Escape Artist: How to Safely Evacuate Your Home During Fire, Storm or Natural Disaster


Last month, I vacationed in Paso Robles, California’s West Coast wine region. I was with my husband, children and grandchild for a long awaited, idyllic escape from their COVID concerns in Los Angeles.

My husband, Stuart, and I took a COVID test…then flew across the country wearing masks and shields so that we could get there safely. In fact, we sequestered in Utah’s Wasatch mountains for six days before driving to California. The family rented a large home with a private pool in a secluded winery. We could not have been safer.


The West Coast blaze, now thought to be caused by arson, filled the skies with smoke and our lungs with biting chemicals. Yes, we had read about it in the news. Yes, we went anyway because “the fire was so far away.”

But we were totally unprepared for what happened.

The massive blazes that engulfed much of the area east of the I-5 did not pose a direct fire danger to our vacation venue, but the smoke made breathing nearly impossible. On Tuesday, the air quality was categorized as “unhealthy.” By Wednesday, it was “dangerous.” So we quickly packed up and returned to Los Angeles two days early.

The total of our preparedness: Get in the car and go.

With so many natural disasters in the news lately—Hurricane Isaias, Hurricane Laura and the devastating California wildfires, to mention just a few—we are reminded of the need to plan, prepare and implement emergency safety.

While the consequences of storm and fire are unpredictable, there are important steps we can take to give ourselves maximum control in just about any emergency.

Based on my experience, here are five essential preparedness steps…

#1. Know your attitude toward danger. I was a Sandy storm victim and lived in a temporary shelter for six months after the storm. Yet I rarely think about natural disaster. I have that cavalier It can’t happen to me attitude, even though it can—and has—happened to me. By contrast, when my Mom was a little girl, she lit a candle and caused a small fire. She never lit a candle for the remainder of her life and brought in the local fireman to show us how to escape a fire.

Who in your family cares the most about safety? Put that person in charge of your protocol.

According to Wharton marketing professor Robert Meyer, codirector of the school’s Risk Management and Decision Processes Center, “Everyone will remember the storm. You look in the news, and [reports] remind you of it. But what tends to fade quickly is what it really felt like to go through these things. I think it’s part of human evolution that we tend to have a really short memory for pain.” That’s why—although folks promise themselves they will be prepared—according to the PreventionWeb website, a mere three or four months after a disaster, they forget what it felt like.

In taking the next steps, appoint a family member with enough concern to carry out all that is required.

#2. Plan. The time to plan is when everything is OK—not when the nightly news announces a hurricane or tornado. Check with your library, town hall and fire department. They will recommend and explain the designated routes in the event of an evacuation. If you live in a planned community, check with management about the emergency protocol that has been put in place.

If you live in a condominium community, check with your homeowners association (HOA). Make sure that you and your family are fully aware of what arrangements have been made. If you do not drive, understand how you can access the evacuation route.

Use the checklist at HomeAdvisor or The Prepared to formulate your plan and designate an emergency captain from among your family or friends. Your checklist should include, at the very least…

  • Designate an out-of-town contact person. This is not so easy, but it must be done. During a recent blizzard, a large tree fell across our driveway making it impossible to leave the house. We had lost both cell-phone and landline communication. But our plan worked, because we chose an emergency captain outside of the storm range who called for help when he did not hear from us within a designated time.
  • Choose a meeting location. If family members separate, they should meet at a specific location after a disaster.
  • Make a communication plan. Give important phone numbers to every family member so that they all can contact each other after a disaster.
  • Map out an escape route. Have several escape routes in case of fire, and make sure everyone knows them.
  • Plan for pets. Make a plan to evacuate with pets, if necessary.

Decide to meet at a specified location, and stage a drill twice a year to simulate an emergency evacuation experience. What transportation would be available? What barriers to following the plan might you face? Are your exits blocked? Are doors hard to open?

Drills give you a mental anchor to visualize exactly what you would do in an emergency and increase your odds of carrying through your plan. Especially in case of fire, the drill will let you become familiar with using a ladder or a fire extinguisher. These may take practice.

#3. Prepare. Create emergency kits. One of these kits should be stored in a safe room in your house…in your car…and with the emergency captain. You’ll find a list of suggested contents at

Each person will need one gallon of water per day and enough food for three to six days. But be aware that a gallon jug might be too heavy for an older adult, so use smaller portable bottles.

Do not forget that extra pair of glasses, walking shoes, a mask and possibly a sleeping bag. Include extra medication, insulin syringes, hearing aid batteries and a list of the doctors and pharmacies you use. Keep your papers, including Social Security card, allergy alerts, veteran’s papers, and Medicare and Medicaid cards in a waterproof bag. Even in an emergency, dignity counts. Make sure you have incontinency supplies and disposable wipes.

#4. Implement. For loved ones in senior communities, make sure that the community administrators all have the needed procedures and equipment in place and ready. According to Status Solutions, a nationwide consultant and provider of environmental safety to hotels, senior living and congregate care communities, it is vital that these facilities conduct risk assessments and develop emergency plans that use effective technology to operationalize a crisis plan.

According to Status Solutions, “Automated alerting, including details about what’s happening, where it’s happening, and what to do about it, improves emergency response in terms of both timing and actions.”

In case of fire or an immediate emergency, do not hesitate to call 911, your family emergency captain and any other contacts suggested by local police or fire department. Then follow your plan.

#5. Manage expectations. Secure your home when you leave. Not only will this minimize damage, but it will give you a sense of ease that you have protected your home to the best of your ability.

Lock doors and windows…and turn off electricity and water, (natural gas may have to be turned off only by a professional). If you do not have the hand strength to close off water, arrange for a neighbor to do so. Close fireplace dampers, and turn off air conditioners and fans before you head for the predetermined meeting place.

Plan, prepare, implement, and manage expectations. Hopefully then you can return home, perhaps with holes in the ceiling (yes, that happened to me, too) but safe and sound.