Keep Calm and Run for Your Life

When it comes to disaster, be the early bird

Christopher Allan Smith

July 7, 2021

I was a strange kid. Who knows where our fears come from? What I do know is Godzilla is somewhere near the core of one of my weirder fascinations. When I was four, I watched Godzilla vs. King Kong on TV with my father. It made a mark.

One part megalophobia, one part awesome nature, one part primal terror, the image of a towering monster moving with purpose—in a context where human efforts were irrelevant—left in me a dreadful thrill. A fascination with the moments, the exact circumstances, where human hopes and ingenuity are rendered to soot by the forces of nature.

My predilection for overanalyzing has put me on some strange paths when trying to satisfy the need to know why things go so wrong. I’ve read more books than I can count about the sinking of the Titanic. YouTube knows me well enough now to serve me, unrequested, real-time CGI reconstructions of NTSB crash analysis. I’ve read the Rogers Commission report on the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.

Here’s an awful fact: The orbiter stack did not actually explode. It turns out that a leak in a solid-rocket booster burned through the connecting strut to the external fuel tank, causing the booster to rotate and smash into the tank and rupturing it. When the oxygen and hydrogen mixed into an erupting cloud of fuel and fire, the Challenger was ripped apart by the resulting instability and aerodynamic forces. But given this all happened in less than a second, it’s easy to misunderstand.

That’s the kind of weird detail which somehow gives me comfort when, in life, we face a metaphorical Godzilla and his churning maw. I get that it’s weird. What’s weirder still is reading a similar report about your own hometown.

As related in the two earlier articles, this series is about the lessons first responders, government officials, business leaders, and my fellow citizens (including some Quality Digest employees), and I learned from living through the Camp Fire in November 2018. As of this writing, it remains the worst wildfire in California history, killing 85 and destroying more than 19,000 structures. This spring, a long-awaited report from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) was published, titled “A Case Study of the Camp Fire—Fire Progression Timeline.”

Reading the report after a lifetime poring over other people’s disasters (oh yeah, Chernobyl) feels something like being a fan of an obscure band and learning they’ve landed a spot at the Super Bowl halftime show. When you tune in to watch, their big song is about your hometown, the street where your kids learned to ride their bikes, and the factors in your neighbor’s divorce. It’s disquieting and hard to ignore.

And so from that report, and from myriad other personal and professional sources, I’m here with the next delivery in the lessons we learned on the Paradise Ridge. The two articles in part one were about preparing.

This part is about what to do once the disaster has started. This part is about running for your life.

When the… stuff… hits the fan

There will come a moment when you realize the normal, regularized flow of events has been broken. When you see some awful development with dangerous implications for your safety and think, “Oh, this is really happening.”

Lesson 10: Stay calm

D

isaster has struck. This is the moment to rely on yourself, your preparation, and get to work. It is the moment to stay calm and reassure those around you. It is not the moment to stage some kind of emotionally venting, Facebook-worthy freakout.

This is literally the kind of moment that the maxim, “Keep calm and carry on” was made for. The fact is, even when the disaster is unfolding around you, even when things look bad, your composure can literally save you. Every moment not wasted in turgid emotions is a moment you have to help yourself.

“Sometimes slow is smooth,and smooth is fast.”
—CAL FIRE Chief John Messina

CAL FIRE Chief John Messina had a saying for this: “Sometimes slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.”

Even if your evacuation is slow, even if the streets are clogged and danger seems to be mounting, keeping your cool and going a bit slower than you would like prevents you from making a rash mistake that ends up stopping your progress.

During our evacuation, those very few who made snap decisions to drive around the flow of traffic, or go up on the curb, often found themselves mired in ditches or running over an obstacle that flattened tires. They went from moving very fast to not moving at all.

Composure is a life-saving trait.

Lesson 11: If you’re asking, ‘Should we evacuate?’ Leave now!

When you think about it, this one is somewhat obvious. As a retired CAL FIRE official who has watched the rise of wildfire strength from the 1970s until now says, “If it occurs to you that you need to evacuate, you already should have evacuated.”

We learned in part one that during the early stages of a disaster, our minds have a difficult time absorbing the reality, the normalcy-shattering developments, and their full implications. Because of this, as we begin to discern the gravity of our situation and realize mortal danger is at play, it is very likely the moment to leave has already passed.

Trust your Spidey sense and get moving.

Lesson 12: Implement your emergency plan A. And B. And C...

We mentioned in part one the difficulty of anticipating every possible situation that could confront you or your organization in a disaster, and therefore it’s prudent to come up with a plan A, plan B, even a plan C.

The nice thing about a plan is it plants in your head the rough structure of what you need to do, giving you a head start at a moment when time is essential. Although it’s true the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry, that doesn’t mean the planning is wasted.

The plan allows you to know quickly what you most need to save, who you most need to think about, where you most need to go, and what can be dismissed as irrelevant at the moment a catastrophe careens into your hometown.

So as the emergency sirens (or your own good sense) reveal to you a disaster has arrived, get to work on implementing your plan. Trust the fact that in more tranquil moments, you’d already thought about priorities and needs. Now begin checking things off.

When I was evacuating, I didn’t have time to think deeply. I grabbed what the plan directed. And when the explosions sounded, and the sky went from oak brown to slate black, I left.

It was only days later I realized the most essential things had been saved—family photos, irreplaceable heirlooms, animals, important documents. I didn’t get everything. I realized the last time I was in my home I didn’t go into my bedroom for clothes. I didn’t go into the bathroom for medicine. I didn’t make it into my youngest son’s room for his favorite guitar. But everything left was of lesser importance than what I had taken.

I had adapted and left in relative safety. Our family’s plan, while not completed, did its job.


This is part two of a remastered and updated version of the Emmy-nominated documentary series A High and Awful Price: Lessons Learned from the Camp Fire. Part two is about planning for what you may face. Experience has taught me that planning looks very different once you put those plans into action.

Lesson 13: Get as much info as possible. Accept that it won’t feel like enough.

In the early moments of any catastrophe, you must strike a terrible balance. While another part of this series will deal with good information and communication, there are a few essential lessons you must have in mind as you begin to cope with what you face.

To make the best decisions about wrong risks, you will first need to get as much information as possible, even while you also must accept that you will always want to know more.

Many of us who manage companies or organizations are used to doing research on everything from market trends to societal conditions to the Consumer Reports rating for five microwaves we’re considering buying.

But the concept of paralysis by analysis is never more pressing than when you’re dealing with disaster. In those cases, perfect is literally the enemy of good. Of good enough.

This concept helps me: Perfect information—having all knowable and relevant details—is not perfect if the moment to execute on that information has passed. It does no good to have the entire war plan of the Japanese Navy on Dec. 8, 1941.

So as you realize you are involved in a developing disaster response, gather as much information as you can from friends, co-workers, the news media, and emergency responders. Learn as much as you can. Ask what your gas station clerk has heard. What about that jerk in accounting you always avoid? What has she heard?

What separates disasters from emergencies is they are overwhelming and can’t be controlled.

Find out how much time you have before you must act, but accept that you must act. Keep in mind that leaving sooner is better than leaving later. As soon as you think you have a reasonable idea of what’s happening, get going.

This is not a failure, but rather respecting reality and doing your best. Accept it and move on.

Lesson 14: Semper Gumby: Be flexible

Let’s talk about plans. By their nature, disasters are literal, pure chaos. As such, they shred our ambitions to control. So when you realize your plan is not up to perfectly reacting to the situation you’re presented with, that is not a mark of its failure.

There’s an expression used by Butte County’s Emergency Manager Cindi Dunsmoor: Semper Gumby.

“You have to be flexible,” she advises. “You have to have plan A, B, and C, and know in the back of your mind, ‘OK, I know this is the plan, but sometimes that plan doesn’t work out, and we’ve got backups and backups.’”

Improvisation is not the tap dance you do when you’re intending something else. It is the dance.

Has a hurricane destroyed the main bridge off your island and cut off your preferred escape route? What other methods are there to safety? Another bridge? A ferry? A private boat? Or is moving no longer the best course of action? Can your best safety now be found by hunkering down and riding it out?

These are possibilities A, B, and C you should have thought about. Now is the time to act.

Lesson 15: Respect the math

Check your thinking. Check your assumptions.

In our modern Western environment, we’re both lucky and quite buffered from many of the brutal forces of history and nature. Those buffering us are law enforcement, experts and officials, first responders, and informed NGOs. Because of this, our first impulse is often to call 911 and wait for someone else to either deal with the issue or at least advise us.

But in making your plan to deal with disaster, this “call someone” impulse works against you. It’s a brutal math problem.

In a normal emergency situation—a co-worker’s heart attack, localized gun attack, a building fire—those responders “outnumber” the forces causing the danger. They can arrive and deal with it.

But what separates disasters from emergencies is they are overwhelming and can’t be controlled. The math goes in the opposite direction.

Here’s how: On the day the Camp Fire swept over the Paradise Ridge, thousands of fire fighters, police and sheriff officials, and medical and EMT responders rushed to Butte County. Combined with similar officials already there, the rough number of those dealing with the disaster was somewhere between 5,000 and 7,000.

Those moving off the ridge were 52,000 strong. Even if every responder was doing nothing but helping those on the ridge—not treating injuries, not fighting the fire, not helping those without stable transportation—the numbers make the task impossible.

So you need to plan as though you are on your own. Not because those responsible for dealing with disaster don’t care or planned poorly, but because, temporarily, they can’t help everyone. Your job is to accept this, escape the danger zone, and live to deal with the aftermath.

About The Author

Christopher Allan Smith’s picture

Christopher Allan Smith

Christopher Allan Smith is an Emmy Award-winning documentarian and journalist. He is the director of the Emmy-nominated series, A High and Awful Price: Lessons Learned From the Camp Fire. He lived in Paradise, California, until the morning of the 2018 Camp Fire, and now lives in Chico, California. Find out more at ChristopherAllanSmith.com.