4 People Who Faced Disaster—And How They Made it Out Alive
Some disasters are simply not survivable. But most are, and research on human behavior suggests that the difference between life and death often comes down to the simple—yet surprisingly difficult—task of recognizing threats before they overwhelm you, then working through them as discrete challenges. The people who survive disasters tend to be better prepared and more capable of making smart decisions under pressure. Not everyone is born with these traits, but almost anyone can learn them. Here’s how to wire your brain for survival.
By John Galvin
Ilustrations by Andres Rivera
Published in the October 2009 issue.
Frank Vaplon saved his home from a California wildfire with mail-order firefighting equipment and plenty of preparation.
Prepare for the WorstIt was early, 9:00AM, and eerily dark in Poway, Calif., as 75-mph winds drove chaparral embers through the air and shook the bones of Frank Vaplon’s house. One ember lodged in his woodpile and set it ablaze. Most of his neighbors had evacuated, but Vaplon had decided to stay and fight the wildfire that was closing in on his property.
Geared up in a mail-order firefighter’s outfit—helmet, bunker coat, respirator, the whole thing—Vaplon began his assault by shooting a high-pressure stream of water at the flames, but it just blew back against him in a hot mist. “It was like pissing into the wind,” Vaplon says. “So I turned around and started spraying down the house.”
The Witch Creek fire was the fourth largest on record in California. A reported 1800 firefighters battled the blaze and several others nearby; more than 250,000 people in San Diego County were evacuated. Conventional wisdom says that when a wildfire is burning down your neighborhood, you shouldn’t stick around. And, for most homeowners, evacuation was certainly the smartest option. But Vaplon stayed and fought back against the fire. What did he know that everyone who followed the conventional wisdom didn’t?
“The last thing I want from my story is for people to risk their lives,” Vaplon says. “But I’d thought about protecting my home, and I felt comfortable with my decision to stay.” The day before the fire swept through his 2.5-acre spread, he woke up early to the distant smell of smoke. He immediately broke out 500 feet of fire hose and attached it to a standpipe hooked up to a 10,000-gallon water tank. “I started watering down everything that I could,” Vaplon says. “The roof, my lawn, everything.”
The former Hewlett-Packard engineer didn’t stop there. He raked up all the loose debris around his house, and then boarded up the attic vents where embers might get in. He checked the fuel for his three backup generators. And he put important papers in a steel box, which he loaded into his RV. He parked the vehicle facing out just in case he needed to bolt. “I had a plan to go if I had to go,” he says. “If for one minute I started to get scared, I would have left.”
The gear and setup were just part of Vaplon’s extensive preparation. Whether deliberately or not, he had organized his brain to deal with disaster by planning a detailed fire strategy.
“The brain is an engineering system,” says John Leach, a former Royal Air Force combat survival instructor who now works with the Norwegian military on survival training and research. “Like any engineering system, it has limits in terms of what it can process and how fast it can do so. We cope by taking in information about our environment, and then building a model of that environment. We don’t respond to our environment, but to the model of our environment.” If there’s no model, the brain tries to create one, but there’s not enough time for that during an emergency. Operating on an inadequate mental model, disaster victims often fail to take the actions needed to save their own lives.