When fires come calling

Dr. Robert Oldham column
By: Dr. Robert Oldham
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We’re facing a serious fire season here in California. It seems almost counterintuitive that after such a wet winter, fire is still such a threat. Yet in some respects, it may be even more dangerous than the drought years, because all that water has meant more grass and brush growth.

I was brand new to Placer County when the King Fire tore through El Dorado County in 2014. I’d just come from Fresno, where we had fire but they tended to be in less inhabited areas. Here, it’s part of our lifestyle to live amongst the trees but that comes with very real threats. The King Fire was a huge force of nature, and at the time, there were rumors that it was moving to Truckee. Thankfully, that did not turn out to be the case. But it was an eye-opening experience for me.

I urge you to sign up for emergency alerts at, and visit CAL FIRE’s website at to learn how to best protect your home and family against wildfires. If you follow those tips, you’ll be better prepared should a fire arrive at your doorstep.

In the Public Health department here at the county, we are responsible for opening and operating shelters during evacuations. Just the other week, we opened an evacuation center very briefly during the Stagecoach Fire in Auburn. Thankfully, crews were able to get that fire under control quickly.

Evacuation shelters can be chaotic, scary places when not run smoothly. We do everything we can to plan, prepare and practice, and we debrief after every incident to try and improve our operations. There are a few things that you and your family can do to prepare for the possibility of evacuation, as well, to reduce the confusion and stress that comes with emergencies.

Stay with friends or loved ones if possible. Generally, we expect one or two percent of evacuees to show up at a shelter. You’ll likely be more comfortable and calm in the presence of people you know.

Prepare an emergency evacuation kit with toiletries, any special dietary foods, clothing, blankets, pillows, towels, money and any other essentials that you may need while staying in a shelter or with friends or loved ones.

Follow directions promptly. Law enforcement will give updates via Placer Alert notifications (, on the radio, the Placer County website, social media pages and beyond. Keep track of developments and when asked to evacuate, do so as quickly as possible. Failure to follow orders promptly could lead to getting stranded or trapped.

Bring important documents with you to the evacuation shelter such as your driver’s license, the deed to your house, proof of insurance, passports, social security cards and important phone numbers.

Bring your medication! We’ve had instances where residents have shown up to shelters without critical medication, from insulin to cardiac medicine. People often seem to remember their papers but forget their meds!

Leave a note when you evacuate. Let others know when you left and where you are going, and include your phone number. This will let first responders know you are safe so they can quickly move on to your neighbors. We’re starting to partner with a group called Safely Out that creates kits including a door tag, which we’re working to get to our neediest residents.

Know your neighbors. It’s important that everyone work together in a crisis. One of our biggest challenges of an evacuation is ensuring the safety of those with additional needs, including people who are infirm. It’s a good idea for communities to establish a “buddy system” for residents who may require a little extra help.

Wear sturdy, comfortable clothes. Think long pants, close-toed shoes and other attire that offers some protection.

Understand that you may not be able to keep your pets with you in a shelter. Typically, our Animal Services Center in Auburn can house hundreds of animals safely and securely (including some livestock) so we will transport pets there. While keeping your dog or cat at your side might be comforting in this stressful situation, for safety and sanitary reasons, we only allow service animals. But rest assured that we’ll keep them safe, fed and active.

And most importantly, try to stay calm! We know it’s a terrifying time. Keeping a level head, driving safely – and avoiding accidents that could slow evacuations – and sticking to the plan will help us to help you more efficiently.

There are many more resources available on the Ready for Wildfire website. It’s my hope that you never have to put that knowledge and planning into action, but if you do, it’s better to have thought about it in advance.

Be well, Placer!


Dr. Robert Oldham is Placer County’s public health officer. Contact his office at (530) 889-7141.