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NCFPD Captain Choi explains importance of evacuation preparedness and orders

Ava Sarnowski

Intern Writer

In light of the recent evacuations due to the Fairview Fire, Captain and PIO John Choi of the North County Fire Protection District spoke to the Valley News about the importance of evacuation orders and how folks can remain prepared in case of fire or emergency.

Evacuation orders and warnings are sent out as early as possible in an effort to give people enough time to prepare and leave. Evacuation orders may be imminent, and the only notification people may get is an officer knocking on their door or a helicopter saying evacuate. After getting orders, people may look out their window and see a bit of smoke but believe that the fire is not an immediate threat.

According to PIO Choi, time is the biggest factor. Individuals who leave their homes sooner have a higher chance of not getting caught in a fire that may impact evacuation routes. Evacuation is not the time to wait and think.

"We've seen unfortunate scenarios where people have waited too long and they're trapped with fire on both sides of the road. They're either stopped by a burning car or a car accident because somebody hit another vehicle in the smoke. Don't wait when you get those orders, get out quickly before that cloud of smoke comes into your area." Choi said.

The situation gets worse when people cannot see. With fire on both sides of the road, the likelihood of getting burned alive is very high. Evacuation orders insinuate that there is an immediate threat to life, it is a lawful order made to give people an ample amount of time to survive. The way the district triggers an Evacuation Warning into an Evacuation Order is through prearranged trigger and decision points. When a fire hits a certain roadway, a warning is changed into an order.

Some people have opted to stay at home because they think they'll survive it. Choi claimed this to be a problem, as it does not matter if staying at home has worked in the past. In the case of the current Fairview fire, it is not doing what it historically has done before. A wind pattern will generally push a fire in a certain direction, but the fire is moving in erratic directions, making it dynamic.

"You're gambling. It is no different than a person who may have made it home without putting on their seatbelt many, many times. You're playing against the odds. We know what these fires can do. We've had firefighters die in full-firefighting gear, protecting homes. A civilian doesn't have the gear, they don't have the training. Heeding evacuation orders is the best way to save your family and yourself in these fast moving dynamic fire situations," Choi stated.

Choi encourages anyone who resides in a fire-prone area to remain aware of the weather conditions. He said the National Weather Service for Riverside and San Diego is a reliable source to obtain the weather forecast and know what to expect. Choi also explained the "Ready, Set, Go" program. The "Ready" part asks people to have paperwork and documents in a protected binder, enough food for pets, and fuel inside the tank of their vehicle.

"If I were to be asked to leave in a couple minutes and not come back in two weeks, what is everything that I would need if I lost my home? If I didn't have the ability to come home, what do I want to grab and what can I absolutely not live without? Those are the things that you would have a list of," Choi said.

In doing this, folks will be in that "Set" mode. All they have to do is jump in their car and leave. In explaining this program, Choi also distinguished the major categories of belongings people should pack before evacuation orders.

Next he mentioned "Ps" The most important thing to prioritize are people and pets. Have enough space for the kennel and have all people and pet needs. Following that are prescriptions, things that may be harder to obtain. This includes hypertension medications, high cholesterol medication, diabetic medication; anything that is absolutely needed regularly. Then come papers, informed documents, the ownership of the house, house insurance information, birth certificates, passports and valuable things that cannot be replaced like wedding photos and family photos.

The next thing to pack are personal needs. Objects like clothing, food, water, first-day cash, credit cards, chargers, anything needed to function, as though you were going on a vacation. Finally, any priceless items. One example might be a wedding ring that has been handed down from generation to generation.

"These lists are hard to do. A lot of it is letting go because you can't hook your car to a U-Haul. You have to go through and identify what your absolutes are; have it in the trunk ready to go with a full tank of gas on critical days. That's what we call the Ready, Set, Go program. The ready part is throughout the year." Choi said.

Once the rainfall dries up, everyone will be right back in the dangers of a "catastrophic" wildfire season. Choi implores that this would be a great time to get things ready, but to also continue heeding evacuation warnings.

For first-responders, nothing is more horrible than having to report that someone has died or was seriously injured because they didn't evacuate in time, or didn't evacuate at all. This increases the probability of firefighters also getting injured, because they will have to take more risks to save lives. If lives are present, the firefighting job becomes difficult and the mission will shift.

"We're going to do more things to try to save that life because we can't just leave. A house can be rebuilt, but a life once it's gone, it's gone. We ask all the residents, if you're in an evacuation zone, please evacuate. There's not a house that's worth your life and every one of your family members will say the same thing," he said.

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