Opinion: I’ve been on the frontline of disasters. We must get better at evacuating people

Editor’s Note: Robert Lewin is the former chief California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE)/San Luis Obispo County Fire, capping off a 38-year fire service career, and former director of the Santa Barbara County Office of Emergency Management. He is principal at Resolute Associates, an emergency management consulting firm. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.

In 2003, we were already days into an overwhelming Southern California fire siege when I was reassigned to the Grand Prix fire ripping through San Bernadino and Los Angeles counties. I was immediately deployed to direct the night operations on the branch where the wildfire was running west at a “critical” rate of spread under the hot and ferocious Santa Ana wind.

As my L.A. County Fire partner and I were trying to get ahead of the flames, we drove up a narrow road into a canyon neighborhood above the endless sea of homes in the flat valley below. Appropriately called Live Oak Canyon, the neighborhood was tight with homes surrounded by native brush and oak trees — now threatened by fire in the hills above.

When the residents went to bed that night, the fire was miles away and no threat. But now it was here, and they were struggling to understand their situation as they stood in the street in their night clothes gazing at the mesmerizing fire.

Along with a few police officers, my partner and I told the residents they must evacuate now. But the small road out of the canyon rapidly became backed up with cars — a potentially deadly traffic jam. We got out to the intersection with a four-lane thoroughfare only to find that the evacuees were stopped by oncoming drivers who were unaware of the disaster unfolding in the canyon above. I saw a police officer nearby, ran out to him and clearly requested that he stop all traffic until the people evacuating the canyon could get out. Until that moment, he just didn’t know the extent of the emergency.

Robert Lewin - Courtesy Robert Lewin
Robert Lewin - Courtesy Robert Lewin

When eliminating an emergency threat is not possible, protecting people is limited to only a few possible actions: You can alert people to shelter-in-place, evacuate a building, evacuate a neighborhood or evacuate a community. Evacuation of people and animals is always complex — and often fails for a few and sometimes for many.

It also can vary from county to county since disaster response and recovery in the United States primarily rests with local governments. As well intentioned as they are, these localities may not have the resources or the experience that a disaster requires — especially when they need to evacuate people.

But what happens when people can’t — or won’t — get out of harm’s way?

There are two types of disasters: one that you know is coming at you and one that suddenly happens. An approaching storm, a tsunami or a wildfire usually gives responders some time to alert and attempt to evacuate a community. An earthquake, an explosion or a levee break may give you no time. In both cases, disasters require quick decisions and fast action by authorities in real time to prevent or limit injuries and deaths.

An immediate threat makes the decision to order evacuations clear. When a fire, chemical leak or active-shooter emergency is occurring, people obviously must leave and they understand the threat. But more often, the decision of whether to evacuate is nuanced.

Is the storm or hurricane growing in strength? Where will it strike? Is that area prone to flooding? And how much time do we have?

The wildfire is a ridge away from the community. Are the winds and temperatures increasing? How long would it take for everyone to leave? Do we have that kind of time? Do we evacuate the entire neighborhood or just the first few streets next to the wildland?

Worse than being at home during a flood or wildfire is being on a road impacted by those threats where there is no protection. Should we have issued a shelter-in-place order instead of evacuation? People in institutions such as hospitals, care facilities, schools and certain hazardous industrial facilities may be better off sheltering in place depending how hardened the facility is from the threat and whether time will allow for a complicated evacuation. Protecting it may be a better option.

First responders have two options when responding to an emergency. They can go on the offense and stop the threat where it is, or they can go on defense, focusing their efforts on protecting people and property. Firefighters, for example, can go offensive and extinguish the wildfire to prevent its spread to the community. When the fire intensity is too great or the terrain too difficult to take this strategy, it forces them to back off, evacuate the community and focus protection on key points of a threatened neighborhood.

Some communities in these types of scenarios have tried to prepare for a future emergency that may require evacuation by developing procedures, purchasing alerting systems, providing dedicated emergency management staff and conducting continuous training of responsible agencies. They realize authorities cannot issue an emergency alert if they do not have the equipment, the staff to operate it and the procedures and training for that staff on how to do it.

Burned vehicles on the road in Paradise, California, after the Camp Fire tore through the area on November 10, 2018. - Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images
Burned vehicles on the road in Paradise, California, after the Camp Fire tore through the area on November 10, 2018. - Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images

Why people don’t go

Stacy Willett, a University of Akron professor in the Department of Disaster Science and Emergency Services, studied evacuations after Hurricane Katrina and singled out six major reasons why people ignore the warning to flee: older age, gender (men are more likely to ignore evacuation orders), previous personal experiences with emergencies, cost, pets and peer pressure-type influence from others.

Evacuations must meet the true needs of the entire affected community. In addition to supporting the needs of people with access and functional needs, including seniors and people with disabilities, warnings and other critical information should be broadcast simultaneously in all the primary languages that are spoken in a community.

Emergency managers need to truly partner with Red Cross and other relief organizations to ensure all people who need emergency shelter are provided equal access, physical access and access to effective communication. Evacuation preparedness must always consider the needs of people’s pets and livestock. People will hesitate or not evacuate at all if they are not confident their pets will be taken care of.

Older adults are more likely to die from a disaster. The average age of victims who died in the 2018 Camp Fire in Paradise, California, was 72. Many adults can’t easily evacuate – some because they don’t drive, others because they are physically unable. And some people simply refuse to evacuate. Capable neighbors must commit to helping their elderly neighbors safely evacuate during an emergency.

Ultimately it is the individual and family, not the authorities urging them to leave, who make the decision to evacuate or not. Even within families there may be conflict with one person wanting to leave and the other arguing that they should stay and protect their home. After the deadly Montecito, California, debris flow — a mudslide that killed 23 people on January 9, 2018 — we kept hearing stories of families who debated whether they should follow the evacuation order that was issued 24 hours before the disaster. In some cases, families would split up and some members would stay behind.

Some people will have evacuation fatigue — they have been evacuated multiple times before and nothing happened, they reason. An already skeptical population will often find the validation they seek to make their argument to stay or go. Government officials who say people in the path of disaster must leave now may not hold as much influence as the neighbor down the street who is choosing to stay.

Communities must learn from each other’s experiences with disaster evacuations. Unfortunately, we do not seem to do this very well. It is as if we all must touch the hot stove to learn it is hot.

How many news conferences do we have to hear authorities say “we have never seen anything like this before” — when only a county or two away they had a similar experience just a few years earlier? Lake County, California, in 2015; Sonoma County, California, in 2017; the Town of Paradise, California, in 2018; northwest Oregon in 2020; and Maui County, Hawaii, in 2023 are just a few examples of deadly disasters where the public criticized authorities for similar evacuation failures.

All too often we see these same failures repeat despite countless disaster after-action reports detailing recommended improvements. Local governments in the United States, with the assistance of state and federal governments, should be able to learn from each other’s experiences, create effective evacuation processes and ensure that the authorities who must implement them are ready.

Members of the Los Angeles County Fire Department Search and Rescue crew work on a car trapped under debris from a mudslide in Montecito, California, on January 10, 2018. - Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP
Members of the Los Angeles County Fire Department Search and Rescue crew work on a car trapped under debris from a mudslide in Montecito, California, on January 10, 2018. - Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP

Making the danger clear

When faced with an emergency, authorities in all communities must be able to identify when to evacuate, where to evacuate from and where to evacuate to, and be able to successfully alert and notify the community of the evacuation. Procedures must be in place and training exercises should occur regularly.

When people are better informed, they have the tools to make better decisions about evacuating. When the government puts out information, the public expects it to be accurate. But information released during an emergency also must be fast, often at the expense of full verification and accuracy. Threading this needle is essential. Using terminology that is standardized and intuitively understood will help. And yet that too can be a challenge.

For example, look at weather forecasting: Most disasters are weather-related, and all disasters are impacted by weather. The National Weather Service (NWS) is a national treasure as NWS scientists throughout the country use an amazing array of technology and vast experience to provide us with life-saving predictions. Even so, NWS terminology can be confusing.

To deliver critical weather threats, the NWS created standardized terminology for weather-related emergencies: “watch,” “warning” and “advisory.” But most people do not understand what those terms mean. Even the most experienced emergency manager may struggle to not only get the NWS terminology correct but convey that message internally and to the public. The public needs to know if a weather disaster is imminent or possible — or if bad weather will just cause inconvenience.

Fortunately, the NWS has committed to making some “plain language” changes to their alerts in 2026. One helpful benchmark may be the UK, where they use a color-coded warning impact matrix that tells you how likely the event is and what impact it will have. Red indicates a very high likelihood of a very high-impact weather event.

Standardization of terminology that drives decisions on protective actions is essential. The catastrophic California wildfires of 2017 and 2018 exposed inconsistencies that often led to confusion among the public at the very moment that clarity and certainty were needed.

When the Thomas fire began in Ventura County, California, on December 4, 2017, Ventura County immediately began evacuations using the words “mandatory” and “voluntary,” depending on the area’s threat level. After destroying over a thousand homes and killing a woman, the fire marched into Santa Barbara County, where our policy had been to use the terms “evacuation order” and “evacuation warning.” But for days the public had been hearing, and were now educated on, the terms used in Ventura County, where authorities were still issuing new evacuations.

I was the director of the Santa Barbara County Office of Emergency Management and part of the leadership team overseeing the fire response. Rather than use our terminology we chose to align with the neighboring county by using “voluntary” and “mandatory” for the tens of thousands of people we would evacuate. When we had to call for evacuations again prior to the torrential rains that fell on the burn-scarred mountains above Montecito, we continued using these terms.

The terminology may have caused confusion and contributed to lives being lost when people in the “voluntary” evacuation area chose to stay. California law enforcement agencies came together in 2020 to standardize the terminology: “evacuation order,” “evacuation warning,” “shelter in place.”

This standardization of terminology needs to be used and emulated across the country. The terms “mandatory evacuation” and particularly “voluntary evacuation” should be discontinued; they are only causing confusion. People in threatened areas should be either ordered to evacuate now or warned there is a possibility they will be evacuated, giving them valuable time to prepare.

Smoke plumes from the South Fork Fire rise above the tree line as the fire progresses from the Mescalero Apache Indian Reservation to the Lincoln National Forest, causing mandatory evacuations in Ruidoso, New Mexico, on June 17, 2024. - Kaylee Greenlee Beal/Reuters
Smoke plumes from the South Fork Fire rise above the tree line as the fire progresses from the Mescalero Apache Indian Reservation to the Lincoln National Forest, causing mandatory evacuations in Ruidoso, New Mexico, on June 17, 2024. - Kaylee Greenlee Beal/Reuters

Preparing before disaster strikes

Most disasters cross jurisdictional lines and involve many agencies. When each jurisdiction and agency individually issues critical information to the public, that inevitably leads to confusion and mistakes. Bringing all these entities together into a joint information center at one central location improves the ability to deliver a consistent and complete message. It also gives bench strength to smaller entities with limited communications staff.

But all of these intersecting agencies must practice together long before a disaster occurs. They should agree upon and create press release templates, websites and interactive maps. They should identify a call center location to field inquiries and pick a location where they will all hold press conferences. Waiting until a disaster strikes will result in a community distrusting disjointed messaging, thereby reducing the number of people who will leave when told to evacuate.

Similarly, people — especially in disaster-prone areas — should consider ahead of time how they would act if asked to evacuate.

For many years wildland fire agencies have been using the “Ready, Set, Go!” method to prepare a community for the steps they must take when wildfire is a threat. Their homes should be “ready” for fire season. When a wildfire is nearby, residents need to get “set” by loading their car, checking on elderly and disabled neighbors and moving large animals such as horses to a safer place. Then be ready to “go” if imminently threatened or ordered to evacuate.

Following the 2018 Montecito debris flow disaster, this clear messaging was successfully used to prepare people for more approaching atmospheric river storms that continued to threaten the community below the denuded mountains. We could see that instructing people to be “ready” and “set” improved residents’ response to the evacuation order when we said “go.” This type of messaging could easily be adapted for hurricanes, floods and storms as well as emergencies involving dams and nuclear or chemical facilities.

We have plenty of knowledge and experience supported by endless studies and incident reports showing how we can improve evacuations. We have to apply this in a way that moves people to heed warnings. If we do not, we will continue to see a repeat of evacuation failures and an unnecessary loss of life.

Local authorities must prioritize evacuation preparedness including having adequate staffing, incorporating lessons learned, crafting standardized messaging, updating alert systems and increasing community education. A community must see that when an evacuation is ordered it is confidently followed. If we learn key lessons from past emergencies, we can do better.

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