Tuesday, July 3, 2012

What I Learned in the Wake of a Wild Fire

Have you ever wondered what you would do if you were faced with only minutes to leave your home? Do you know what you would take? Where you'd go? And what was truly important?

As I mentioned in my previous post, for the second time in two years my family was evacuated from our home as a wild fire roared its way towards our community. The first time we were given a fifteen minute warning - meaning an official knock on the door from a uniformed officer who waited on the porch while you gathered your necessities and left - but really we had about two hours to face the inevitable before that knock came. Two hours to think things through. Two hours to figure out what we needed/wanted, gather it up, and say goodbye to our precious home.

This last weekend, we did't get such a time luxury. We literally had minutes... not fifteen or even ten, but maybe two! The call was for an IMMEDIATE evacuation! As flames approached at upwards of 30 miles per hour, there was no time to think, and barely time to move!

For this reason, I am grateful that we were prepared. And, in a hope that you and your family's will benefit, let me share with you what we learned from our first evacuation that made our second one so much easier:

1. Know what your important stuff is, where it is, and keep it organized. And by important I mean documents like your birth certificates, passports, vehicle titles, account numbers, and insurance information. This list should also include any legal documents as well as the mortgage information on your home. For under $100 you can get a portable fire-resistant safe to store these documents and information in. Keep it small enough that you can handle it on your own. Fire-resistant does not mean fire-proof and you will want to be able to grab it and go if possible. You may also want to consider keeping some cash in there... small, usable bills in the event that there is no power and credit transactions aren't available. We've decided to make copies of all this information and keep it at a different location (like my mom's house) so that in the event that we aren't able to save it, we still have copies available. 

2. Have a 72 hour kit, or at least a change of clothes. During our first evacuation we were lucky enough to have the time to hook up our camping trailer and pull it out with us. Stocked with food, blankets, and emergency supplies, we were able to throw in a couple changes of clothes and go. This wasn't possible the second time around. If we'd been at home (which we were not) when the call came, we would have only had time to grab our five-gallon 72 hour buckets as well as our emergency backpacks. We may not have had nice clothes to change into, but we would have at least had clean underwear!

3. Realize that most things are just things... and are therefore replaceable. The most important thing to get out of harms way is your family, neighbors, and friends. Things are replaceable, people are not!! Focus on your household first (don't forget your animals) then consider your neighbors. Is there someone who might need help? A single mother with a lot of children? A handicapped or otherwise incapacitated individual that might need assistance? After lives have been protected, if you still have time, you may be able to grab a few additional items before you leave. Decide before hand what your non-replaceable items are and if and how you would save them in the event of an emergency. I have a lot of family heirlooms around my house. I know where they are and the order in which I would save them. The ones not on display are stored in a cedar chest. The first thing I grab is that chest. If time permits, I move on to the other items. Things you might want to consider on this secondary list are: scrapbooks, photos, journals, hard drives, laptops, family heirlooms, etc.

4. Have a game plan. Make a plan and know where you'd go in the event that you have to leave. Make sure that all the members of your household are aware of the plan! If you have a family member's home that you would go to, make sure it is easily reached by all members of your household. If it is too far away to walk to, come up with a meeting place that everyone can get to, then after everyone is assembled you can travel to your destination together. With our first evacuation we traveled about 30 minutes away to stay at my parent's house. While I was grateful for the hospitality and a comfortable bed, I learned that for my sanity it would have been better for us to have stayed more local so we could be more aware of what was going on. At one point the media reported that our entire neighborhood was lost, which gratefully was not the case, but if we'd been at or near the community evacuation shelter, our information would have been more frequent and more reliable. Which brings me to my next lesson learned:

5. Communicate.  Know your neighbors' cell phone numbers and, if possible, the contact information of their emergency destination. Ninety percent of the information I received after both of our evacuations came in the form of text, email, and facebook. Thank heavens for a smart phone! The evacuation order itself came four separate times - once from an email, twice through text, and again on facebook! (Of course, we got a reverse 911 call to our land-line, but nobody was home to receive it.) Even if you are not typically social with your neighbors, an emergency is not the time to keep your information to yourself. Help get the word out! Share any pertinent information you might get. Make sure your friends and neighbors are okay and don't forget to let them know you're okay too.

6. Don't stress about things you can't control. This is a tough one. Adrenaline got me out of my home, but there's nothing like watching gigantic flames crest the mountain and race toward your subdivision to stop your heart. Having a breakdown or a panic attack isn't going to change the wind or put out the flames. Yelling and stressing and falling apart serve only the purpose of making a hard situation worse. Of course, making light of it isn't going to help anyone either. So, what do you do?... For me, the answer was simple. Hope and pray and have faith that things will be alright.... and that doesn't necessarily mean that your house will survive. What it means is having faith to accept what comes and know that you have the strength and the courage to deal with it. I've learned that if I turn things over to the Lord, He will take care of them. Whether it means shifting the wind with miraculous timing, sending heroic hands to the front line, saving an area from utter destruction, or allowing it to burn, it matters little. What matters most is knowing that in the end, all we be well.

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