Authors: Stephen D. Wong, Jacquelyn C. Broader, Susan A. Shaheen, PhD
Date: March 2020
Between 2017 and 2019, California experienced a series of devastating wildfires that together led over one million people to be ordered to evacuate. Due to the speed of many of these wildfires, residents across California found themselves in challenging evacuation situations, often at night and with little time to escape. These evacuations placed considerable stress on public resources and infrastructure for both transportation and sheltering. In the face of these clear challenges, transportation and emergency management agencies across California have widely varying levels of preparedness for major disasters, and nearly all agencies do not have the public resources to adequately and swiftly evacuate all populations in danger. To holistically address these challenges and bolster current disaster and evacuation planning, preparedness, and response in California, we summarize the evacuations of eleven major wildfires in California between 2017 and 2019 and offer a cross-comparison to highlight key similarities and differences. We present results of new empirical data we collected via an online survey of individuals impacted by: 1) the 2017 October Northern California Wildfires (n=79), 2) the 2017 December Southern California Wildfires (n=226), and 3) the 2018 Carr Wildfire (n=284). These data reveal the decision-making of individuals in these wildfires including choices related to evacuating or staying, departure timing, route, sheltering, destination, transportation mode, and reentry timing. We also present results related to communication and messaging, non-evacuee behavior, and opinion of government response. Using the summarized case studies and empirical evidence, we present a series of recommendations for agencies to prepare for, respond to, and recover from wildfires.