Blog   |   Oct 30th, 2018 Surviving a Wildfire: How One TRC Employee Narrowly Escaped the Largest Blaze in California History

Trc Surviving A Wildfire

When TRC’s Timothy Parnell and his wife backed out of their driveway last December 6, they weren’t sure they’d ever see their Ojai, California home again.

The Thomas wildfire was roaring westward, fueled by sustained Santa Ana winds. It had already consumed 90,000 acres of land over the previous two days on its way to becoming the largest wildfire in state history (since surpassed). And Ojai lay directly in its path.

“The fire had pretty much encircled the valley and we weren’t certain we could get out of there with enough time,” said Parnell, a SCADA Commissioning Engineer. “We were down to one road leaving Ojai.”

Fortunately, the couple and their two dogs, rescue mutts Bella (a Chihuahua) and Lillie (a cocker spaniel) made it to safety – a pet-friendly hotel 15 miles away in Ventura. And when they returned two days later, their house was still standing. The fire had come close – within three-quarters of a mile – but it had spared their neighborhood.

“We lucked out – in a number of ways,” says Parnell. “We had a number of friends who completely lost their homes. The fire was very hot and intense and there was nothing left of their houses but the foundation and maybe the chimney.”

Parnell has lived in California his whole life, save for a decade spent as a submariner in the Navy. He said experiencing a wildfire up close was far more frightening than the earthquakes that Californians have come to expect over the years.

“With an earthquake, the ground stops shaking and you look around and it’s like, ‘Well, we made it.’ There are aftershocks, but it’s pretty much over,” he said. “With a wildfire, it’s kind of like the hurricane calculation – do you stay and ride it out or do you go? You actually have to make that decision and think about what you’re going to do to protect your family.”

Taking stock of his actions last December, Parnell says “we made the right decision, but it was by accident.” So he set about developing a plan for future wildfires so he’ll be ready for the next one at a moment’s notice. 

He offers the following advice for anyone who may have to make a similar split-second, life-or-death decision in the face of a natural disaster.

Plan and Practice
“The hazards are different in different parts of the country and the responses are different, but it’s paramount to have a plan and take the time to practice doing it. With a wildfire or hurricane, I think it’s worth actually doing the drill, doing a walk through, doing some sort of table exercise of this is what we’re going to do, this is who we’re going to call, this is where we’re going and this is what we need.”

“Having good relationships with neighbors and knowing who to trust, who has good judgment and who has your back turned out to be quite comforting.”

Don’t Forget about Pets
Few pet owners would consider leaving their four-legged friends behind, but it’s important to factor in the special challenges they pose – from where you can stay with them to their dietary and (ahem) biological needs. 
“We hadn’t considered where to go with our dogs and didn’t know how hard it would be to find a hotel that would allow them.”

Be Ready to Bail
“You have to have a go-bag and not be in the mindset that you’re going to stick it out in this type of disaster. You have to have all the stuff that you can’t replace in a box and your pets ready to go, maybe even with dog food containers that you can load up in a car in 15 minutes, and get out of there.”

Listen to the Experts
“When the authorities ask you to evacuate – especially if there’s a knock on the door – that’s the time to leave.”

Go Old School with Communications
Parnell was forced to rely on 60-year-old technology to stay up-to-date on the fire – a battery-powered transistor radio.
“We lost power. We lost internet connectivity. We lost cell phone service. A good portable radio may be the only thing that works in the long run.”

Stay Positive
Parnell was able to maintain his sense of humor throughout the ordeal. He figured the fire might destroy his house, but at least it would wipe away his to-do list of chores.
“As it turned out, that actually helped me get through the week, that sort of mindset. Having a positive attitude of, ‘We’re going to get through this. We’re outta here. We’re safe. It doesn’t really matter what happens to the house, we can rebuild everything.’ – I think is the most healthy attitude.”

Expect the Unexpected
Parnell’s military background proved helpful here.
“When you’re on a submarine, you’re always on a wartime footing and we practiced every day to go to war. Just walking through it or doing the exercise makes you realize, ‘Oh, I didn’t think about that.’ Not everything on a ship is going to work during a battle situation or a damage situation, and that’s exactly what happened during this wildfire. Essential services started to fail one after another, and from my military experience I know that’s what we should expect. Heat, water, cellphone, internet – they’re all going to be affected by natural disasters, so plan accordingly.”

Don’t Come Rushing Back
While Parnell’s house escaped the flames, it was bathed in smoke and infiltrated by ash, which required extensive cleanup work.
“We should have stayed away longer because the air was basically unhealthy for weeks afterward.”

Ready for Next Time

Having survived the Thomas fire and applied the lessons he learned from it, Parnell says he’s better prepared now for the next wildfire – which could come any time thanks to the increasing frequency and duration of California’s droughts.

“It used to be the end of October was the pretty much the end of wildfire season, but now it’s year-round, sad to say.”

Next Steps

Blog Author

Doug Hanchett

Doug Hanchett

Formerly an award-winning journalist, Doug Hanchett is TRC’s communications manager. He spent more than a decade working as a newspaper reporter and covered transportation for the Boston Herald before becoming Director of Media Relations for the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority and Boston’s “Big Dig” (the Central Artery/Tunnel Project).