How to be prepared for wildfires in SF?
August 22, 2020 10:10 PM   Subscribe

We live in San Francisco. The wildfires are bad and more lightning/fires are expected Sunday night. We have no car and if we did, nowhere to go. What, if anything, should we prepare for?

We’re doing OK air quality-wise. We have a HEPA filter and even though I’m “sensitive,” I’m doing alright for now.

What I’m wondering is if we need to be prepared to evacuate from the city. We don’t have a car, and obviously it’s not so easy to skip town what with the pandemic. We have our important documents together for emergencies (in general, not just now). I know people in more outlying areas have to prepare more seriously but seeing as we have no vehicle, I’m not really sure what we would do in an emergency, let alone how likely a wildfire-related emergency is all the way up here.

Signed, a sick sad person.
posted by stoneandstar to Health & Fitness (18 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Uh, are you me? We've having these conversations constantly. I don't have much to offer beyond interest in other answers and solidarity that this is awful.

What we're doing:
  • Buying a used car this week to prepare for truly dire outcomes. We don't have anywhere to go, but we would just start driving to Canada (where we have family) if we had no other options.
  • Storing large amounts of fresh water in jugs. We have six of these.
  • Keeping the freezer well stocked.
We've talked about generators (a lot of our fear revolves around electricity since that shuts down our air purifiers and food storage, otherwise we think we're pretty okay for long periods) but it's quite complicated and not something we think we can do much with now. It's not clear the life we could live in our house on a generator is really better than evacuating. Or we'd need a quite substantial backup energy system to maintain something like status quo through an outage.
posted by heresiarch at 10:36 PM on August 22, 2020 [1 favorite]

Stockpile water. You need it to drink, to cook, to bathe, to flush toilets, and stay cool. I think my dad's rule is 1 gallon per person or pet, per day, but he is a prepper since he and my mother have lived through bad fires and even worse earthquakes and do not mess around with this stuff anymore.

Access to medication is also vital. I have prescriptions I must keep on hand, but I also keep a lot of Benadryl and other OTC items around because they can make a big difference when dealing with bad air quality. Chapstick is an essential as well.

Lastly, from a non-essential material things perspective, it may be worth it (however depressing) to do an inventory of the stuff you have and go, what would devastate me the most to lose if I have to evacuate? If you are like me and have a few items that you deeply, deeply treasure, this is a difficult exercise. But it's something I feel I must do so I am not leaving everything behind if I have to leave.

Sending prayers for rain without lightning and safety for you and your family and neighbors.
posted by Kitchen Witch at 11:19 PM on August 22, 2020 [3 favorites]

San Francisco? You have nearly nothing to worry about except the very dangerously polluted air. Wear n95 or n99 masks: properly fitted, they are extremely effective.

You have almost no wildland interface. You have permanently employed city firefighters with adequate water and excellent access to anything that is burning. You are not surrounded by the 1 hour fuel of the Oak Savannah, and you are bounded by seawayer on three sides.

Fear not. You're going to be fine if you protect your lungs.

My buddy in Milpitas was also unaccountably spooked, and was packing for evacuation. He's going to be safe, too, with the same dangerously bad air.
posted by the Real Dan at 11:36 PM on August 22, 2020 [38 favorites]

It might help to look at Cal Fire’s fire hazard severity zone map. Based on that and some SF fire officials comments in this article from a while back, it sounds to me like SF city residents shouldn’t worry about wildfires, just smoke, and probably also power outages.
posted by mmc at 11:41 PM on August 22, 2020 [5 favorites]

For me, I think it's not likely an evacuation would be the whole region / whole city / etc. Fires are likely to be started from the thunderstorms this weekend, but when I think about all the people and water and resources of the Bay I don't really see a scenario where we "lose San Francisco".

So I'm looking at what we do if lightning strikes our house, or our tree, or our neighbor's house or tree, and starts a fire sometime overnight. Do we have an evacuation plan - getting out of the house, meeting up? What do we grab if we have time? Are important documents backed up or in the fire safe or both? Do we know how to get the screen out of the window if we wake up to fire alarms and our bedroom door is hot?
posted by Lady Li at 11:42 PM on August 22, 2020 [1 favorite]

Even water, for San Francisco, the water infrastructure is entirely gravity fed (for 167 miles!) all the way from Yosemite.
posted by rockindata at 5:42 AM on August 23, 2020 [3 favorites]

I have a backpack packed with:
  • extra masks
  • cell phone charger, laptop charger
  • wallet with cash
  • toiletry bag, including some Neosporin and bandaids
  • essential documents
  • bottle of water, Clif bar
  • extra t-shirt, undies, pair of socks
I'll throw my laptop and phone in there tonight and will keep it by the door just in case there's a fire in the neighborhood (or, say, an earthquake!). It would be nice to take more, but I can't carry that much without a car.
posted by pinochiette at 8:13 AM on August 23, 2020 [2 favorites]

Make sure you have enough non-perishable food for a few days, especially things you can eat without cooking them so you can eat if there is a power cut.
posted by koahiatamadl at 9:50 AM on August 23, 2020

I used to work at PG&E with a focus on the power system’s reliability, and still work in California energy with a big focus in reliability (it’s been... fun... over the past week at work with the rolling blackouts). There is little to no chance of SF having a power outage due to the wildfires, as the Bay Area is a local reliability region that we (as a state) specifically plan to keep online through a number of contingency events. It would likely take three different transmission lines going down - and these are geographically separate, large lines that are buffered against wildfires via intense vegetation management. So, not impossible, but unlikely. (Rolling blackouts are also looking unlikely for the immediate future as well - thanks in large part to heroic efforts by the state to conserve power from 3 - 10 pm - please keep it going!)

Areas near the current wildfires could have their power cut, of course, and PG&E will also be monitoring the coming weather to determine if PSPS events are necessary in areas that are potential wildfire spots.
posted by Jaclyn at 10:54 AM on August 23, 2020 [8 favorites]

Thanks, pinochiette, I sent that info to my nephew, who has not done any emergency preparation.

The pictures and news from wildfires in the West are heartbreaking and terrifying. And, while this is *not* a political post, infuriating.
posted by theora55 at 12:32 PM on August 23, 2020 [1 favorite]

I (former SF resident) see no need to be concerned about having to evacuate the city due to wildfires. SF is not bordered by the large dry grassy areas or forests with dry underbrush that contribute to severe fire risk in other parts of the Bay Area, and the city's microclimates are cooler and more humid than areas further south on the Peninsula/South Bay or in the North and East Bay hills.

However, this is a great excuse to get your earthquake preparedness kit in order. Plan to have enough food, water, medication, and battery power (for lighting/comms devices) available to survive a few days without electricity, gas, and safe municipal water. Take a look at your specific neighborhood and familiarize yourself with local earthquake safety characteristics (e.g., areas built on fill versus bedrock).

Given you are sensitive to air quality and SF can get relatively hotter in September and October, you should also look at how you can keep your apartment cool while maintaining safe indoor air flow.
posted by 4rtemis at 12:56 PM on August 23, 2020 [4 favorites]

I'd like to point out a unique fire-fighting feature of San Francisco which was built in reaction to the 1906 earthquake fires. You have the Auxiliary Water Supply System (Wikipedia, map) which is great cisterns (water tanks) located under street intersections. Many are delineated with circles of tiles you may have noticed.

By all means you should be prepared to evacuate. Unfortunately, when disaster strikes San Francisco again, it'll probably be seismic, with some paths of escape blocked.
posted by Rash at 1:59 PM on August 23, 2020 [6 favorites]

Thanks, I think it’s sound advice to be prepared for evacuation in general. What does that mean for a non-car owning person? I mean, I understand how to consolidate my important belongings, but how would I actually... evacuate?
posted by stoneandstar at 3:51 PM on August 23, 2020

Even people with cars (e.g. people near me in the Berkeley Hills) are being told that they may have to evacuate on foot (in their case because the roads may be impassable). If you have more time and you're not literally running from a fire, you can figure out where you're going, whether that's a hotel, a friend's house, or an evacuation shelter. Depending on how far you're going, you may be able to walk or bike.
posted by pinochiette at 4:05 PM on August 23, 2020

I live in Seattle, and we've had wildfires in the past.

I recently invested in a fireproof/water resistant bag for all of my documents. It's big enough to hold all of the essentials, yet small (and bendable enough) to throw into a backpack for easy evacuation, if needed. At home, it lives within a fireproof box, with a lock on it.
posted by spinifex23 at 4:52 PM on August 23, 2020 [1 favorite]

I've got an electric courier bike with a cargo rack. A motorbike might be a good option if you can afford it and have the space for it and know how to drive one.
posted by egeanin at 8:54 PM on August 23, 2020

I also live in SF and found the Wirecutter's guide for emergency preparedness to be invaluable.

In our house, we have plenty of:
- Water
- Nonperishable food and the means to cook/heat it with
- Medical supplies

And this is about as far as we got, because it will cover a large majority of natural disaster situations for which you'll have to shelter in place.

It's also worth having an emergency bag packed and ready to go in case you have to get out of the house quickly (due to fire or structural instability).
posted by kdar at 5:01 PM on August 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

My answer to this question, after the big fires in 2017, at least in part, was to sign up for the SF NERT training. It was extremely helpful, in terms of knowledge and skills, and I now feel much more prepared for earthquakes and other disasters. I highly recommend the training, whenever they resume it (currently on hold for covid reasons.)
posted by gingerbeer at 8:17 PM on August 25, 2020

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