Aug 122014
 
Locations of riot events in St Louis.  The original police shooting is on the left, in the middle, in green.

Locations of most of the riot events in St Louis. The original police shooting is on the left, in the middle, in green.

A white police officer in Ferguson, MO (a suburb of St Louis) shot a black youth on Saturday 9 August.  On Sunday, during the day, there were some protests by members of the local community and a vigil.

What happened next was unfortunate, but also educational to us as preppers, and it behooves us to learn the lessons inherent in the events that followed.

(Note :  The riots initially filled Sunday night, Monday night was fairly quiet, and we wrote this piece on Tuesday, thinking the matter was essentially done.  Not so.  There have been continued relevant developments during the week, so after reading this article, please then click to read our follow up piece, written on Saturday, ‘More and Updated Lessons from the St Louis Rioting‘.)

There’s, alas, nothing particularly unique about police shooting black youths (or for that matter, shooting people of any race or age) and neither is there anything surprising about the transformation of youths who were deservedly shot as a result of their own inappropriate actions, now suddenly being beatified and described as saintlike creatures who were victimized and totally innocent of any and all charges.  Normally, people on both sides of the equation go through the ritualistic utterances that these events require, and then life goes back to normal, sadly with nothing changed.

But the unpredictable and unforeseeable lottery of life threw out a joker this time.  Sunday evening and night saw rioting and looting break out in the broader area around Ferguson, with the lawless perpetrators quite unashamedly and aggressively justifying their actions.  As is invariably the case there was no logic to the wanton gratuitous destruction – for example, in this article there is a video clip of a couple of rioters attempting to smash a bus shelter.  A bus shelter?  The destruction of public transport facilities disadvantages the very social sector of society that is rioting, not the vague aspects of society they feel they are protesting about and against.

But who ever said that logic or sense needs to apply to such actions?  Although, and please understand this, the rioters and looters actually think what they are doing is both sensible and appropriate!  This article quotes one person as saying

This is exactly what is supposed to be happening when an injustice is happening in your community.  You have kids getting killed for nothing.  I don’t think it’s over honestly, I just think they got a taste of what fighting back means.

There’s so much to disagree with in those three sentences.  How does a police action against someone justify someone else, somewhere else, looting another person’s store?

And that’s actually the first lesson for us as preppers.  We can not judge people and predict their actions based on our own standards of common-sense, rationality, fairness and justice.  Here’s something to live by (the closing line of this excellent article on a very different subject) :

What you find utterly unthinkable may prove quite thinkable, even reasonable, to your enemies.

One of the problems of the west in general, the US more specifically, and the people around us in particular is that they expect the people, groups, and nations they deal with to act predictably, sensibly, and in a manner and adhering to values similar to themselves.  We’ve two words to offer anyone who thinks they should predict how other people will act and behave based on their own values :  suicide bomber.

It is unthinkable to us that we’d become suicide bombers, and hopefully it is also unthinkable to us that we’d go off and riot/loot/etc based on something we knew little about and which neither directly involved ourselves or the people/businesses we were then gratuitously attacking.

But, right here in the US, just a couple of nights ago, hundreds – possibly thousands – of our fellow citizens gleefully set about doing exactly these things, and feel totally justified in what they were doing.

So, please consider this.  If these people feel entitled and empowered to loot stores with this ‘justification’, how do you think they’ll feel in any sort of broader breakdown of society?  Do you think they’ll hesitate, for a country moment, to loot not just stores, but then to turn their attentions to ordinary people in their ordinary residences, and continue their gratuitous looting without pause?

Even worse, when the food runs out, what will they do then?  Won’t they feel doubly empowered and justified to take by destructive force any food they can find from anyone?  Indeed, isn’t it likely they’ll come up with some more pseudo-justification as to why what they are doing is perfectly moral and correct?

One last part of this second point.  Don’t you think that as social order progressively breaks down, the initial core of looters and rioters will quickly be joined by more and more people?

That’s the second lesson.  Lots of people will quickly start acting irrationally and harmfully.

As seems to typically be the case, when the rioting and looting broke out, the lawless groups went after the easy pickings.  Sure, we got to see examples of armed local business owners protecting their businesses, but there’s another aspect of this that is worth considering as well.

This report is very interesting.  It tells how 10 – 15 cars with nearly 30 people pulled in to a strip mall, and the people then set about smashing into a shoe store and looting it.  Right next to the shoe store was a Radio Shack, and you just know that the electronics in a Radio Shack would be ultra-tempting to the looters.

But there was a single security guard at the Radio Shack, and his presence was enough to deter the 30 looters.  Like all bullies, they are essentially cowards.  When someone stands up to them, they usually slip away rather than confront a determined opponent.

We suggest that the one security guard was very fortunate in this case, and wouldn’t count on one person consistently being able to turn away 30.  But probably you don’t need to have 30 people on your side to defend against 30 attackers, because only one or two of the attackers will be seriously motivated.  The rest of the people will be ‘going with the flow’ and believing that they can do so with impunity as part of a larger group.  As soon as their safety is directly threatened, their enthusiasm will fade.

Update :  This article, several days later, about the ongoing rioting, includes the delightful line

Early in the evening gunshots were heard near the gas station sending crowds of protesters screaming and running away.

We think that proves our point!  It seems no-one was shot, and we’re guessing that some people defending their business simply brandished their weapons and fired a few rounds in the air.

We are not sure that this would be all you need to do in a truly dire situation with all of society crumbling around you, but in this lesser scenario, it was obviously more than sufficient.

So our derivative point and third lesson is that you should group together with your neighbors, at work and at home, to have at least a small group of people to back you up and create a more credible defense when confronted by rioters.

Our next point and the fourth lesson is that this rioting was entirely unexpected.  It came out of nowhere and erupted like wildfire in a seemingly unpredictable manner.

But although it was unexpected and unpredictable to the victims, that is not to say that it wasn’t also planned by the rioters.  For example, think about the implications of the 10 – 15 carloads of rioters that drove to the shoe store and Radio Shack.  There was nothing spontaneous about that.  Those 30 people got together and carefully coordinated making a special journey to those two stores.  See our earlier article about flash mobs and social media for more discussion on this growing phenomenon.

So don’t underestimate your adversaries.  Although on the surface, rioting looks spontaneous and haphazard, underneath there is a mix of the truly spontaneous but also darker forces eagerly seeking a ‘free ride’ and exploiting and aggravating the situation as best they can.

Our last point and fifth lesson is that the geographic locations of the rioting and looting is not necessarily directly related to the location of the trigger event.  Rioters and looters can travel to targets of opportunity, as long as they feel that the umbrella protection of the rioting/looting will protect them.

The two maps in this article are interesting.  They show the spread of riot related events, some far out of the local community.  Just because you might think you live in a ‘good’ or ‘safe’ area, in terms of the demographic makeup of your community and local crime levels, does not mean that it will remain good or safe when rioting breaks out in the region.

Summary

1.  Don’t judge and anticipate other people’s actions based on your own views and values.  Other people will act unexpectedly and irrationally, in ways that can potentially be enormously harmful to yourself, your family, and your possessions.

2.  In an adverse scenario with normal social order disrupted, other people will feel justified in taking everything from you, including definitely your dignity and quite possibly your life, even though there is no possible logic to this.  Do not expect a breakdown in society to bring out the best in everyone.  It will bring out the worst in sufficient numbers of people as to pose major problems.

3.  If you actively protect your property and yourselves, you’re likely to deter all but the most determined or desperate of looters during the early stages of any civil breakdown.  Later on, when looters are no longer motivated only by greed, but instead by fear and the need for survival, the situation will become more extreme.

4.  We never know when rioting might suddenly break out.  The trigger events and the degree of response can be unexpected and disproportionate.  But don’t underestimate the rioters.  They include organized gangs of roving opportunists who are coordinating and communicating among themselves to plan their actions.

5.  Rioting can spread through a region, and reach into unrelated communities, because the rioters aren’t only on foot.  They have cars, too.  When a metro area becomes infected by rioting somewhere, the entire metro area becomes at risk.

And, lastly, at the risk of stating the obvious, a bonus sixth point.  When things go seriously wrong, you can not count on the police being there to protect you or your belongings.  It truly will be every man for himself, and every small neighborhood watch group or strip mall business owners association for themselves.

Update Now Published

Further to this article, written on Tuesday (the rioting started on Sunday night) we have added a second article on Saturday.  Please now go read More and Updated Lessons from the St Louis Rioting.

Aug 092014
 
A secure entrance to your safe room is essential, and buys you necessary time if your retreat is overrun.

A secure entrance to your safe room is essential, and buys you necessary time if your retreat is overrun.

We sometimes amuse ourselves reading properties for sale advertisements that describe themselves as being prepper properties.  We particularly like looking at the dwelling structures – what they proudly term the prepper retreat – on such properties.

Nine times out of ten (maybe even 99 times out of 100), the ‘retreat’ is nothing more than a generic house with nothing at all that would enhance its role as a sturdy building, reliably protecting the people inside it from the outside elements and threats.

We see huge picture windows, insubstantial wooden construction, shake roofs, and standard architectural practices that make no sense when designing a sturdy survivable structure that could reasonably required to remain comfortable in a grid-down situation for an extended period of years.  They are totally vulnerable to any type of attack, also to fire, and often show little sign of being either energy-efficient or energy independent.

Okay, so maybe it is a lovely building, maybe even a rambling rustic cabin or a classic ‘A frame’ log home, and qualifies as being in the general sense of a ‘nature retreat’ or a ‘country retreat’ or a ‘lifestyle retreat’.  But these are definitely not prepper retreats in the sense that we understand.

Most recently, we saw a so-called house on one of these listings that boasted having a ‘safe room’ inside.  They thought this made it a more bona fide prepper retreat.  We think completely the opposite!

Let’s talk about safe rooms and whether they add to – or detract from – the prepper functionality of a retreat building.

There are two general types of safe rooms.

Weather Related Safe Rooms

The first type of safe room is a well constructed part of a structure that is designed to withstand extremes of weather.  The rest of the structure may fail but the safe room will remain intact and the people inside will remain protected from the outside conditions.

A tornado cellar would be an example of a safe room under this category, for example.  FEMA write about these types of safe rooms here.

We have nothing against these types of safe rooms, and agree with the value of having them, in normal houses.

But for your retreat, we would hate to think you deliberately designed your retreat so that if some sort of foreseeable extreme weather event came along, it would be destroyed, all but for the one safe room somewhere within it!  Your entire retreat must be built to withstand weather extremes, because if it fails, there will be no team of builders turning up the next day to repair and rebuilt it.  Even if there were builders available, there’d probably be no building materials available for them, and even if there were building materials, maybe there’d be no way to transport them to your site.

Remember – we’re planning for a Level 2 or 3 situation where all the usual services and support features of our modern-day life have failed.  We only have what we have at the start of such a situation, and if something breaks or fails, we must either ‘make do or mend’, all by ourselves.  Every part of our entire retreats need to in effect be a safe room and resilient to the worst that the elements can throw at them.

Defensive Safe Rooms

The other type of safe room is one where you can go and hide/shelter if your home is being attacked/invaded by intruders.  The concept of this type of safe room was popularized in the Jodie Foster movie, ‘Panic Room’.

For sure, it is a sadly realistic thing to anticipate and plan for being attacked in our retreat in the future.  But there are two obvious problems with this type of safe room in a retreat as a solution to this scenario.

The first problem is that if you retreat to your safe/panic room, you’ve abandoned the rest of your retreat, allowing the attacking intruders to help themselves to whatever is in all the rest of the structure.  Is that really wise?

You might be protecting yourself, but when you emerge from the safe room, what will you do if all your food and other survival essentials have been taken?  What will you do if the attackers damage/destroy the rest of the building?  They very likely would smash windows, maybe even just set fire to the entire structure (although hopefully you’ve been careful to build your retreat out of non-combustible materials).

The second problem is that a safe room assumes either that you can summon help from within the safe room, and/or that within a reasonable period of time, the bad guys will give up trying to break into the safe room, leave and you can emerge.  But what say instead, the attackers merely seal your safe room door shut and allow you to literally rot inside?  How is the safe room benefitting you in that respect?

If you have a nice retreat, maybe these roving marauders will decide to stay there for a few days or weeks or indefinitely until they’ve eaten their way through all your supplies.  You’re stuck inside your safe room and unable to do anything about this, with your choices being either running out of food and water in your safe room, or emerging and being taken prisoner – at which point, you really don’t want to think too carefully about what is likely to happen next.

Let’s just say that a universal consequence of civil disorder, particularly when the bad guys are already attacking and looting, extends to such other terrible things as rape, torture, and murder.

Just like your entire retreat must be weather resistant, you must also be able to defend your entire retreat from marauders.  Do we need to state the obvious – after TEOTWAWKI, and with a break down in the normal rule of law and social support structures, you can’t sacrifice anything you have in the expectation that you can recreate it subsequently, or in the belief that appeasing attackers will buy you safety.

Totally different rules apply and you must defend everything that you have and need.

An Altered Safety Design Concept for Your Retreat

We urge you to protect your retreat and to repel marauders.  But we will concede there may be occasions when that becomes impossible.  If you have only a small group living with you, and if you are surprised by a large determined group of marauders, and if your retreat isn’t sufficiently solidly constructed as to give you physical protection, then you will surely be overwhelmed.  Maybe not in the first five minutes, and maybe not the first time that marauders attack.  But some time, and more likely sooner rather than later, you will be disabled and your retreat will lie open to the attackers.

Would a safe room be appropriate then?  We don’t think so, at least not in the traditional sense of a temporary refuge.  In part, we’re reminded of why the British were slow to adopt parachutes in their World War 1 aircraft.  They were concerned that parachutes would encourage the pilots to give up the fight and simply jump out of the plane when confronted by enemy planes aggressively attacking.

It could be argued that you need to take an ‘all or nothing’ approach to defending your retreat.  Without your retreat, you lose your shelter, your supplies, and your ability to survive into the future.

On the other hand, parachutes are now universally accepted, and so we see no harm in having a ‘worst case scenario’ plan for you in your retreat.  But we suggest this should not be limited to just a safe room, because there’s every chance that your attackers will emulate the attackers in the Jodie Foster movie and seek to break into your safe room, believing that to be the ultimate repository of your most valuable supplies.

Some people advocate having a hidden safe room – a place where you can hide that the bad guys can’t find.  That’s a good idea, but there is a problem with it.  Think it through – there you were, just a few minutes ago, mounting a furious defense of your retreat.  Then you all go and hide in your hidden safe room.  The bad guys break down the front door, go through the house, and don’t find you.

What happens next?  Do the bad guys say ‘Wow.  They must have a Star Trek type transporter, and got Scottie to beam them out!’.  Do they stop looking and just loot the rest of your retreat, then go on their way?

Or do they say ‘Wait a minute.  They were all here just a couple of minutes ago.  They must still be here somewhere; and if they have hidden themselves, I bet they also have a hidden cache of supplies and other goodies too.  Let’s rip the house apart until we find them and it.’

The thing about most of the hidden safe rooms is that they rely on the house structure remaining more or less intact, and they also assume that a safe room needs only to withstand a temporary home invasion, because the bad guys will need to act moderately discreetly for fear of alerting neighbors, and will need to leave at some point for fear of the police arriving.

That’s obviously not the case after TEOTWAWKI and if the bad guys start punching holes in the dry wall, they’ll soon enough find your hiding place.

We’d much rather have a safe room with an obvious entrance that can’t be broken into than a safe room with a hidden but insecure entrance.  Of course, a safe room with both attributes would be better still, but keep in mind you can never guarantee how long a safe room remains hidden.  The most important consideration is to be able to keep the bad guys out.  You (hopefully) have more control over that.

The Only Effective Type of Retreat Safety Strategy

The previous paragraph starts to give us a clue as to the most effective type of hiding place, should you indeed be determined to create one.  Rather than creating an obscured part of your above ground retreat, how about an underground cellar.  If you have a sufficiently camouflaged/hidden entry into the cellar, then the bad guys could level the entire building and never find it.  And if the entry is sufficiently sturdy, even if they do find it, they won’t be able to get in for sufficiently long to give you valuable time to pursue other options.

On the other hand, if they do level the entire house, and if some heavy beams fall on top of your cellar entry/exit portal, how are you going to get out?

By having multiple entry/exit points, you might say.  Yes, that’s correct, but there’s a particular thing to keep in mind here.  Don’t have multiple entry/exit points within your retreat.  If you do that, you’re simply increasing the chances that the bad guys will find one or more of them.  The other access point should be somewhere outside your retreat, and indeed, as far outside your retreat as you can realistically tunnel.

In such a case, you’ve transformed your ‘safe’ room from a no-exit trap into an escape route, allowing you to either (or both) hide from the attackers or (the preferred response) exit out of the occupied area and regroup, either to continue your retreat, to wait out the attackers’ eventual departure, or to mount a surprise attack from outside the retreat.

We talk about prepper issues to do with tunnels here.

Needless to say, your safe room – perhaps better to say, ‘staging area’ needs to have reasonable physical security so that if you have to abandon your main dwelling structure and move to your safe room, while preparing to then exit through the tunnel, the bad guys can’t quickly follow you into the safe room.  You need it to buy you enough time to make your exit safely and to vanish away, rather than having the bad guys in hot pursuit.

From this perspective, it is more important that the safe room access be secure than for it to be hidden.  As long as it can keep the bad guys out for a reasonable period of time, it doesn’t matter so much if they find it or not.

Only in this case – where a ‘safe room’ has become an emergency exit path out of your retreat, has it become truly valuable and truly contributing to your safety.  All other types of safe rooms bely faulty assumptions and create only a dangerous illusion of safety.  Don’t be fooled by such things.

Aug 092014
 
It is essential to skillfully conceal your tunnel exit.

It is essential to skillfully conceal your tunnel exit.

We’ve seen very little written about adding an escape tunnel to your retreat, and what has been written has not necessarily been practical or prudent.

First, of course, do you need an escape tunnel for your retreat?  That’s something you have to decide for yourself, and probably also something you have to do a cost/benefit calculation on.  Most of us have our retreat designs limited first and foremost by our budget, and we have to compromise between the ideal retreat and the achievable retreat.  You need to make a list of all the features you’d like to have, approximately cost out each feature, and then based on the importance and value and need of each feature, balanced against its cost, decide what you will spend your money on and what you won’t.

It would be ridiculous, for example, spending money on a deluxe tunnel while overlooking the need for a good solar cell array.  But we suggest there will come a point, somewhere on your priority list, where an escape tunnel becomes a prudent consideration, and of course the first part of that evaluation is understanding what form an escape tunnel would take, and what its approximate cost might be.

In considering the need and value of an escape tunnel, there are several issues to look at.  The first of course is your evaluation for how likely the circumstances of needing an escape tunnel, the second is the practicality of building such a tunnel, and the third would be the cost involved.

Let’s quickly look at all three points.

The Need for an Escape Tunnel

Is it possible that your retreat might at some future point be attacked by a lawless group of marauders?  In a Level 3, and possibly even a Level 2 situation (defined here) – at a time when society has broken down and there is no longer any ‘rule of law’ – it is definitely foreseeable that you’ll be visited by outlaw bandits of some form or another.

What do you think might happen when such people do come ‘visiting’?  They’re unlikely to limit their visit to a polite knock on the door, an even politer request for some free food and supplies, and a most polite of all acceptance of your refusal and a peaceable departure!  Sure, it is likely that individual beggars might adopt this approach, but it is also likely that some organized gangs – either new gangs that will spring up from the ruins of our society, or extensions of the current ever-increasing number of gangs in our society – will come and be prepared to use any amount of deadly force to secure whatever they wish from you.

So, what do you think will happen when an armed battle-hardened gang attempts to shoot their way into your retreat?  Assume, for the sake of this discussion, there are 20 of them, and they’ve surprised you, unawares, either at 2am when you’re sleeping, or, if you prefer, at 2pm when some of you are out in the fields working and others of you are attending to chores inside.

There are several outcomes from such a surprise attack.  The first outcome is sadly quite likely, and that is that you’ll be immediately and totally overrun.  If that happens, there’s of course no need for an escape tunnel!

The second outcome is that you quickly rally around, you have a quick response force who immediately returns fire, and after a harrowing time, you win and they retreat.  Again, no need for an escape tunnel.

The third outcome is that as many of you as can make it back to your retreat, you secure the retreat, but the marauders continue to press their attack, rather than giving up and going away.  They either set siege to your retreat, or they manage to break into the retreat and overrun it.

This is the scenario where an escape tunnel might come in very handy.  A secure retreat is all very well and good, but it is also a ‘prison’ that confines you in one place, while your attacker is free to come and go, to resupply, and generally do as they wish.

Opinions differ as to if marauders would be ‘casual’ in attitude – ie, if they would selectively pick off only the easy targets, and leave harder targets well alone.  Or maybe, particularly after all the easy targets had been plundered, then they might become more fixated on taking anything they come across, even if it requires some time and patience to do so.

So, how likely do you feel these different scenarios could be?  Should you be considering an escape tunnel?

The Practicality of an Escape Tunnel

There are several things to consider when looking at the practicality of building an escape tunnel.  Clearly, if your retreat is built on bedrock, it will be close to impossible to tunnel through solid rock.  (Note that, in the other extreme, it is actually quite easy to build a tunnel through sand or marshy ground.)

So the first part of considering the practicality of a tunnel is to understand what you’d be tunneling through.

The next consideration is how long the tunnel would need to be, and where it would finish?  The tunnel exit needs to be out of the field of view of your main retreat structure.

If you are using the tunnel exit, it seems reasonable to assume that your retreat has been overrun, and there are bad guys all around, in a moderate state of alert.  If they look behind themselves, or through a window of your retreat and see you climbing out of a manhole just 20 ft from the front door, well, you can guess what will happen next.

This obscured visibility also needs to extend to a continued above ground escape route on away from the retreat.  The problem with this is that if you’ve designed your retreat well, you’ve made sure that you have excellent views for all the approaches around your retreat, so people can’t sneak up close to it and surprise you, and so people have no cover if attacking you.

If you have nothing but open ground, enlivened only by lawn, concrete, and vegetable gardening, for 100 ft or more all around your retreat, then you might have to consider a scenario where you will hide in an obscured basement safe room until nightfall and then make your retreat at that point.

That’s a far from desirable scenario, but so too is running across open ground in broad daylight!

The other consideration is just how long a tunnel you can afford to build – generally, the longer the better.  Which leads to our third point.

The Cost of an Escape Tunnel

The cost of your tunnel of course depends on the method of tunnel construction you adopt, and if you do some/most of the work yourself or not.

We’ll look at those issues subsequently in this article.  For now, let’s just assume an all up cost is $200 per foot of tunnel, which of course means that even a ‘short’ 100 ft length costs you $20,000.  Obviously, the longer the tunnel length you can put in place, the more secure your eventual exit and escape (or regroup and return) will be.  But this cost has to be balanced against all the other needs to spend money on hardening your retreat and ensuring your survival (not just in this quasi-military sense, but also in things like energy independence, food supply, and everything else).

Clearly, the longer the tunnel needs to be, the more expensive it becomes, and the lower the cost/benefit becomes compared to other risks that might be equally life threatening and probable and which require less investment to optimize and solve.

Let’s now move on and consider some of the issues associated with constructing a tunnel.

Another Tunnel Purpose/Benefit

So far, we’ve been considering tunnels for one purpose only – as an escape tunnel for you to abandon your retreat and hightail it away.

That’s a sad but essential purpose, but there’s another more positive use for a tunnel as well.  Depending on where it exits, maybe a tunnel can be used to move part of your defensive team to a second unexpected location, and to suddenly engage the enemy from its rear or flank, in addition to your continued defense from the retreat itself.

If this thought appeals, its practicality is somewhat terrain dependent.  You don’t want to be at a point where you are yourself caught in the own cross-fire between your in-retreat team and the bad guys.  You need to be able to guess at likely locations where attackers would base their attacks from, and then work out suitable points to have a defensive team appear.

If doable, the benefits of this tactical resource could be enormous.  Indeed, don’t just trust to chance with this.  As part of your total retreat design, you might even choose to skew the odds in your favor with some judicious landscaping and creating of some apparently better and worse locations for attackers to base themselves.

Tunnel Design and Construction

Your tunnel doesn’t need to be particularly deep, and neither does it need to be large enough for people to stand up and comfortably walk along.  You’ve probably seen pictures of the Gaza Strip tunnels, or even our own tunnels leading in to the US from Mexico – enormous things and put to terrible misuse in both cases.  You don’t need anything like that.

A relatively small tunnel is all you need, and here’s the trick.  You don’t need to worry about claustrophobically crawling through it.  There’s a much better way to travel through a small tunnel.

Our recommended tunnel would be a pipeline with a circular or oval profile, and rather than walking or crawling through the tunnel, you’d have creeper/trolleys –  boards you lie on with wheels on the sides, like mechanics use when going underneath cars.  You’d then propel yourself through the tunnel by using your hands and legs on the sides of the tunnel, or possibly you’d have a rope along the top of the tunnel that you could haul yourself along.  In both cases, you’d lie on your back on the board.

One of the benefits of using these boards is that you’d never be on the very bottom of the tunnel, so if there was an inch or two of water on the bottom of the tunnel, it would not be an issue.

Depending on the size of the people in your retreat, you might find a 24″ inside diameter sufficient, you’d probably find 27″ more than sufficient, and 30″ would be starting to become expensively spacious.  Yes, it sounds very small, and if you were crawling through it, you’d hate it.  But scooting along on a wheeled creeper board would be easy, quick, and not nearly as unpleasant.

Needless to say, this type of tunnel could not have any sharp corners or kinks in it, because the boards wouldn’t be able to turn around tight corners.  But also, needless to say, you’d not want your tunnel to be anything other than the straightest shortest distance needed.  It shouldn’t have corners in it.

As long as the tunnel is deep enough to be undetectable from the surface, and as long as there is no danger of what is happening on the surface harming the tunnel or causing a cave-in, then your tunnel is clearly deep enough.

You need to consider, when digging a tunnel, drainage issues and also the potential for tree roots impacting on the tunnel over time.  It is easy enough to make sure there are no large trees close to the tunnel (although keep in mind that any tree which is currently small may potentially grow to become big in time).  As for water, if that is likely to become a challenge, it is entirely possibly to make your tunnel tubing waterproof, and we’d also suggest provision for some sumps and pumps just in case water subsequently starts to leak in.

Probably the easiest way to dig a tunnel is to use a ‘cut and cover’ approach.  You’d use a backhoe/excavator/JCB to dig a trench, put in preformed piping, then fill up the trench over the tunnel structure.

Most dedicated backhoes can easily dig a trench 10′ – 14′ in depth.  Smaller machines that are a combination loader/backhoe and built on a glorified tractor frame can usually go down 7′ or so.  If you consider a 12′ depth, that would give you say 2.5′ for your tunnel tube, and 9.5′ of cover over it – an enormous amount of cover and almost certainly much more than is really needed.  Better to have less depth – it will be easier and quicker and less expensive to dig/construct, and there would be less weight of soil on top.  A 7′ deep trench would still have 4.5′ of cover over a 30″ pipe.  That’s way more than enough so that no-one would accidentally dig into your tunnel from above, and to keep vegetable and small plant roots away from it.

If you are worried about having a third-party contractor come in and construct your tunnel for you, you could buy a backhoe second-hand, use it as needed yourself, and then sell it when you’d finished for probably close to the same price you paid for it.  If you are doing this, you’d probably want a combo backhoe/loader unit.

Concrete pipe is much heavier and thicker than polyethylene (plastic) pipe, but also more robust and long-lived.  It can weigh in the order of 400 – 500 lbs per foot, and have side walls of 4″ in thickness or more (depending on pipe diameter of course – here’s a useful table).  Figure on a cost of about $100 per foot of concrete pipe, and you’ll be close to right.  Plus an unknown amount extra to lay the pipe – depending on the land and soil conditions, etc.

We mentioned in a preceding section using a rule of thumb of about $200/foot all up for tunnel construction.  We hope that’s on the high side, particularly if you are running a reasonably long tunnel over easy ground and doing much of the work yourself, but best to start off with a high guess and then improve on the real cost as you progress through the exercise.

On the other hand, modern high density polyethylene (HDPE) or polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic pipe is about 20 times lighter than concrete, has much thinner side walls (which makes for easier trenching and allows for smaller outside diameters), and is claimed to be about as reliable in use as concrete.  Price-wise, there doesn’t seem to be a huge difference, although the plastic piping is less expensive.

Some people argue that plastic piping requires greater care while being laid than concrete pipe, due to its innate lower strength and greater reliance on optimized ground loadings.  But its lighter weight makes it very much easier for you to work with it yourselves, without needing trained crews of men and specialized machinery to move multi-ton pieces of concrete piping exactly into position.

Overall, there seems to be no clear consensus on concrete vs plastic, and we suspect the price advantages of one over the other will vary depending on where you are and how close you are to sources of either, and what the associated trucking and installing costs and considerations may be.

There are also various types of metal pipe material as well.  Black iron and steel are the most expensive materials.

We don’t know enough to recommend one type of material over another, but we do note that most ‘general purpose’ tunnels and pipes are made of either concrete or HDPE.

Permits and Approvals For Your Tunnel

If you are in a jurisdiction that requires formal permits, plans, inspections and approvals for building construction, and if those requirements extend to tunnels as well, you have to make a difficult decision as to whether you get all the necessary paperwork or not.  If you don’t, there’s a measurable danger that your tunnel may be discovered, in which case the best case scenario is you are up for major fines, and the worst case scenario is that you could have your entire retreat structure condemned, temporarily or permanently.

You might think that what you do on your retreat, perhaps in the middle of a pristine wilderness and miles from any road and totally out of sight of any public land would be a secure safe secret.  But look up.  See that plane flying overhead?  Maybe it is mapping the landscape for Google Maps, or directly for the county (we understand that it is not uncommon for counties to use aerial mapping to confirm the accuracy and completeness of their records about what structures exist on the land they tax).  Look even further up – see the satellite in the sky?  No, of course you don’t, but it can probably see you, and it too may be transmitting pictures of your construction project to all sorts of interested agencies.

Update – here’s another interesting article on the capabilities of observation (ie spy) satellites – they have such fine sensors they can detect shotshell cases on the ground, and evidence of recent digging, and are being launched in ever greater numbers.

Another update – here is information that Google plans to launch its own constellation of 24 satellites operated by Skybox.  The satellites will, between them, take three pictures, every day, of every place on the planet.  They will also have video capability.

Final update :  We became fascinated by the topic of aerial observation, and so rather than continuing to add to this article, we’ve now added a separate standalone article about aerial imagery.

The other interesting thing to note from these articles is that the current 10″ resolution capability of the satellites does not represent the highest quality resolution the satellites are capable of.  Instead, it is an artificial limit that the satellites are restricted to by US law.

On the other hand, it is surely unappealing to have your super-duper secret emergency escape tunnel on the permanent public record, available for anyone to scrutinize at the county office, and even online too.  It is true that such facilities may disappear entirely in a Level 2/3 situation, but who knows how many people have found out about your tunnel already.  Even if marauding strangers don’t know about your tunnel, you can be sure the locals would, and sometimes you might have as much to fear from locals as from strangers.  Suffice it to say that building a tunnel clearly labels you, your property and your retreat as being ‘out of the ordinary’ and ‘interesting’.

Perhaps one possible approach is telling half the truth.  Have a septic line running above your tunnel, and get that permitted.

Another possible approach would be not doing a ‘cut and cover’ approach (which is obviously very visible and obvious) but instead doing a true below ground tunneling exercise, like prisoners do to get out of jail.  However, we’d urge you not to do this unless you have an enormous amount of manpower and time, and also a highly detailed knowledge of the soil conditions that you’re tunneling through.

Creating a tunnel that way would require tens of manhours per foot, plus a lot of resource for removing/secreting the dirt from the tunneling, and all the necessary wood and other materials for shoring up the tunnel from the inside, along with an ever-present risk of cave-ins if you made any mistakes in your calculations.  You’d also need to make it larger than a pipe type tunnel, because you need a work area at the tunnel face as you dig your way forward.

Hand digging a tunnel is not impossible, but it is definitely a very undesirable approach to tunneling.

Choosing and Obscuring Tunnel Exits

One of the most difficult aspects of designing a tunnel is choosing where its exit will be.  As already mentioned, you don’t want it to be in the middle of an open field, with you emerging out of the tunnel being in plain view of everyone.  Not only this would be in plain view, but so too would be your continued escape across the open ground.

Ideally your tunnel exit needs to be out of sight of both the retreat structure and also out of sight of likely locations where attackers might situate themselves.

The specific topography of your location will determine the what/where/how of this, and obviously, the longer your tunnel and the further away from your retreat, the safer your exit will be.  Note also that you might do some landscaping or plant some particular types of bushes or whatever,  to create some visual obstructions or other features to make it easier to make your escape unseen.

The other consideration is concealing the exit so it is not obvious to people, prior to your using it, that it is a tunnel exit.  Remember that tunnels work both ways – you don’t want your attacker to use it as a means of safe passage right into the heart of your retreat, and neither do you want, when emerging from the tunnel, to find a ‘welcoming party’ assembled to surprise you.

It is common to attempt to locate tunnel exits inside some sort of building or other structure.  There are obvious advantages in doing this, and if you have a barn or shed or pumphouse or any other sort of structure that could be used for this purpose, so much the better.

Another possibility would be to disguise the tunnel exit in some junk.  If you saw the movie RED, then you’d have noticed how Marvin used the trunk of a junked car as an obscured entrance to his underground hideaway.  Something similar might also work well for you, and it is far from unusual for rural lots to have some old vehicles rusting away somewhere.

If you have a large tree that you could cut down some distance off the ground (ie above eye level) and then use the tree stump, hollowed out, for egress, that’s another approach to look at.

There are any number of other ways that a tunnel could terminate.  For example, maybe you have a short storm water drain/waterway running under a road.  Anyone can look from one side of it through to the other, and can see it to be a normal simple water drain.  But your tunnel terminates on the side in the middle of this and you can simply move a panel of the drain’s side material and step into it.

Another method is to have your tunnel’s exit shaft end a short distance below the ground surface, and when you need to exit, you simply remove the reinforcing at the top of the shaft and dig through the remaining dirt or whatever.

Maybe you have a shallow pool somewhere and your tunnel actually terminates underneath the pool.  The benefit of this is that normally, the water obscures the tunnel exit.  The downside – do we need to tell you this – is that when you open up the exit hatch, you’re going to get wet.  And there’s a risk that the exit hatch might develop a leak, potentially flooding out the tunnel and making it unusable.

Keep in mind there are two types of tunnel exits, with different considerations.  There are ‘single use’ exits that you will only need to use once, and once you’ve used it, you’ll not have any need to reconceal it for future reuse.  There are also multi-use exits that you will want to be able to use on a repeated basis.

Instinctively, the thought of multi-use exits appeals.  But think carefully – how often are you likely to need to use this?  Using your emergency exit presupposes that you’ve been not only attacked, but defeated and your retreat has been overrun.  Hopefully you’ll never need to resort to this, possibly you might use it once, probably never twice.

On the other hand, you will want to occasionally do drills to practice using the tunnel, and ideally these drills should go all the way through to having your group exit at the far end, which would require opening up the exit and being able to subsequently obscure the signs of people exiting and moving around.  So, if possible, it is better to have a multi-use exit.

Checking the Security of Your Tunnel Exit

Think about this.  You’ve constructed a tunnel, with a secure exit out of view of the retreat.  You’ve been attacked and unfortunately find yourself unable to defend your retreat and so need to escape.

But, you can’t see the far end of your tunnel.  You don’t know if by chance some of your attackers are camped right on top of the exit, or maybe they have discovered it and have a couple of people guarding it, just waiting for you to emerge.

It would obviously be highly desirable to be able to monitor the situation around the tunnel exit before emerging.  We recommend you should have some type of facility to allow you to do this.

There are several ways you could check what was immediately outside the tunnel exit before emerging.  Again, the method you select will probably depend on the nature of the terrain around the tunnel.  If it is in an open field, you’ll do something very different to if it is in a building or in a forest.

The lowest tech approach would be to have a thin tube periscope that you can poke up through the ground and then survey around the area.  If the periscope also had a microphone that passed down to a set of headphones, you could listen as well as look.

A more complicated approach would be to have a hidden video camera somewhere that is pointing at the general area where the exit is located.  The downside to this is that if the camera is discovered, it begs the question ‘what is this camera doing here and what is it looking at’, so you might choose to have several cameras or to have the viewing angle set so that it is apparently looking at an obvious different place to look at, as well as less obviously at the tunnel exit.

The other issue with video cameras is how you get power to the camera and then the video signal back to a monitoring point.  We suggest this should all be done by wire rather than wirelessly, and we also suggest the wire go, buried below ground, back to your retreat rather than directly to your tunnel exit.  That way, if the camera is discovered, the wire can’t be traced to the tunnel, but instead, to your retreat, which is what a person would expect.

The chances are you will be setting up some video (and audio) surveillance around your retreat anyway, so including at least one camera to monitor the state of your tunnel exit is just part of the total picture.

Note that it would be best to have a periscope at the tunnel exit as well.  If something happens to disable the video feed, or even just so you can get an updated evaluation between when you left the retreat and were ready to exit the tunnel, this would be useful.

Summary

You’re building your retreat as a haven and safety to protect you against as many eventualities and circumstances as possible.  This means you’ll make your retreat as robust and secure as possible, of course.

But one eventuality is the possibility that, your best efforts notwithstanding, you might be forced to abandon your retreat.  A secure secret exit tunnel would increase your chances of doing so and living to fight or at least to survive beyond that.  Without such a feature, your retreat has changed from being your safe haven to instead being your prison and potentially your coffin.

We feel that adding a tunnel is an important and necessary feature of a complete retreat design.  Using a cut and fill method of tunneling and preformed concrete or plastic tubing makes it a relatively quick and straightforward process.

Aug 052014
 
This compact foldable bike costs $200, has six speed gears, front and rear brakes, a load carrying platform, and weighs under 30lbs.

This compact foldable bike costs $200, has six speed gears, front and rear brakes, a load carrying platform, and weighs under 30lbs.

Your retreat absolutely must have bicycles.

There’s no better, low-tech, energy-efficient means of transportation than a bicycle, for when the grid goes down and gas for your regular vehicles becomes scarce or unobtainable.  We’re not saying rely solely on bicycles, but we are saying be sure to have at least once each (if you have additional ones left over, the chances are they’ll make great trade goods).

There’s another potential use for a bicycle, in addition to being used for transport around your retreat.  It may possibly also be used as transportation to get to your retreat – as a bug out vehicle.

Bicycles are light and maneuverable and can almost literally go anywhere, and as long as you can lift your bicycle, you can even climb over fences and other obstacles and manhandle your bike over them too.

A bicycle might not be your most desired or primary bug-out vehicle, especially if you live hundreds of miles and several snowy mountain passes and/or dry deserts away from your retreat.  But there may well become times when it will be your best remaining, and ‘least-bad’ choice.  (Your worst choice is probably just staying where you are!)

One of the big concerns when bugging out is that the regular roads may become jammed with regular vehicles – either jammed in the sense of very slow-moving, or in the sense of stalled/broken down vehicles on the road blocking the way for other vehicles.  Indeed, the first scenario inevitably leads to the second, as and when vehicles run out of gas and become immobilized.  Our suggested solution is to bug out early, but this is sometimes easier said than done.

Note – we’re unconvinced that simply using a SUV or other 4WD type vehicle would give you a solution to jammed roads.  If you’re on a restricted access freeway, with barriers protecting the sides of the freeway from the side of the road off the freeway on one side and the oncoming traffic on the other side, you’ll not be able to drive your SUV over/through those barriers to get around any stalled vehicles blocking the road.  And even if there was simply an emergency lane outside of the regular vehicle lanes, those will all quickly get jammed up with vehicles too.

Maybe it might be possible to drive off the freeway and onto the surface streets or whatever is next to the main highway, but that assumes you’re in the lane closest to the edge of the highway, and further assumes there’s somewhere you can drive onto from the highway.

There are better solutions if jammed traffic is your greatest concern (and depending on how far you have to travel to get to your retreat).  In particular, we are writing a series on using motorbikes as bug out vehicles, and they clearly present as a more resilient way of getting through jammed highways and of traveling on non-traditional road surfaces.  Even better is to fly to your retreat, but not all of us are fortunate enough as to have our own private plane, which also would need to be close to our normal residence, and able to travel to very close to our retreat.

The problem with a motorbike is that it is pretty much an ‘either/or’ decision you make before setting out on your journey.  But if you use a push bike, possibly supplemented with extra power as a moped, although adding the weight of a motor and possibly batteries does compromise the bike’s ultimate maneuverability and slightly increases your reliance on technology, you don’t have to necessarily make this decision up front.

Bicycles can be used as a back-up with a regular bug-out vehicle.  These back-up bikes don’t even need to be full-sized (and probably you’d not be able to fit three or four full-sized bikes into whatever your main bug-out vehicle is.

You can get small folding bikes, typically with 20″ wheels, still having multiple speed gears, weighing under 30lbs, and at a cost of under $300 (click the link to see what’s currently on offer at Amazon and see the picture at the top of this article for an example).  That’s a very sensible bit of ‘insurance’ to keep in the back of your vehicle if your primary backup transportation becomes ineffective.

Thinking Through the Issues if Using Bicycles

Talking about insurance, if you’re going to keep some emergency bikes in your bug-out vehicle, you’d also need to keep some essential repair/maintenance items with them.  A puncture repair kit and pump would definitely be prudent.

You should also consider the implications of what you’d keep with you or leave behind if you needed to transition from your bug-out vehicle to your bikes.  We’d recommend practicing bike riding with backpacks on, using the portable bikes you’d take with you, and get a feeling for what sort of load you can either hang off the bicycle frame or have on your back.

Have these things pre-packed so that if you need to transition from vehicle to bicycle, there’s no need for anything other than getting out of the vehicle, opening up your bikes, putting on your backpacks and saddlebags, and then cycling off, without a second thought.

Part of what you’d want to have in your bicycle based bug-out bags would be weather protection.  In the summer, protection against the sun, and in the winter, protection against the cold.  Possibly also wet weather gear.

Depending on distances, you might want to also keep some water, possibly food, and possibly even overnight shelter items too in these packs.  And, alas, probably some personal defense items too.

By the time you kit out your bags with the essentials for your bike-based journey, there might be little space/weight remaining for other things to bring with you to your retreat.

But, truly, that shouldn’t be a problem because your retreat should always be ‘ready to go’ without the need for any last-minute top-up supplies.

How Far Can You Travel in a Day

This is an essential question for you to consider, but almost impossible for us to answer in general terms.  You’ll have to do some experimentation to get a better feeling for your likely range of travel per day.

Some obvious things to consider are how efficient and ergonomically friendly your bikes are.  Lightweight portable bikes will probably not be ideal in this regard, and adjusting them correctly is essential.  You might want to get a specialty bike-shop to help you fine-tune the various adjustments to make them best suited for the lengths of your arms and legs, etc.  Put marks on the various adjustable parts so you know exactly where to set them when deploying your bikes.

It also depends on the amount of gear you’re carrying in your backpacks.  And on the weather.  And on the type of road surface you’ll be traveling on.  And on any hills along the way.  And also on how fit the least fit member of your group is.

As regards this last point, while – short of ridiculous obsession – there’s no such thing as being ‘too fit’, in this case your situation is a bit like the group of people being chased by a bear.  You don’t need to be able to outrun the bear, you just need to outrun the other people with you!

With the biking, the main focus of fitness training will be on the least-fit people in your group.  Obviously you’ll also balance out the pack loads so the less fit people carry less than the more fit people, particularly if there is any up-hill travel involved.  But your group’s ability to travel, as a group, will be limited by the least fit members, and this is the aspect you most need to optimize.

In ‘average’ conditions and on sealed roads, people travel anywhere from 30 to 100 miles a day.  Switching to dirt trails will probably at least halve this, and maybe reduce it even more.  Yes, that’s a big range of distances, isn’t it – clearly anything you can do to move your capabilities closer to the upper end of this range, the better you’ll be.  Even if your retreat is only 50 miles away, the range of your daily travels makes the difference between getting there, still refreshed, in half a day, or struggling to make it in two days.

The further you can go, and the faster you can cover the distance, the less time you’ll be exposed to all the risks and uncontrollable factors out there, ranging from weather to wild animals to unpredictable encounters with other people.  The less food and water you’ll need to carry with you, and the sooner you can be occupying your retreat (and defending it against anyone else who might stumble across it, empty).

We shouldn’t have put that last comment in brackets, because it has to be a major consideration.  No matter how secretive you think you’ve been, people know about your retreat, and more people will find out about it in the future (see our article ‘Is it Realistic to Expect Your Retreat Won’t be Found‘).  If society crashes in a heap, and the rule of law fails, then anyone who knows about your retreat may choose to go and take it for themselves, particularly if they see it empty when they get there.  Possession is nine-tenths of the law, and so you do need to get to your retreat as quickly as you can to head off such unpleasantnesses.

On a single day, you could probably push yourself and go a greater distance than the 30 – 100 miles we mentioned above, and of course, competitive cyclists on their many thousands of dollars bikes go much further.  But probably, for you, on a multi-day journey, these sorts of distances represent a fair range of sustainable capabilities.  On level ground with no head wind, it is reasonably easy to cycle at close to 10 mph without expending too much energy, so 30 – 100 miles becomes 3 – 10 hours of travel a day.  Sure, there might be daylight for more of the day, but your legs will be complaining somewhere in this sort of range.

Unfortunately, if you’re bugging out, you might not always be traveling on the best roads, and not always in a straight line.  Plus you may detour off the route, sometimes considerable distances, to avoid dangerous areas, and to find safe places to camp at overnight.  So 50 miles of travel may not be the same as getting 50 miles closer to your retreat.

There’s no substitute for actually trying it out, for real, to see how well you do and how far you go, and to determine who needs the most training to bring them up to the capabilities of the other people in your group.

Oh.  One more thing.  Please also remember to do this during weather extremes – when it is stormy, raining and pouring.  When it is scorchingly hot.  And freezingly cold.

Don’t Give Up

You might find that the weakest person in your group can only manage 10 miles a day, and that due to extremely difficult travel conditions, even a best case scenario sees you only traveling 15 miles a day, with your retreat being 150 miles distant.

Many people might decide, at that point, that a ten-day cycling journey to your retreat is impractical and impossible.  It would have to be either by motorized vehicle, or not at all.

You’d be dead wrong if you thought that.  Or, possibly, you’d just simply be dead.  If you need to bug out, you need to bug out.  You need to get to your retreat, or die in the attempt, because the alternative, if you do nothing, is also death.

Clearly if there is an enormous disparity in abilities among the different people in your group, you might have to make some difficult choices.  Yes, that is a polite way of saying ‘leave someone behind’ when your vehicle fails.  If a person is too frail and infirm to make it to your retreat, you have to dispassionately determine just how much value they’re going to add to your survival once you get to the retreat.  You can of course politely pretend that the traffic blockage may get resolved, and you can politely laugh that the person you’re leaving behind will get there first (and you should definitely keep in radio contact with them just in case this proves to be true!), and these polite fictions will make it easier for everyone, but when you are faced with this issue, you need to do what needs to be done.

While the thought of leaving someone behind sounds dreadful and uncaring, what is the alternative?  Three people go to the retreat while leaving one behind?  Or all four people sacrifice themselves and stay behind?  How does anyone benefit if you commit gratuitous group suicide?

If the less-strong person/people is/are children, that probably also means they are light rather than heavy.  By the time they become heavy, they also have become able to ride a bike.  But while they are young/small/light, you can validly consider carrying them in a backpack style carrier, or in/on a bike trailer (less desirable and more unwieldy) or something.

Even if you are all very fit, and you still find yourself confronted with what seems to be an impossibly difficult journey, you have to ask yourself – what is your alternative?  You either stay behind and risk probable death, or you struggle to your retreat as best you can.

Maybe you can make your journey easier by advance identifying some overnight places to stay on the way.  Maybe you can cache some supplies at some of these places so you don’t have to carry everything with you.

Or maybe you need to rethink your entire ‘where do I normally live and where is my retreat’ equation.

Do what you have to do, but whatever you do, do something!  Surely it goes without saying that having a retreat but not the matching very high probability of being able to reach it WTSHTF is an exercise in self-deception and foolishness.

Summary

Few people would find a bicycle an ideal primary bug-out vehicle to travel to their retreat when it comes time to ‘Get Out of Dodge’.  But small portable bicycles can be stowed in your primary bug-out vehicle and if something prevents you continuing the rest of the way to your retreat in your primary vehicle, you then have an alternative means of travel that is still massively much better than trudging there on foot.

Because they are affordable and easily used, we urge you to keep bikes for all probable members of your bugging out group in your vehicles so you have this emergency alternative.  Don’t just have the bikes.  Have pre-packed loads of necessary gear and equipment in backpacks so if you need to switch to bikes, you can quickly load on your backpacks (and possibly saddle bags) then continue on your way.

Aug 032014
 
The sun rises higher in the sky in summer, and travels around more of it, than in winter.

The sun rises higher in the sky in summer, and travels around more of it, than in winter.

Many of the preferred locations for prepper retreats are in areas that have substantial swings in temperatures between hot summers (daytime temperatures often in the 90s and sometimes exceeding 100) and cold winters (where temperatures seldom rise above freezing, even in the middle of the day).

That’s no big deal when you have unlimited utility power for heating and cooling, limited only by your ability to pay the electricity or gas bill each month.  But in a Level 2 or 3 situation, there won’t be any utility power, and creating our own electricity will be expensive and always in short supply.

We need to make our retreat structures as energy efficient as possible so as to minimize the need for heating and cooling.

There are lots of ways to improve the energy efficiency of our retreats, and most of these are totally ignored in ‘normal’ building design and construction because it makes little financial sense to, for example, spend an extra $50,000 when building your retreat, and to get a $500 a year saving in energy consumption as a result.  But in a Level 2/3 situation, the cost of the energy might rise from $500 to $5000 or more, and/or it might simply not be available at any cost, and so the financial equation changes drastically, making it more prudent for us to invest up front in additional energy-saving techniques in order to enjoy the benefits if/when we need to rely on our retreat and make do with less energy.

The good news is that not all these strategies need to be expensive or inconvenient, and some of them actually add to the livability of your retreat.  One such example is adding what in various forms can be considered either an awning, a brise soleil, a shade or a veranda (verandah – both spellings seem acceptable) to your retreat’s southerly (and much lesserly, east and west-facing) aspect.  (We’re not explaining what an awning, shade or veranda is because you probably know, but the term brise soleil might be less familiar.)

The clever aspect of such structures is that they interact with and take advantage of the way the sun rises in the sky.  In the summer, the sun quickly climbs up to a near vertical position before descending again at the end of the day.  In the winter, the sun slowly staggers part-way up the sky before sinking down again.  This difference is also more exaggerated, the further you move from the equator, and most of us are planning our retreats to be far from the equator.

sun

Note – as shown above – the sun rises a bit north of east and sets a bit north of west in the summer, but in the winter it rises south of east and sets south of west.

It covers more of the sky in summer, and you might notice appreciable sun coming in from west and east facing windows, and possibly even a little bit in northern windows too.  But it is the southern facing windows that most need the sun shading.

awningc

What this means – and as illustrated above – is that some sort of shading/blocking structure that prevents the sun’s rays from shining onto and into our retreat while the sun is high in the sky will reduce solar heating during the summer – the time of year when we most want to keep the sun off our retreat and out of our windows.  But during the winter, when we’re keen to get all the sunlight and warmth we can, the overhead structure won’t interfere with the sun’s rays at all.  Heads we win, tails we don’t lose!

Because these devices take advantage of the varying seasonal location of the sun, they can be fixed in position, making them potentially robust and low maintenance.

How much sun angle should they block?  One approach is to see the maximum angle in the sky for the sun in mid-winter, the angle at the equinoxes, and block off all angles greater than the equinoxes.  You can get this information from this helpful website – simply put in your location and then choose 21 December as the date, and that tells you the maximum height the sun reaches at your location in the winter.

For example, in Kalispell MT (48º12′ north) the sun struggles to reach 18.4º up into the sky.  Compare that to the summer solstice (21 June) when it reaches 65.2º.  At the equinoxes (21 March and September) the sun goes up to 42.2º – a number which unsurprisingly is sort of halfway between the two other numbers.

One other interesting thing is to note that the sun has risen to 42.2º in mid summer by 10.10am and doesn’t fall below it again until 5.10pm.

So perhaps it makes sense to accept something around the 42.2º point as the transition from when we want to allow sun into the house and when we want to block it.  That gives us full sun for half the year, and successively blocks off more of the sun during the summer season.

This calculation should be modified by an appreciation of what type of heating/cooling needs you’ll have at the equinoxes.  Will you still be wanting to heat the retreat, or will you be starting to need to cool it?  That will also influence how much shade cover you want above your windows.

Summary

Having some type of permanent shade over your southerly facing windows is a simple way of ‘automatically’ regulating and cutting down on the sun’s heat that transfers inside your retreat during the summer while not reducing it during the winter.

It is probably the most cost-effective thing to do in terms of improving your retreat’s energy efficiency and reducing its need for cooling during the summer.  Be sure to include shading if designing a new retreat, and be sure to add it if purchasing an existing dwelling structure.

Jul 222014
 
The Tsar Bomba's 35 mile high mushroom cloud, as seen from 100 miles away.

The Tsar Bomba’s 35 mile high mushroom cloud, as seen from 100 miles away.

An interesting new study predicts that a limited nuclear exchange between warring powers would result in a ‘nuclear winter’ scenario.

The study says this would create global famine, cooling, drought and massive increases in UV radiation (due to damage to the ozone layer), lasting some 20 years, and with between hundreds of millions and billions of people dying (the total population on the planet is about 7 billion).

The full study is available here, and there’s a more easily read paraphrase/summary of it here.

This scenario is based on a hypothetical possible war between India and Pakistan, and assumes each side fires 50 nuclear warheads at the other side (ie 100 total), and each of a moderate 15 kiloton yield.

On the face of it, this sounds apocalyptic.  On the other hand, we have major concerns about the underlying assumptions of this computer model, and our email to the study’s authors requesting clarification, which they quickly opened and read, has gone unanswered.  Just like the old computer adage ‘GIGO’ (Garbage In, Garbage Out), if the model’s assumptions are wrong, then its conclusions are also flawed.

It is interesting to look at the study and see where the assumptions may be invalid, and also to draw some lessons for preppers from its projections, whether valid or not.  Although we don’t believe a ‘limited’ 100 warhead exchange would have the apocalyptic results forecast, other events might bring about these effects and so it is helpful to understand what to expect and prepare for in such a case.

The study is based on what would happen if 5 Tg (Teragrams, the same as 5 million metric tons) of ‘black carbon‘ (a fancy way of saying smoke soot) was released into the atmosphere, and suggests this is a likely result from the detonation of 100 15 kiloton nuclear bombs.

We can’t comment on the validity of the model’s projections for the impact of 5 Tg of BC into the atmosphere, and will assume that the model is correct about this – although note that most climatological models are somewhat controversial as the ongoing debate over global warming indicates.  But we do have concerns about the suggestion that 100 typical nuclear explosions, such as might occur in a limited nuclear exchange between warring powers, would have this effect.  Let’s have a look at what we see to be flaws in the model’s underlying assumptions.

The Problems With This Study’s Underlying Assumptions

The first reason for doubting this is that in total 100 15 kiloton explosions would seem to total to about the same as a single 1.5 megaton explosion (there are reasons for and against suggesting that 100 15 kiloton explosions create either more or less effect than one single 1.5 megaton explosion).  Let’s put that in context, to appreciate how ‘trivial’ (on a global scale!) that actually is.

During the days of above ground nuclear testing by both Russia and the US, nuclear explosions of much greater than 1.5 megatons in magnitude were regularly detonated, with the largest ever nuclear explosion, the Russian Tsar Bomba, being estimated at between 50 – 58 megatons in destructive power.  Yes, this one single explosion was almost 40 times greater than the amount this study says would be sufficient to create a 20 year ‘nuclear winter’, but created almost no measurable impact on local, regional, or global climate at all.

So clearly there is more to consider than just the size of the explosions.  There are several other factors built-in to the study assumptions which the authors have not clarified.  Some are described in some of the supporting studies they are relying upon, others are not clear to us and regrettably the authors have chosen not to reply to our queries.

The first thing to appreciate is there is a huge difference between an air burst and a ground burst nuclear explosion.  A ground burst throws up a lot more material into the atmosphere than an airburst.  Most nuclear weapons are designed to be detonated as air burst rather than ground burst devices, because an air burst has a greater blast effect, destroying more buildings for a greater distance than a ground burst.

Ground bursts are only used to destroy ‘hardened’ targets such as missile silos.

We don’t know what the model assumes about air vs ground bursts.

There are two assumptions that are detailed, however.  The first is that all explosions occur over built up areas, meaning there is a lot of combustible material (ie buildings) within the blast radius, making for much larger fires and smoke and black carbon release.

The second assumption is that none of the explosions overlap with the locations of any of the other explosions, meaning that each explosion is assumed to have a complete fresh supply of material to destroy and set fire to.

In other words, these two assumptions create a maximum ‘worst case’ scenario to build upon.

How likely are these two assumptions?  We rate them as unlikely rather than likely.  Nuclear targets tend to first be military installations, secondarily industrial, and only as a very distant lowest priority do we see population concentrations targeted.  Of course, often the industrial and sometimes even the military targets overlap with population clusters, but equally, many times they do not.  Strategic military bases are not in the centers of large cities, they are in outlying areas, and tend to be sprawling over hundreds of acres with a low concentration of buildings and little combustible material.

Furthermore, it is standard military doctrine to have multiple warheads targeting each priority target so as to ensure that if one of the warheads is intercepted, or fails, or goes off target, the backup warheads will still destroy the target.  Alternatively, if attacking a large population concentration, it is still likely that multiple warheads would be set to have overlapping regions of destruction rather than being evenly spaced out such as happens when you use a cookie cutter to cut cookies out of a sheet of dough.  The problem with the cookie cutter model is that it leaves parts of the city unharmed entirely, and other parts with only moderate degrees of harm.  When designing an attack to create maximum harm, it is more common to have overlapping explosions.

Seven Possible Problems with the Study’s Assumptions

So, we see at least seven problems with the study’s underlying assumptions :

1.  No nuclear tests, including some up to 40 times the magnitude of this complete 100 warhead scenario, have resulted in any significant climate change at all.

2.  We suspect the model assumes the ‘worst case scenario’ for air vs ground bursts, a scenario which is unlikely to be reflected by actual ‘best practice’ military doctrine.

3.  We do not believe that all of the 100 explosions would be over high density population centers.  Many – maybe even most – would be over lower density militarily or industrially significant areas with much lower BC release as a result.

4.  We do not agree with the model assumption that there would be no overlap in blast effects and that each and every one of the 100 explosions would occur over high density buildings that had not yet been partially or even completely destroyed by preceding blasts.

5.  There might also be some significance in the study’s choice of India and Pakistan as a location.  These two countries are closer to the equator than most other potential future nuclear battlegrounds, meaning that there will likely be more efficient and rapid transportation of the BC from the northern hemisphere to the southern hemisphere than if the nuclear explosions occurred further away from the equator.  In other words, this is another aspect of the study that might overstate the global implications of a nuclear exchange.

6.  If we are to accept the opinion that current industrial activity is causing global warming and adverse climate effects (and we’re not saying we do!), the depressed effect on the global levels of industrial activity caused by the predicted enormous famine and associated probable social and economic collapse will result in the reduction of other manmade carbon emissions and may therefore provide some counter-balancing relief from the effects of the BC release and accelerate the earth’s recovery.  There is no sign of this being factored into the study model.

7.  It appears their model assumed that all the BC was shot up into the atmosphere in a concentrated area of either 50 or 100 nautical miles in radius.  This is unlikely to be the case – India in particular is an enormous country with many different potential targets for nuclear attack, meaning a more realistic model should have a series of much more diffuse and smaller BC sources.  We also suspect that the model anticipates all 100 explosions occurring more or less simultaneously, whereas in reality, there is likely to be some spread of time during which they occur – possibly only minutes, maybe hours or days.  We don’t know what impacts this would have on the model, but we guess it may slightly soften the outcomes.

Is 5 Million Tons of Black Carbon a Lot?

One more thing.  The study is talking about the release of 5 Tg of black carbon, or 5 million tonnes.  How does that compare to current annual black carbon emissions?

We did some research and found wildly varying figures – for example, on this page almost next to each other are two contradictory claims, one suggesting about 7.5 million tonnes a year are released from all sources at present, and the other claim saying that forest fires alone release between 40 – 250 million tonnes a year.

According to this page, forest fires represent about 40% of total black carbon emissions, so if forest fires contribute 40 – 250 million tons a year, that would suggest in total between 100 and 625 million tonnes are released each year.

The significant part of the 5 million ton release from the nuclear war is that most of it is propelled up very high into the atmosphere and stays there for some time, whereas much of the ‘normal’ black carbon doesn’t go so high and more quickly falls back to earth.

But, at the same time, we have to note that if total black carbon emissions each year are as much as 100 times more than the amount released by this hypothetical nuclear war, is 5 million tons actually a significant amount to consider?  The study also does not put this size release into any sort of contextual perspective.

Prepper Implications of the Study’s Projected Outcomes

So, we think we can confidently state that this hypothetical 100 nuclear bomb scenario is unlikely to release 5 Tg of black carbon, and therefore, a nuclear winter scenario is unlikely from this.

But, maybe a larger scale conflict between major nuclear powers could indeed cause the 5 Tg release, and even a more limited black carbon release will still cause some modification to the global climate.  We also asked the study authors if the effects were linearly proportional – ie a 2.5 Tg release having half the impact of their modelled 5 Tg release, but, yet again, they didn’t reply.

So, while we are dismissive of the study’s basis and assumptions, there are still some valid lessons to be learned for preppers if we simply ask ourselves ‘what if some type of event caused a massive climate change?’.

1.  We often think about the impacts of a nuclear exchange as being one that is an attack on American soil.  It is easy to understand how nuclear explosions close to us would have some direct effects, but harder to realize that nuclear weapons going off on the other side of the world can still impact on us here.  Clearly, the risk is more global than we might first think.  A war between two far away countries can still upset the climate, globally.  From this perspective, the studied model provides more cause for concern than relief, and should encourage us to realize why it is such a bad thing, for, eg, Iran to be allowed to continue down its steady path to becoming a nuclear power.

2.  A probable outcome will be less solar energy for our solar cells.  Although UV levels will rise, these are not efficiently used by solar cells (which are most sensitive to red light, ie the part of white light that is red).  So we should allow for this loss of solar energy and increase our solar arrays accordingly.

3.  The cooling effect and shortened growing season means that we should consider locations that currently have sufficient growing season as to still remain productive with a 10 – 40 day reduction in season length.

4.  Substantial increases in UV radiation levels mean preference should be given to growing UV-resistant crops.

5.  While temperature changes don’t directly threaten our society or its industrial base, the loss of food production does and will threaten much/most of society, particularly when famine starts to cause the death of substantial percentages of the population.  In addition to slower acting famine, there is reason to fear that as the black carbon falls from the sky, there will be a fast and massive rise in respiratory diseases and deaths.

6.  The effects of famine will likely be of greatest impact in third world countries.  Hopefully, in the US, urgent attempts at creating hothouses, hydroponics, and other ‘high tech’ solutions, and simply changing our food habits to waste less and eat less, and buying in more food from other countries (assuming it is still for sale) will cushion the impacts on US society.  If we reduced our food intact to a more appropriate level and if we cut down on waste, we’d instantly halve our food requirements, and if we shifted our food production to most effective yielding crops, we’d probably bring about a doubling in net food production.

7.  It seems we should plan for less rain and – in areas currently short of water – more drought.  Ensure your location has sufficient water access, even in adverse conditions that – worst case scenario – may see rivers dwindle in size and creeks dry up entirely.  Rainwater collection systems will become less effective, and underground water table levels will drop due to reduced rates of replenishment (and possibly accelerated rates of offtake due to increased reliance on wells).

8.  This scenario shows an immediate impact on crop production (depending of course on what time of year the nuclear exchange occurs) and lasting effects extending 25 years or more.  On the other hand, if there are massive population losses in the first few years, it might be possible that the smaller sized population could more quickly balance the reduced agricultural capabilities and allow for a faster return to an industrialized self-sustaining society.

9.  The model shows that global temperatures drop over a five-year period.  This means that maybe the result is less a sudden apocalyptic transition and more a gradual deterioration in weather.

10.  The  climate change effects seem generally more extreme, the further away from the equator you go, and less extreme closer to the equator.  Perhaps this argues in favor of establishing a retreat in a southern rather than northern part of the US.

11.  Damage to crop DNA from increased UV levels will be passed from generation to generation, probably getting worse each time.  It is prudent to have sufficient stocks of seed to enable you to used undamaged seed to restart your crops several times during the period of increased UV.

12.  Air-borne fine particulate black carbon is harmful to health.  It will be beneficial to have filtration systems in your retreats to filter out the particulate matter before air is circulated within the retreat.  HEPA type filters will address this need, and if you get washable ones, that will extend their life (which will probably be much shorter than anticipated due to the much greater concentration of black carbon in the air).  If you’re going outside, you might want to use a respirator to give you protection while outdoors too.

13.  Although also impacted, the southern hemisphere seems to not be as severely affected as the northern hemisphere.  Because this type of climate based calamity would take some days/weeks/months/years to fully develop, it would give you time to fly to your choice of southern locations and set up your retreat there.

Summary

Although this study suggests an apocalyptic outcome of a relatively minor nuclear war, we disagree.  We think that the study may possibly overstate the direct results of a 100 warhead nuclear exchange, and we further feel that the western world – and in particular the United States – may be able to adapt its food sourcing and consumption fast enough to minimize the widespread famine and death projected in the study.

On the other hand, the increase in harmful particulate matter in the air is something that you do need to be able to respond to.

Depending on the importance you attach to this type of sudden climate change risk, you may want to factor it in to your choice of retreat location (ie issues such as water sufficiency, growing season length, and perhaps more generally, closer to the south than the north of the country).

Jul 192014
 
The revised earthquake risk map published by the USGS.  Full size version here.

The revised earthquake risk map published by the USGS. Full size version here.

The US Geological Survey organization – a government department that few of us think about, but which employs over 10,000 people in over 400 locations – has now revised its earlier 2008 earthquake risk projections.

The new projection shows heightened risk in some of the American Redoubt states, but some parts of the country have their risk downgraded, so overall, there is probably no significant change in national overall earthquake risk.

The areas of changed risk do not necessarily mean there have been changes in the underlying geological structures that cause earthquakes in those regions.  More commonly, it means that in the six years since the 2008 risk projections were published, there have been improvements in the data obtained and the understanding of earthquake causes, allowing for an improved projection of likely future earthquakes.

When you’re planning your retreat location, earthquake risk is of course a small factor to consider – both in general terms from the perspective of ‘might there be an earthquake here’ and in specific terms – are there potential risk factors immediately around your retreat location if a large earthquake were to occur.  It would be useful to check local records to see the potential risk for liquefaction in your area, and also to consider things such as if you’re downstream from a major dam that might break, if there is a bridge or other vital connection that could be destroyed and cutting you off from ‘the rest of the world’, etc.

The risk is also from smaller dams and structures failing – what say you have a small dam yourself as part of a micro-hydro power station.  Or a water tower.  And so on.

Also, of course, you should be sure to ensure that your retreat is built to fully comply with best earthquake resistant building practices, and that everything stored within it be reasonably secured so as not to be at risk in the event of a foreseeably strong earthquake (ie, don’t have glass jars of produce unsecured on an open top shelf of racking!).

Here’s a map showing which areas have had their risk increased and which areas have had their risk decreased (for one of several different earthquake measurement factors).

earthquakechangec

The sixteen states deemed at highest risk of a significant earthquake are (alphabetically) Alaska, Arkansas, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.

The full study covers nearly 250 pages and is a 113MB download from the USGS website.  The key summary information can also be found on the USGS site.

Jul 152014
 
Suffering a flood would be devastating, but such a risk is foreseeable and can in large part be prevented/minimized.  There's a much graver risk you should be considering.

Suffering a flood would be devastating, but such a risk is foreseeable and can in large part be prevented/minimized. There’s a much graver risk you should be considering.

You know that when you design and build your retreat structure(s) you want to ‘overbuild’ and build it (them) way above minimum code requirements, right?

Although building codes sometimes seem unnecessary and adding extra layers of cost to what should be a simple process that you are free to do as you wish, there are two parts to the reality of building codes that people seldom appreciate.

The first is that most of the code requirements represent good sense and good design/build practice, and are in place to protect the investment that you (and your mortgagor) make in your residence.  You don’t want to sign up for a 30 year loan against a building that will fail after 10 or 20 years, and neither does the mortgagor want to have the ‘security’ of a building that is not well constructed.  From this perspective, building codes protect us all.

The second concept is to realize that in most cases, building codes represent the bare minimum needed rather than the best case ‘deluxe’ option.  Whether it be the spacing between studs in the wall or the amount of foundation needed or anything else, most building codes have been written to reflect the requirements of developers who want to be able to build houses as cheaply as possible.

Yet another – a third concept to realize, is that it is acceptable to construct any sort of structure and to expect it to require ongoing maintenance, based on the assumption that materials and labor will remain freely available, convenient, and affordable.  That is why many houses and other structures have short-lived roofs, even shorter lasting carpet, fewer coats of paint than optimum, and so on.  But if/when TSHTF, those assumptions become no longer valid, and any type of repair and maintenance activity becomes challenging and somewhere between difficult and impossible.

For our purposes, it is better to spend more money up front to build a more robust, lower-maintenance and longer lasting structure in the first place.  We discuss these issues in more detail here.  In this article, we concentrate on one specific type of ‘hardening’ to make your retreat structure more long-lasting and secure.

Okay, now with that as lengthy introduction, what do you think is the biggest risk to your structure?  What is most likely to be the thing that causes it massive problems at some possible time in the future?  Is it an earthquake?  Flood?  Tornado?  Attacking marauders?  Or something entirely different?

Depending on where you live, you of course can evaluate and guess at the risks of earthquake, tornado, flood, and other types of natural disasters (hurricanes, etc).  If you’re in the American Redoubt states, then these risks are generally low rather than appreciable.

The Most Likely Risk for Most of Us

But there’s one really big risk that, for most of us, is probably the biggest potential problem of all.  Have you thought of it already?

We are referring to – if you’ve not already thought of it – fire.  Most of us have lived our lives and never had direct close personal contact with an uncontained fire, and that has lulled us into a false sense of security.  You really have to be personally threatened by a fire to understand the awesome and evil nature of a fire – there’s a reason that hell is said to be in flames, and it is easy to understand how some people view fires as living entities, possessed of a ravening destructive sense that seeks to destroy as much as it can, as quickly as it can.

Indeed, many of us think of fire as a friendly nice good thing.  In a fireplace, it brings warmth, and possibly a hint of romance to a room.  It enlivens the room with its sounds, its smells, its ever-changing light patterns, and not just the temperature type warmth but the ‘warmth’ of the light it throws off, too.

Outside, a bonfire or campfire is also associated with fun times and leisure.  But friendly fun bonfires for toasting s’mores are as different to a ‘real’ fire as is a child’s plastic toy gun to a Barrett .50 caliber rifle, or, if you prefer, as different as a candle is from a 2500 gallon napalm drop on a village, as different as a water pistol to a 250 ft flame-thrower.

Until you’ve stood and watched, helplessly, as a fire either destroys your home from inside, or approaches it unstoppably from the outside, you have little or no comprehension of the power and magnitude of a ‘real’ fire.  Unless you’ve been up close, you’ve not experienced the primal fear that lies within most animals and, at a deeper level, within us too when confronted by an out of control fire.  Please do not ever underestimate the danger of fire.

You have at least three types of fire risk.

1.  External Semi-Random Risk

We are referring here to something like a forest fire (if in a rural area) or a spreading urban fire leapfrogging from building to building if in a city or town.  You know your area and so can assess the risk of some of these events, but after you’ve done so, you then need to upgrade the threat rating for two reasons.  First, particularly in urban areas, there is a much greater danger of a fire starting after TEOTWAWKI, and secondly, if/when a fire does start (anywhere) there will be much less fire-fighting resource to contain and control it.

There’ll be no city water supply or even fire department and fire trucks in an urban area, and in a rural area, there’ll be no helicopters dumping monsoon bucketloads of water, no planes dumping even greater loads of special fire-retardant chemicals, and there won’t be hundreds of firefighters from all over the county, state and nation rushing to help put the fire out.

2.  Deliberate External Causes

The dark side of human nature seems to embrace the evil of destructive fire.  Just look at Detroit with its ‘Devil’s Night’ when arsonists go on the rampage, and suffering over 9,000 fires a year in the city limits alone, 95% of which are the result of arson.

In the future, you’ll not only have to anticipate random acts of senseless arson and how they might impact on your retreat and lands, but also, if you do encounter attacking marauders, they are more likely to be throwing Molotov cocktails at your retreat than grenades.  If your attackers want to ‘smoke you out’ then they’ll attempt to do so quite literally, by trying to burn your retreat down around you.

3.  Accidental Factors

Even at present, the risk of an accidental household fire is much greater than you might guess.  Although we’ve seen varying statistics from various sources, this page, citing the National Fire Protection Association, seems very credible.  It says that over a lifetime, we’ve a one in four chance of having a fire in our house that is sufficiently major as to require us to need to call the fire department.

When you think about an uncertain future, when we’re more likely to have open flames in our retreats, whether as a heat source, a cooking source, a light source, or whatever else, it is reasonable to predict that the risk factor will increase in such a case.

Prevention

Prevention is always better than cure, right?  And particularly, in the future, there will be very little resource available to help you with fire fighting, and even less resource to help you rebuild if your retreat is destroyed, so your main focus needs to be on fire prevention.

The most important part of fire prevention is to construct your retreat from fire-proof materials as much as possible.  This means no wood on the building exterior.  Have concrete, stone, ICF, fiber cement stucco, or brick exterior, and absolutely do not have a wooden shake roof!  Use long run roofing iron or some type of slate, stone or brick/tile for your roof.

Be sure to seal up any gaps in your roofing and exterior walls so cinders can’t blow in and ignite anything within.

With an eye to being attacked, make sure that your windows have sturdy shutters (and not made of wood) that can be pulled across them so that attackers can’t break windows and throw Molotov cocktail type fire bombs into the interior of your retreat.

Your windows should also have heat-resistant glass in them, so that outside fires don’t cause them to break, and to insulate your interior from any high temperatures outside.  Steel is the best material for window framing, and of course, plastic and wood the worst.

Inside your retreat you will unavoidably have things that can burn.  But you want to keep the use of wood to a minimum, and have some firewalls within the retreat that will contain a fire within part of your structure rather than allowing it to spread throughout.  Line your rooms with fire-rated drywall rather than regular drywall and use as much metal rather than timber framing as you can.

Use ‘fireproof’ carpet, and spray ‘fireproof’ retardant on your furniture and rugs (these things are in no way fire-proof, but they do slow down the propagation of a fire).

Keep vegetation, bushes, trees, etc, back from your retreat structures a way, so if there is any type of approaching fire, there is a ‘fire break’ of sorts separating your house from the closest point the fire can easily reach.

If you are adding decking around your retreat, use fire-resistant composite materials or wood that has been treated to a Class A fire rating.

If there is an appreciable chance of major forest fires getting very close to you, maybe you need to add a ‘wash down’ feature to your roof – basically this just means a way to have water trickling down from the apex of your roof, cooling the roof and both extinguishing and washing off any burning embers that might fall onto it.

You might augment this with a sprinkler system that trickled water down the sides of your retreat as well.  If nothing else, it might help to cool the interior of your retreat if there was a major fire passing by.

Cure

The easiest way to fight a fire is with water.  Lots of water, lots of flow, and lots of pressure so it can be delivered at a high rate and from a safe distance.

You need to have an onsite supply of fire-fighting water and a way of delivering the water at suitable pressure and volume to wherever the fire is located.  Ideally, the water supply should be gravity fed, because no matter what else might go wrong, you know you can always rely on gravity.  But this might pose problems, particularly if it requires an external water tower which adds a new high visibility structure to your retreat compound and which is, itself, vulnerable to attack.

Each foot of height gives you 0.43 pounds per square inch of water pressure.  A typical domestic water supply has water pressure in the range of 40 – 60 psi, and city mains water supplies are usually somewhat higher.

So to get even 40 psi would require your water tank to be 100 ft above the outlet.  In other words, you’ll probably need to have an ultra-reliable booster pump with an ultra-reliable power source – and make sure that all parts of your water supply system are themselves protected from fire impacts.

If your water comes from a well, you probably should augment this with a holding tank, unless you are sure your well pump will be able to deliver sufficient pressure and volume not just for normal household needs but for fire-fighting as well.

As well as pressure, the other important consideration is flow rate – how many gallons per minute of water can the service provide.  A typical 5/8″ garden hose usually delivers about 10-17 gallons of water a minute.  A fire hydrant can sometimes deliver up to 1500 gpm, and even a smaller hydrant can probably provide about 500 gpm.  How much water do you need to be able to deliver to the fire?  The more, the merrier.  If you can deliver 100 gpm, that would be good, and 250 gpm would be even better.  Water damage issues to one side, there’s no such thing as ‘too much’ water when fighting a fire, and just because you have a very high potential volume of water to be used, you don’t need to use any more of it than you need at the time.

This leads to the next part of the equation – how many gallons of water do you need in your fire fighting reservoir?  That’s a bit like asking ‘how high is up’, because clearly the more you have, the better.

A typical multi-purpose fire truck that carries some water but which isn’t a dedicated tanker probably holds about 1000 gallons of water (and can pump it out at maybe 1500 gpm, so in theory, could use up its entire on-board supply in merely a minute).  A garden swimming pool can have many thousands of gallons of water, and as long as you were sure to have adequate and reliable pumping capacity, might be a great way to keep water on hand for fire fighting.

If you’re having to establish a specific water tank for fire fighting, we’d suggest you have at least 500 gallons of water in the tank, and of course, it will presumably have a lower flow-rate pump replenishing it as soon as the level begins to drop, so maybe by the time you’ve used up your 500 gallons, you have added another 100 or 200 gallons to the tank, and so on.

One study (the ‘Scottsdale Report’ – a 15 year study on fire sprinklers) suggests that fire-fighters typically use 2,935 gallons of water to control a fire.  (Sprinklers used only 341 gallons.)  So the more water you have, the better.

A Stitch in Time

Our point here is that it takes very little time for a fire to go from a spark to a conflagration.  Truly, in five minutes, a fire can go from a tiny thing to a monster, raging unstoppably through your house.

If a fire starts, every second counts.  You need to detect it as soon as possible and respond to it immediately thereafter.

You can’t have a system that when you have a fire, you have to go somewhere to turn on the water supply pump, then grab a fire hose, take it to an outlet, connect it up, turn it on, and deploy it.  By the time you’ve done all of this, the fire has enormously grown.  Where possible, you should have hoses pre-deployed (but sheltered from the sun so they don’t age and crack from the UV, and also sheltered from any extreme cold), and activating the pump should be something that can be done from several convenient locations.

You also should have extinguishers at strategic locations throughout your retreat.  These will probably/unavoidably be single use devices, but when you need one, don’t stop to think about saving it for another time.  Use it without hesitation.  Almost every fire that ends up defeating multiple fire trucks, and which destroys the building it started in, could have been extinguished in the first minute or so of its life if a fire extinguisher were at hand and effectively used.

We suggest having fire alarm buttons throughout your house so that people can push the alarm if they encounter any type of fire, to alert and mobilize everyone else in the house – both to get them to assist and possibly to get them to evacuate.  A loud distinctive alarm should be sounded that can not be confused with other types of alarms you might also have (in particular a security alarm).

Smoke Detectors

You of course have one or more smoke detectors in your residence at present – building and fire codes require them pretty much everywhere these days, and good practice suggests one per bedroom, one per floor, and maybe some more in other strategic places too.

We’re not arguing against this at all, quite the opposite.  The more smoke detectors, the better.

Did you also know there are two different types of smoke detectors?  One sort detects the smoke by way of the cloudiness of the smoke interrupting a light beam, the other sort detects the ‘burning products’ associated with a fire, but not necessarily the smoke itself.  They are referred to as photoelectric and ionization type detectors.

Photo-electric detectors work better with ‘smoldering’ type fires – fires that start first with a whisp of smoke, and only slowly change to a flicker of flame, and on from there.  Ionization detectors respond to flames and ‘invisible’ byproducts of the fire.

Neither sort is heat-sensitive.  Note also that carbon monoxide detectors are not very helpful at detecting fires.

Which sort of detector is best?  They are both good.  Some units have both types of detection built in.  We suggest you have some of each in your retreat.

Oh yes – do we need to add the bit about testing the batteries?  Probably not, because most good smoke detectors also include a ‘low battery’ alarm.

Sprinklers

This is something you normally associate with commercial buildings, but there’s no reason not to install them in private residences.  Indeed some local authorities are now requiring them in some private residences, even single family dwellings (including the entire states of CA and PA), and either supplied with water from an oversized line from the city mains or from an on-site tank.  If you do have sprinklers installed, you’ll probably get a small reduction in your insurance premiums, too.

There are many different types of sprinklers and designs of sprinkler systems.  A typical system in a low fire hazard area would be designed to provide 0.1 gallons of water per square foot per minute – in a 150 sq ft room, for example, that would require a water flow of 15 gallons per minute, and in a 2500 sq ft residence, if all sprinklers were operating simultaneously (an unlikely scenario), that would be 250 gpm.

Most sprinkler systems are automatic, and (unlike in the movies) activate one by one as they each individually detect a certain level of heat.  In the movies, it is common to see the activation of a single sprinkler result in an entire floor or building having all sprinklers start operating – looks good in the movie but doesn’t normally happen that way in real life.

There are a range of different heat-activated capsules that will be triggered by different heat levels, from as ‘low’ as 135°F up to as high as 500°F.  Perhaps the best type of sprinkler systems these days use water mist rather than water spray, and will give similarly effective results while using massively less water.

It makes sense for sprinklers to automatically activate, and on an ‘as required’ basis. But for a retreat which usually has people living in it, we’d be tempted to suggest a simpler approach.  Manual sprinklers, on a per room ‘deluge’ basis, whereby you simply turn a lever (probably by the room’s entrance, or at a central control station) and that causes all the sprinklers in the room to activate simultaneously.

The downside of this is also its upside.  The system doesn’t automatically activate, but it also won’t accidentally activate or leak water or in other ways be maintenance-prone or problematic.  If you have dual-mode smoke detectors in most rooms, you’ll have reasonably appropriate warning of a fire in an unattended room, and can then quickly react and activate the sprinklers in the affected areas.

Needless to say, you’ll probably want your sprinklers to operate from a reservoir (perhaps with boost pump) than from a city mains water supply, so as to have your water supply guaranteed.

Summary

House fires are more common than you think, and will become even more prevalent WTSHTF.

A fire can potentially destroy your retreat and everything in it.  There goes your shelter, your food, your everything – and possibly also your own lives.

In addition to accidental fires, deliberate fires will be more prevalent too when law and order disintegrates, and a common technique by roaming marauders may be to ‘smoke you out’ of your retreat by setting fire to it.

On the other hand, making your retreat at least fire-resistant and as close to fire-proof as possible is not an unduly expensive proposition and is a prudent part of generally ‘hardening’ your retreat and making it long-lived and low maintenance.

We urge you to ensure your retreat is as close to fire-proof as possible.

Jul 062014
 
The darker colored the state, the greater the feeling of overall wellbeing in the state.  Just one of almost 30 different factors measured in Gallup's latest 'State of the State' survey.

The darker colored the state, the greater the feeling of overall wellbeing in the state. Just one of almost 30 different factors measured in Gallup’s latest ‘State of the State’ survey.

The latest set of results from Gallup’s annual survey of the states are  now available on their website.  Almost 30 different factors are reported on, ranging from political persuasion to religious belief, from employment to medical insurance, from general wellbeing to optimism about your city’s future.

As is common with all such surveys that only look at data on a state level rather than on a county or zip code level, the information is very averaged and obscures potentially significant variations within a single state, so this data should always be treated warily.

Furthermore, while it will rank states from top to bottom on any of the different elements it is measuring, note that in some cases, there’s not a huge amount of difference between the score of the ‘best’ and the ‘worst’ states, making the relevance of some measures somewhat questionable and dubious.

So, as always, it is sensible to look at this sort of data to get an understanding of the prevailing situation in a state you might move to, but you need to supplement it with more localized research too.

In addition to the information in this annual survey, Gallup has also released an interesting survey of how people feel about living in their home state.

It isn’t clear exactly how this translates into a meaningful measure for preppers looking to relocate, but we do note that MT comes top, and RI at the bottom.  There is also a huge gap between the 77% who rate MT as one of the best states to live in, and the only 18% who feel that way about RI, so this is an example of a meaningful spread of values.

We’d definitely prefer to be in a state where most of our fellow residents were happy to be there – that suggests a more representative and connected state government.