lessons from the camp fire in butte county

I was on a large search a couple of weeks ago, and in the time spent wandering around the woods I had some time to think about solid ways to be found in if you’re lost or injured.

I spent 72 hours doing body search and recovery up in the Camp Fire‘s wake, and had some similar time to think about fires ripping through a town. What I would do when I got home, what I would do if a fire was coming close, and what things would look like afterwards.

To date there are 631 people missing in the Camp Fire. Our task was to search homes and vehicles for bones and bodies.

Fast Moving Fires are Faster Than You Think

What I didn’t understand about fast moving fires is that they move really fast. Not only towards your home, but also towards the road you were planning on using to evacuate. That road is also cluttered with vehicles. So are the dirt roads you’re imagining you can take to get around those other clogged roads. If thousands of people need to flee and there are 4 roads to get out on, a lot of people won’t get out in time.

With the right combination of distance, fuel, and weather, a fire 10 miles distant can be on your doorstep in a matter of hours. Like the fire could start 10 miles away while you’re buying popcorn at a movie theatre and burn your house to the ground before the credits roll.

And that assumes you were awake. If the fire is a lightning strike at night, it can move quickly before anyone spots it. Maybe you’ll have twenty minutes, maybe, if you wake up to the sounds of police PA systems announcing evacuations.

We’re Conditioned to Wait and See

Especially if you live in California, you’re used to fires burning somewhere in the distance and kicking up smoke. You know people who’ve lost homes but chances are that you’ve been fine, even when fires were a few miles away. The Lions Fire started burning about 10 miles from my house, and churned away for months. The Lost Fire showed up later in the year, also about 10 miles away, and likewise stayed put.

So my (and probably your) experience with fires is that they kick up smoke but you can live relatively close to them without much actual damage. We wait and see, which generally works, right up until it doesn’t. Once the fire is close enough to be dangerous, there’s simply too many people that need to leave. The fire doesn’t care about the traffic jam, it’s coming regardless.

Everything In Your Home Will Be Incinerated or Vaporized

We found metal socket wrenches welded together. Cast iron pans melted (requires over 2000f temperature). Cars drooping because their frames melted. Some of the 631 missing will never be found, completely consumed by the intense heat.

For the most part, homes were either entirely fine or entirely destroyed, and destroyed buildings make up more than 90% of the town of Paradise. We often needed to use Google Street View printouts to see that a house was actually in the lot we’re looking at because now it was a 6 inch high pile of ash. The terms other searchers used were “zeroed”, “wiped out”, “vaporized”, “war zone”, “obliterated”, and “nuked”.

Safes were melted, all metal was melted, all ceramic and glass melted or shattered. Plastics, cloth, and wood were entirely absent from the scene, entirely vaporized.

The shiny stuff is the aluminum from the radiator which melted and leaked like water. Note the power lines in the background, draped on a vehicle.

Defensible Space Is Not a Panacea But It Works

Some of the intact homes had burn marks from wooden fences that abutted the home, or perhaps a dead-ish bush. Things that could readily catch fire and with direct connection to the home worked like kindling to ignite the siding, deck, or roof rafters.

One thing I didn’t personally see was an intact home that had a lot of plant debris littered about in the yards. Even if the home was metal, with the heat of a burning tree or bush a few feet away, it will radiate enough heat into the metal to ignite the walls and interior.

That said, I’m sure plenty of homes with defensible space went up as well. Just because you clear around your house doesn’t mean you’re safe, but it is the law in California and seems to increase your chances.

Make a List Right Now of What To Evacuate With

Start a spreadsheet and tape it to the inside of a couple of doors. Put on there things that you can throw into a couple of backpacks. Some items from our list that might be on yours:

  • Passports, cards, cash.
  • Laptop, phone, charging cables.
  • Firearms.
  • Underwear, socks, two pairs of clothes.
  • Empty all medicine cabinets and medication areas into a bag, bring the bag.
  • Keepsakes / jewelry that fit into a shoebox.
  • Handheld 2m radios, with chargers.
  • Both cars.

It’s not hard to grab these items; you could fill two backpacks inside of five minutes provided you have made the list earlier so you’re not having to think. Thinking capacity will be in short supply, do your prepwork now.

Realize again that if your home burns everything left inside will be incinerated. When you’re sitting there on the couch relaxing, now is the time to make the list.

Make a List Right Now of Evacuation Instructions

In addition to things to-take there are things you may want to do before you go. Again, here are some things on our list that may be on yours:

  • Put propane, gas, and other containers far away from anything that can burn. The far edge of your driveway, the middle of a large parking lot, etc.
  • Turn off the gas to your home. You know how, right?
  • Run a garden hose (not on) from the spigot to the driveway (firefighters can potentially use it).
  • Turn on all lights.
  • Shut all windows and doors, leaving them unlocked.
  • Move flammable items away from windows and doors.
  • Fill water buckets and leave them in the driveway (again, a firefighter or otherwise do-gooder might be able to knock down a small fire).
  • Put one 2m handheld radio in one car, the other in the other car.

Fill Out and Carry FEMA Family Emergency Communication Plan Cards

For more than fires, these allow you to do two core things now, while you have time:

  • Plan where you’d meet up with family members. First, second, third, and fourth options.
  • Have all contact information for your family members and necessary services written down.

You can get these over on FEMA’s site. If you think it’s a pain to figure this information out now, imagine what it’s going to be like in the few minutes you have before an evacuation. Worse, imagine trying to guess at family members’ decisions as an emergency is unfolding and you’re separated from each other.

Update Your Insurance

After the people get home to the utter and complete devastation of their physical possessions they will immediately be faced with the question of “what happens now?” Much will depend on your insurance. In particular this means:

  • If you’re going to rent an apartment or hotel in the short term, who’s paying for that? If you’re a homeowner, you’ll still be paying the mortgage on your incinerated home.
  • Does the rebuilding cost actually reflect how much you’re insuring for?
  • Have you inventoried your items? This can be a full blown app, or you just walking through your home with your phone on video, commenting on the make/model of everything that you see. Doing the app version takes more time, but it does offer the benefit of quantifying the cost of your possessions which you’re just otherwise guessing on.

None of the insurance items will take that long to complete but can be the difference between a big problem (losing everything with good insurance) versus one that you’ll never financially recover from (everything just gone).

Say it Out Loud: I Might Lose My Home and Possessions in a Fire

Death is something we intellectually know will happen to us and day by day we get a little closer to that magic day, hour, and minute when it’s our turn. But a lot of things that we could do to plan better (a will, a trust, advanced healthcare directives, etc) get punted I believe because no one wants to entertain the reality. And death is something that absolutely will happen to you.

You probably won’t lose your home and possessions in a fire, but you might. And accepting that reality, along with the few-hours of work necessary to safeguard yourself, is something that I guarantee a lot of residents of Paradise, Ca would advise.


  1. Very good. Thank you for your time. Harrowing to realize that bodies can be vaporized! But 2 cars? I simply know personally of ‘waiting for the 2nd car’ disasters. Take one car IMO. stay together.


  2. an external, wildfire sprinkler system can make a HUGE difference too… with backup power to keep the pump running. a wet building will not burn. research “WEEDS” (wind enabled ember dousing system), and install on on your home(s).


      1. i have a solar electric system with battery backup, capable of running my well pump for a very long time… that being said, even with sprayers and window shutters, “sheltering in place”… is a daunting thought. turning on the sprayers and leaving is another option though.

        in australia they have companies that install these external sprinkler systems, but they also promote “prepare, stay and defend”. i designed and installed mine in 2000… and am surprised more people don’t do this. it is difficult for a wet structure to burn.


  3. Great insights and advice, Eric. Thank you, not only for your service, but for bringing some lessons for us all back home with you.


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