Preparing for the End of Your World

Disaster is coming. These lessons can help you manage and survive.

The footprint of author Christopher Allan Smith's home. Alongside can be seen the remains of his work van and his elder son's first car. Credit: ThreeDaysInParadise.tv

Christopher Allan Smith

May 24, 2021

All articles in this series:

By 6:25 a.m., my fate was sealed.

That morning, 10 miles from my front door in Paradise, California, a poorly maintained power line owned by Pacific Gas & Electric arced, dropping molten metal into the brush at its base and starting a fire.

At the time, I was rousing myself and my high-school-age younger son and preparing to drive him to school in Chico, ignorant of the turn my life was taking. We saw smoke. We assumed it was another brush fire, like so many familiar to those of us living on a forested ridge.

The power line ran across a side ravine of the Feather River Canyon. That ravine, steep, rugged, accessible only by foot, had burned in a previous forest fire 10 years before. So that morning, Nov. 8, 2018, it was filled with both the uncleared detritus of the old fire and a decade’s worth of dense growth leeched of moisture from another unusually long California summer. In fact, the brush was at its most parched all year, that morning being one of the final dry days before the winter rains began about a week later.

The fire’s embers were fanned and lifted by the howling wind pouring through the Jarbo Gap of the Feather River Canyon, as it does every day between roughly 2 a.m. and 10 a.m.

To put this all another way, the Camp Fire1 was an event happening in the worst possible place, at the worst point of the year, at the worst time of day, in the worst location, with the worst fuel conditions. Truly a black swan event.

The Camp Fire was an event happening in the worst possible place, at the worst point of the year, at the worst time of day, in the worst location, with the worst fuel conditions.

It was also a nightmare that haunted the thoughts of more than a few citizens and leaders on the Paradise Ridge, a sleepy corner in Butte County where the residents of Paradise, Concow, and Magalia—including my family and several of the Quality Digest team—lived in pleasant obscurity. For two decades we had been preparing for a fire and by most educated accounts were among the best in class for a community our size in our situation. That’s a bittersweet accolade plucked from a report by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, whose factual reports form the basis of what many in governmental, private, and public organizations use to make decisions. Their report on the fire, “A Case Study of the Camp Fire—Fire Progression Timeline” (page XXV), is the best, most accurate I’ve come across (and I’ve looked).

Comforting as their assessment is to my Paradisian heart, it reads a bit chilly:

“This study has identified that Butte County and the Town of Paradise were well prepared to respond to a [Wildland-Urban Interface] fire, that the Camp Fire grew and spread rapidly, and that multiple factors contributed to the rapid growth and spread of the Camp Fire.... The Camp Fire became the most destructive and deadly fire in California history, with more than 18,000 destroyed structures, 700 damaged structures, and 85 fatalities....”

Lessons with a high price

Living through an event like this is a deeply human experience. My family made it out alive while 85 of our neighbors did not. Our house, along with the homes of 25,000 residents, was reduced to ash and hardened streams of melted metal. We thought—the town thought—we were prepared. And we were, in a way. We were prepared for wildfires as we had known them. But the Camp Fire was not that.

And that is what this series is about.

Our knowledge comes from trial and error, sweet or bitter experience, triumphs, and calamities. Everything that makes humanity more secure and more civil comes from the accumulation of lessons learned by people.

So in this series I’m here with the lessons we’ve learned. We took to heart theory and book learning in preparation for the Camp Fire. Now we have our own experience to add to the pile, in hopes that you reading this will be able to use what we found to help prepare you for what awaits.

These lessons are to help you retain something of what you have built with your family, your business, your organization. It’s about more than fighting to live another day. It’s about the hope to come out on the other side while saving what’s most dear, be it those close to you, the business you’ve built, your customers’ value, or the organization you’ve grown that gives something to the larger community.

We hope these lessons are as valuable to a family as they are to a government agency, as helpful to a business as they are to a nonprofit. This is about saving lives and saving legacies.

The series will be in four parts: preparation and planning; response; information; and communication and recovery. Lessons that are relevant to each part are included to help readers consider how they might prepare for the disasters we tend to think will never happen to us.

Patients, first responders, hospital staff, and administrators circle for safety on the helicopter pad of Feather River Hospital while the Camp Fire burns around them on the morning of Nov. 8, 2018. Credit: Doug Teeter, c/o ThreeDaysInParadise.tv.Patients, first responders, hospital staff, and administrators circle for safety on the helicopter pad of Feather River Hospital while the Camp Fire burns around them on the morning of Nov. 8, 2018. Credit: Doug Teeter, c/o ThreeDaysInParadise.tv.

Battening down your hatches

The first couple of lessons in this series are about you and your mental willingness to consider personal disasters. Unless you are psychologically prepared—and prepared to accept—that a cataclysmic event can happen to anyone, you probably won’t take the critical steps necessary to protect you, your family, or your company from its consequences.

Lesson 1: Accept that a disaster will happen to you

Of all the lessons that came to me after the Camp Fire, this one was the hardest to get people to listen to in the days, weeks, and months after.

All my life I suffered from the same psychological block that allowed me to 1) see disasters consume the lives of people around the world; 2) know that I am myself a person; but 3) never really believe that, deep down, I was one of those people whose lives could be disturbed and devastated by disaster.

Then 2020 and Covid-19 did the work for me. We all now know the best laid plans (along with the worst and the mediocre plans, too) can be upended by fates outside our control. Yet even now, many of us have come through the global pandemic alive and healthy, so no problem, right? But consider this list of disasters from the American Red Cross:
• Chemical accident
• Drought
• Earthquake
• Fire
• Flood
• Flu
• Food safety
• Heatwave
• Highway safety
• Hurricane
• Landslide
• Nuclear explosion
• Pandemic
• Poisoning
• Power outage
• Terrorism
• Thunderstorm
• Tornado
• Tsunami
• Volcano
• Water safety
• Wildfire
• Winter storm

Although an earthquake or tornado may be unthinkable where you live, how many other events on this list have affected the lives of those 10 miles from you? How many people do you know who have suffered from one of these? Even as I write, Texas has just suffered through an historic cold snap that took from it the ability to provide stable power for millions of heat-acclimated citizens.

The first step in preparing is to understand it is not just a fun thought experiment. Understanding that fate alone has kept you from experiencing something on this list is the first step to preparing yourself and your organization for what may be in store.

Understanding that fate alone has kept you from experiencing a catastrophe is the first step to preparing your organization for what may be in store.

While editing this piece, a QD editor who lived through the fire suggested something that had eluded me despite this subject taking up so much of my mental capacity for the last few years.

In short, you are aware of what dangers lurk in your community. Has there ever been a recorded volcano eruption? No? Well, probably don’t dedicate much thought to preparing for that. But if seven tornadoes have carved through your town during the last century, you know where your focus should be.

Think about what dangers lurk for you and get moving.

Bottom line: You will likely encounter a disaster. Accept it, think about your needs to survive it, and get to planning.


This is part one of a remastered and updated version of the Emmy-nominated documentary series A High and Awful Price: Lessons Learned from the Camp Fire. Part one centers on what people in every sector of society, residents to governments, first responders to nongovernmental organizations, can do to prepare for a disaster.

Lesson 2: Respect reality

This may seem like a strange lesson, or it may seem like a sub rosa shot at one area of the political spectrum. But it’s not.

One of the queer threads running through eye-witness descriptions of dramatic events—think the JFK assassination, the Sept. 11, 2001, World Trade Center attacks, and our own impressions from Paradise—is that what’s right in front of us, what’s obvious to every dispassionate camera or later historian, is that something insane is happening. But to those initially living through it, it doesn’t seem that way.

Many eyewitnesses of the JFK assassination wrote off the initial shots as firecrackers, despite what they saw. Many in Manhattan lingered downtown even after it was clear two of the biggest buildings on earth were being consumed by an uncontrollable fire.

During the initial stages of the disaster in Paradise, many of us thought something like, “I’ve seen wildfire after wildfire, and this one will blow over.” Even while smoke filled the streets like London fog. Even while the sky was black as midnight. It wasn’t until I heard propane tanks exploding in the distance that I was shaken out of my complacency.

Early on in these situations, people get all the information they need from their eyes and ears to act, but they take too long to accept psychologically what is obvious. Respect reality and move faster.

Dealing with a disaster is not the kind of thing you can throw together on the fly. A lot of things, some legit lethal things, will be happening in quick succession. So you need to think about what you would do before the disaster hits and make a plan.

Bottom line: Don’t wait to experience the thrills and chills of a disaster. We’re predisposed to not freak out or expect catastrophe. Accept that reality is not the same as our careful plans for the future, and plan for what could happen.

In part two of this series, we’ll discuss how to plan for a disaster, and offer seven practical lessons to help you overcome that natural tendency for complacency.

References
1. Fires are typically (but not always) named for a landmark near their origin. The Camp Fire was named for its origin along Camp Creek Road.

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.

Comments

Disaster

I, or anyone who has never been in such a situation, can only imagine what you went through. May your future be serene, you have already been through hell!

You are most correct in your premise that, until it strikes, disasters occur someplace else, affect someone else. And you are oh so correct, Never say NEVER! Many people looking down the list will dismiss many of these items... Can't happen here! Right?

Well, don't be too quick... The Midatlantic area (where I live) is seismically stable, we don't get earthquakes, right? ... August 23, 2011, 1:51 PM, a magnitude 8.5 eathquake 90 miles southwest of Washington, DC. And, surprise, that stable tectonic plate does not disipate shocks well.

Tornadoes happen in the south and midwest, flatland, not in the Appalachian Mountains, right? ... May 17, 2011, 8:10 PM, an EF1 tornado touches down about a quarter mile from our house. 

Thankfully, neither of these incidents had anything other than very short term impacts on our lives but... what if things had been just a little different. And, as I write this, I suspect that these near misses may actually tend to reinforce our belief that it won't happen to us. So to rely on the cinema for some sage advice, Never Say Never Again!

Quake

The 2011 earthquake you speak of was a magnitude 5.8, thankfully not an 8.5. 

However, yes, disaster can strike anywhere and it always pays to have a basic plan in place.  One source is ready.gov and there are many other websites with useful advice for disaster preparation. 

Thank you!

Thanks for the correction! Nothing like a numerical typo to really screw things up...