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A Practice Run

Updated: Sep 25, 2020

On Tuesday morning shortly after 11:00, I was working from my parents' home in Ashland, above Lithia Park. I was on a Zoom call with all of my colleagues when I got a text from my partner: "Fire in Ashland", with a blurry picture. A few minutes later, the Nixle alerts began rolling in by text, email, and phone. Several of my colleagues were receiving the same information, and one by one we excused ourselves from the call to begin preparing for evacuation -- just in case.


My parents were out of town (on their first overnight away since the pandemic began), so I went to their "Emergency Procedures" file, only to realize that the list didn't give me all of the information I needed. Where's the safe deposit box key, and their passports? Which medical supplies? What jewelry?


I also realized very quickly that their 5-minute list gave me no indication of what they'd like saved if we had more time -- which, in this case, I had, because I hadn't received an actual "Go!" evacuation notice yet. I couldn't get a hold of them on the phone, so I started in my own room instead, gathering up my passport and birth certificate, cash, wallet, devices and chargers... the 5-minute list was easy, as was the go-bag to tide me over for a few days. It was the next step that was harder. What do I take? My favorite dance shoes, or my quilts in progress? How about my vintage sewing machine, or my mom's and grandmother's wedding dresses, or my favorite books? With limited space in the car, the question became: "What is actually irreplaceable, versus what just feels irreplaceable?"


I eventually got my parents on the phone, and they walked me through their requests, describing where the meds were stored, which pieces of art they'd like me to tuck into the car. They were on the road, coming home from their getaway, but they were snarled in traffic in Talent. At one point, they were in standstill traffic and could see flames alongside the road. They crawled in circles for hours, but there was no way for them to get back to Ashland, so they headed out of town and got a room in Jacksonville for the night. That left me alone at the house, packing the car on my own.


Throughout this process, I was getting my fire updates from a Facebook page, where some folks were relaying information from the local police scanners. I wanted to use a more official source, but there was none -- it felt like I had to fend for myself. The Nixle alerts weren't enough to quell my anxiety, and I knew how fast conditions could change. Then, my internet went out, which meant that I was also without cell service or a landline. I felt completely cut off, and it was deeply scary to go to bed that night knowing that the only way I would know if I needed to evacuate was if someone came and knocked on the front door.


I barely slept, instead running through my exit plan: get out of bed, grab the pile of phones and chargers from where they were all plugged in for last-minute charging, put on the respirator, collect the dog and his leash, put on shoes at the front door, get in the already-packed car, and drive... where? I knew traffic had been a nightmare earlier in the day, but I had no internet to check the current road status. My plan ended there.


Luckily for me, the fire kept moving steadily away from Ashland, and I never got the order to leave the house. I was safe, my parents were safe, our home was safe. After they arrived back in Ashland the next day, we began revisiting our emergency plan. Our out-of-town family gathering point in Talent had burned to the ground, so we chose a few new places -- one in each direction -- that were further away. We updated and annotated our 5- and 15-minute lists, and showed each other where in the house to find everything on each list. Our evacuation route had been so jammed with traffic that we all re-packed our go-bags in backpacks so that we would be able to evacuate on bike or foot if necessary. We picked up print atlases of Oregon and California to use if the cell service goes down again and we can't rely on our phone GPS.


The Almeda fire was traumatic for the whole family, but we all feel deeply grateful to have had the opportunity to practice our plan, experience its gaps firsthand, and have the opportunity to be better prepared for the next wildland fire.


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Photos courtesy of SOFEE Partners