh and got everything off to a better start. Another woman told me, “Well, at least my wardrobe is gone, so I can buy clothes in my own size and don’t have to pretend I’ll ever wear a size 6 again.” I also wrote a story about a teenage girl who lost her home and set out to help others find pieces of glass or china left in the rubble of their homes so they could create mosaics from them. I interviewed her at her workbench, which was literally in the middle of the rubble left from her family’s home in Alpine, (a small town in the hills east of San Diego).
  9. So yeah. If there is a fire within 30 miles of your house: Fill your car’s gas tank. Take extra money out of the ATM. Have some in your wallet and hide the rest in your car. Make sure your family members know how to reach each other. Charge your cell phones. Put your pet carriers out where you can reach them quickly.

Editor’s note: We know there are many other tips out there from those of you who have covered fires and other natural disasters. Please contribute your advice in the comments. 

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