Freebie Mondays: Life in a Wildfire Evacuation Alert Zone

Freebie Mondays: Life in a Wildfire Evacuation Alert Zone

Though I do consider this to be a piece of creative writing, composed with specific intention, this is not a work of fiction. The events described actually took place.

It’s been a rough body week. They happen sometimes. It’s reached the point where I just want to shut off my brain and relax for awhile. To that end, my husband and I are gathering on the couch for a late night TV session before turning in. We’ve been watching Tale Spin on Disney plus – a cartoon we both loved from our childhood. It’s the perfect way to forget about the world for a little while.

As we settle down, however, our phones begin to buzz. It’s not the sound of a text or an incoming call. It’s the high-pitched wail that usually accompanies an amber alert or a test of the new emergency broadcast system.

When I amble into my office to retrieve my phone, an amber alert is what I expect. We saw one a few weeks ago for a mother who ran with her children, and the alert allowed police to locate her. But the block of text is much different.

This is a wildfire evacuation for a community that sits across the lake from us. Our entire town is nestled in a valley. The lake that cuts through that valley divides the down into east side and west side.

The west side is burning.

My husband and I have lived in wildfire country on and off for a significant portion of our adult lives. That fires will burn and smoke will choke the air is simply an accepted reality. We have learned to live with it, learned to accept the dangers. Just a few days ago we speculated on the likelihood an area like ours would ever catch fire.

This is the closest we have ever been to an evacuation order. Not just close enough to receive the notice of evacuation, but close enough to poke our head out the door and inhale the smoke.

Close enough to hear the sirens of fire trucks blazing as they zoom down the major street behind our house. The sound draws us to the window, and we count the trucks as they pass. First one. Then another. Followed by a third and fourth. Somewhere around seven, I stop counting and simply press my head to the cool glass of the door window.

It seems like every fire truck in town is zooming past our house. After the sirens pass, they seem to hover in the distance, an ambient sound that never quite dissipates.

It’s a spectacle. A moment we won’t soon forget. But eventually, we put it out of our minds. We watch our silly cartoon, and we crawl into bed.

It isn’t until several hours later, while I’m battling lingering cramps not banished by my painkillers that I realize the trucks were moving in the wrong direction. Not toward the bridge that would carry them to the west side of the lake, but away from where I know the fire to be burning.

*   *   *

On Thursday August 17th around 10:30 in the evening, burning embers from the aforementioned fire jumped the lake and ignited two spot fires on the east side. One in our town, and one in a town a little to the north of us.

*   *   *

It’s one of those nights where I resign myself to simply laying still and trying to drive all of the tension out of my body until it’s time to get up and start moving again. But sometime in the wee hours of morning, probably around 4 AM, I finally drift to sleep.

My husband told me later that he didn’t want to wake me when I finally managed to get some rest. Sleep has been elusive for me for most of a week, and I appreciate that he let me stake what little claim I could.

But I’ve only been awake for five minutes when he trundles into the bedroom to have a serious chat. This is when I learn that my suspicions were correct – the fire trucks were not headed to the fire on the west side, the one our phones chirped an alert about. The fire has spread to our side of the lake and, while I slept, several neighborhoods near us have already been asked to evacuate.

The evacuation line stops very close to the street a friend of ours lives on. He’s only a couple blocks up the road, maybe fifteen to twenty minutes of walking away.

Our house is under evacuation alert, which means we might be asked to leave at any moment. My husband let me be because he thought the chances of evacuation were slim.

“But we should decide what’s important for us to take,” he finishes, and looks at me imploringly.

We are not material people. There are not a lot of things we consider to be priceless or irreplaceable. There are very few things we don’t feel we can live without. Several years ago, we packed our entire life away and moved to England with only what we could fit in four suitcases. Most of it was clothes. One of the suitcases held my husband’s tower computer.

If the worst comes to it – though I am not yet thinking about the worst – we could easily replace most of what we own. After a moment of thought, I say this out loud. “We don’t need much to be happy.” Then I pause and add, “I would like to pack our wedding albums.”

I tell my husband where to find them, and he tucks them into the suitcase he brought upstairs moments later.

“I can’t think of anything else,” I admit. It feels like a failing that in all the house we live in – which suddenly feels quite massive – I can think of only one thing I desperately want to preserve.

“I couldn’t even think of the albums,” my husband replies with a light laugh.

I move slowly because I’m still bogged down by cramps. But I do my best to grab the things that matter to me and shove them into the suitcase just in case we need them. Some of the choices feel silly. A friend of mine recently made me an octopus hat. It’s crocheted and hours of hard work went into it. I add it to the important pile because I don’t want to think about all that hard work going to waste. Likewise, I scoop my cross stitch projects into the suitcase. Most of them are gifts and I want to see them reach their destinations.

These are not life or death items. It seems odd that they are what drift to the forefront of my mind. But there is not yet urgency in my actions, and I honestly cannot think of anything else that could be easily scooped into a suitcase that I feel an urge to save. So I consider the task done and retreat to the couch.

*   *   *

It feels apocalyptic outside. There’s no other way to describe it. Smoke hangs thick and heavy in the air, obscuring the sky with grey. When the sun strikes it, the grey shifts toward orange.

We’ve experienced this before. A few summers ago, we spent most of a month between an apocalyptic sky. But those fires burned far away and this fire is burning close.

I’m watching Criminal Minds. It’s my current comfort show, the one I watch when I feel icky and just want to turn off my brain. It strikes me how clear the backgrounds behind the characters are. They’re standing in a place with clear, clean air. Not a single hint of the end times.

I don’t know why, but it strikes me as strange. Maybe because I’m so keenly aware of what’s happening outside my door.

But I tell myself that we are safe. That we are unlikely to be evacuated. I say several silent prayers that this is not just a reassurance I offer to fool myself.

In between episodes, I drag myself to my computer to check the evacuation map. I note the lack of changes, pray it will stay that way and return to the couch for another forty minutes of relaxation. I try not to let anxiety prickle my mind too much. I remind myself that if something goes horribly wrong, there will be a strong enough indication that I won’t miss it.

Around 1, my husband comes upstairs to make me ramen. Usually, during this period of cramping, cheap ramen with an egg is my comfort food. But around the time my husband makes it, there’s an update on the local situation.

The fire jumped a major road and set the landfill on fire.

There’s a new arm of evacuations and alerts. And looking the map, it feels as though a circle is quickly closing around our location. If the fire will spread so quickly in that direction, it could easily reach us. And the wind is starting to shift in that direction.

I revisit the idea of what we should bring with us when we leave. Suddenly, I think I should also pack the toiletries. And a bag of electronics. I’ve already fully backed up my work to an external hard drive and thrown it into the suitcase along with my medication. But now I’m thinking about being out of the house, and there are several things I realize I’ve overlooked.

I barely taste the ramen as I bolt it down my throat. I’ve pulled my ipad off of my computer desk and every five minutes I reload the map to see if it’s changed. There’s a sense of urgency burning in my gut now. The idea of being asked to leave is not some nebulous possibility. It feels very real and imminent.

As soon as I’ve devoured the ramen, I roam the house, gathering all the things on my mental list. I can’t stop thinking about how much I’d like to bring my computer tower with me. Everything important to my work is on there – not just the files but the programs. And since my husband recently reformatted my old laptop, I don’t really have a more portable workspace.

In the chaos of the moment, if we get told to leave, there might not be time to grab it. But I hope that there will be. I do another mental tally and realize anything I haven’t packed the second time around is probably not easily portable.

I’ve done what I can. I return to the couch. What else can I do?

*   *   *

My husband has stopped streaming. During the morning, he felt confident enough to play games and not worry too much about what was happening outside the house. But the situation has changed. The evacuation line has moved. Our friend down the road now has to pack up his kids and pets and leave.

The eventuality that seemed so unlikely when we woke up in the morning now looms over our shoulders. I’m sitting on pins and needles, and I can’t stop checking the map.

My mind is full of information, anxiety and concern. I’m still praying we won’t have to leave our house, but I’m also considering the implications of being told to go. How close to our house will the fire come? And what are the chances we’ll ever be able to come back?

When I first settled on the couch after our initial round of packing, we agreed we would stay until we were forced to go. We can’t exactly baton down the hatches; that isn’t how you deal with forest fires. But our plan was to sit tight and see what happened.

Now we’re talking about whether or not we should go.

There are benefits to leaving early. One is that we can take our time and pack everything we want to. I’m keenly aware that I can’t really salvage the mugs and octopus tea pot from the kitchen. Those things are more likely to break if I transport them. But there are a few things it would be nice to have time to pack – like my computer tower.

But there are benefits to staying too. I’m still not feeling well, and I deal a lot better with the challenges of keeping my body happy when I’m in a familiar space. It’s also easier to know what’s actually happening while we’re home. Leaving in a rush feels over-reactionary.

One thing we do not want to do is panic.

Our first conclusion is uncertainty. I try to go back to my show, but I’m too distracted to pay attention. I don’t really know what’s happening.

I get up and roam the house again, making certain I’ve grabbed everything that feels truly necessary. We now have overnight bags, shower toiletries and a clump of electronics and charging cables.

I pause in my office to glance out the window at the orange sky and wall of grey that occupies the area beyond our house. It feels oppressive, as if the smoke is steadily closing a fist around our neighborhood.

I can smell it. Even inside with all the windows closed, I can smell the smoke seeping through the windows. Or perhaps it’s coming from the vents – our AC system does draw air from outside to circulate through the house.

While I’m contemplating the situation, wondering what the next few hours will bring, our neighbor’s dog makes a sound. It’s somewhere between a howl and a whimper.

Our neighbor’s dog is anxious. We’ve lived here almost four years now, and the dog still barks at us whenever we’re outside at the same time.

But this is not a normal expression of anxiety. This is a sound of anguish and concern. Not just a reaction to the distress of her owners either.

Something is happening. It feels dangerous.

And this is the moment I’m fairly sure I make the decision.

“Let’s do it,” I say when I return to the living room. “Let’s take our time, pack up everything we want to bring, and go.”

We’ve already confirmed with a friend of ours that we can stay with him if we need to. He lives across town, as far away from the fires as it’s possible to be at the moment without leaving town all together. We confirm that he’s happy to have us even if we’re not under evacuation order, and begin the process of leaving.

But there’s a part of me that wonders how long our haven on the far side of town will remain safe with the way the wind’s blowing.

*   *   *

Every now and then, a moment feels so surreal that it burns itself forever in your mind.

The first few minutes after deciding to leave feel like chaos as my husband and I separate to make our various arrangements.

Outside, on the lawn, the neighbor has decided to prepare the houses on the block for the worst. He’s grabbed the garden hose and is dousing the lawns, the gardens, the trees. He finishes with our house and moves on to the house beside ours.

Meanwhile, I’m shutting down my computer and grabbing the power cable to bring with us. The monitors, my mouse and keyboard I leave behind. I hope I won’t need them.

My husband grabs the two drawers in which we keep all our important papers. He just loads the drawers into the back of the car.

While he does that, I ferry the suitcases and electronics backpack outside.

Something drifts lightly out of the air to caress my skin. It takes a moment to realize it’s ash.

It’s raining ash.

This is not the first time I have experienced this. It’s one of the realities of living in wildfire country. Several years ago, while we helped a friend move across the country, we noticed ash raining from the sky while we visited the grocery store.

This is not ash rain like you imagine. It’s nothing like the movie Dante’s Inferno, when the volcano spews a veritable blizzard of the black stuff into the sky. But it’s undeniable that the particles are falling. They coat the car. They brush my arm. And every time I inhale, I can smell the burning.

The world is not ending. Logically, my brain knows that. But it feels like the end times as we finally lock up the house and settle into the car.

While we drive, we take pictures of the sky. In some places it’s deep orange. In some places its merely steel grey. But it isn’t consistent. As we drive away, there are pockets of apocalypse and areas that look clearer.

Before the final moment, when everything was packed, when the neighbor was done dousing the lawn, when I was certain there was nothing left to grab – I stood in the kitchen and looked out the window at what is usually a majestic mountain rising in the distance.

As I looked at the closing smoke grey haze and the whipping tree branches outside the window, I prayed that it wouldn’t be the last time I stood in my house.

*   *   *

I know I am safe. Smoke still hangs in the air outside, and our friend’s house smells of it as much as ours did. But I’m away from the red and yellow lines marking evacuation orders and alerts now, and that makes it easier to breathe and think.

I’m still sick, so I settle on the couch with a blanket and let my mind drift for awhile. It’s the relaxation I couldn’t find earlier in the day and it lets me stop thinking about the worst. Because our house isn’t the only thing inside the evacuation alert zone that I’m worried about losing. My husband’s school is in that radius as well. And if that burns, we’re not entirely sure what will happen to our future. It would be an even more tenuous situation than losing our house.

But when I check the map, nothing has changed. Our street has not been moved out of the yellow and into the red. We could go home if we really wanted, and I try to take solace from that.

“Have you ever watched a campfire burn?” the friend hosting us asks. And because I spent a significant amount of my childhood camping, I nod.

Our friend ventured downtown the night before – probably around the same time we were tucking onto the couch to watch Tale Spin. In the darkness, the fire across the lake was incredibly visible.

“It was almost hypnotic,” our friend declares as he describes what he witnessed. “The trees would burn for a really long time, until they looked like embers. Then the fire would move outward and catch a bunch more all at once.”

The description makes me shiver. Our friend was clearly captivated by his experience. He describes it as a thing of beauty and majesty. And under other circumstances, I would agree. But today, I can’t stop thinking of my house as the kindling and my possessions burning down to embers.

Not an eventuality I really want to consider.

*   *   *

The night passes. Whenever I wake up, I refresh the map that denotes the evacuation zones. Our house is still in the yellow. No formal evacuation order has been given. It allows me to breathe a small sigh of relief, though I know the danger has not yet passed.

The local fire fighters hold a press conference to update the public on the situation. It becomes clear that this will not be a brief experience. The alerts and evacuations are bound to last days – possibly weeks.

I wonder if we shouldn’t just go back home and stick it out. Our lives are bound to be on hold for a long time, and I don’t want to overstay my welcome when we haven’t actually been evacuated.

We agree to go home for the afternoon, test things out, see how it goes. The wind has stopped blowing. It makes the smoke worse, but it prevents the fire from spreading.

It feels good to be home, but it’s strange too. The vision radius outside the window shrinks steadily as the smoke hangs heavier and heavier in the air. I flinch every time the wind disturbs the tree outside my office even a little. And every now and then we can hear the planes and helicopters dropping water on the fire zoom past outside.

We decide not to stay overnight. We’re still worried about a rude awakening in the wee hours, and neither of us think we will sleep.

But we do agree that if the situation continues to improve, we will try to come back on a more long-term basis on Sunday.

*   *   *

At 1:30 in the morning, I’m seized by a sudden sense of panic. We left my computer at home after our return, but I’m suddenly convinced someone will break in and steal it.

It’s not an entirely irrational concern. Our neighbor stuck around longer than everyone else on Friday and said someone did try to tamper with their window. But the dog I mentioned before scared them off.

We saw no signs of attempted entry when we returned home, though, and more people did decide to stay overnight on Saturday. I try to reassure myself with that so I can get some sleep.

In the morning, the news is good. We have no idea how long it will take to start rescinding evacuation orders, but the fire fighters speak of ‘good fire fighting days.’

We agree to continue with the plan to return home, and we find nothing missing when we get there.

The future is uncertain. We have no idea how long we will remain under evacuation alert. And while we are, several of our services have been temporarily discontinued. Still, we settle in as best we can. We buy a single week worth of groceries in case we do suddenly have to leave. We don’t fully unpack, keeping ourselves ready to depart again at a moment’s notice. And I indulge in a small treat because, as I remind myself, I have no idea how long the status quo will last.

Life filters back into our cul de sac. Neighbors make the same assessment we did and decide it’s safe to sleep in their own beds.

The smoke is thick. The smell fills the house. And there’s not much that can be done about it. This is simply life for the moment, and we remind ourselves constantly that we’re lucky to be able to spend this time in our house, unlike many people we know who remain evacuated for most of a week.

We try to relax, try to get on with the day to day as usual. I had already planned to take this week off, and I’m grateful I don’t have to try to focus on work on top of everything else.

It’s three days before we see a hint of the sky again. But it’s a relief to wake up on a sunny morning and catch a glimpse of clear blue. It’s four days before evacuation orders start lifting. But when they do, the entire area near us is downgraded all at once from order to alert. Our friend can go home, and we can breathe easier.

The fire is not out. The situation is far from dealt with. But we no longer wake up each morning wondering if we might have to leave our house, and I no longer fear the loss of everything we own.

Others, we know, are not so lucky. On the west side of the lake, the fire continues to rage out of control long after the fires near us are considered held. Homes were lost and evacuations endure.

But we are grateful to have been spared the worst and that our lives can return to some semblance of normal.

3 Replies to “Freebie Mondays: Life in a Wildfire Evacuation Alert Zone”

  1. Thank you Megan for sharing this horrific experience. I am so glad that things have improved and hopefully everything comes to an end soon.
    I am happy that you and Nathan are safe and back in your home.
    Take care,
    Aunt Diane

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