You know those things that seem like they only happen to other people? Like winning the lottery or having to chop off their own arm to rescue themselves? Evacuating from a wildfire seemed like one of those things that only happened to other people. Before June 26, 2012, my closest encounter with wildfire was a phone call from my parents when I was in college asking me if I wanted them to save anything in particular if they had to evacuate to escape a fire raging near my hometown. I was more concerned about their safety than anything else, and fortunately, they never had to leave.
The day my husband and I had to evacuate started out as a fairly normal day. Aside from the extra smoke in the air due to the Waldo Canyon fire, it could have been any other summer day. We had no idea that the day would turn into a frantic scramble to gather our most important possessions, including our dog, Gracey. We thought our house was far enough away from the fire that we would get to ride it out at home. In fact, I was so confident, I had made plans to meet friends on the other side of town after work. My husband called me shortly after work and strongly encouraged me to come home instead of going to dinner.
As I made my way across Colorado Springs, the smoke got thicker. Ash was falling out of the sky like snow. Our area wasn’t under evacuation orders, yet, but I began to seriously consider what would be thrown into my car if we were ordered to leave. I wasn’t home long before the evacuation zone was expanded and we only had thirty minutes to gather up everything we wanted to take and get to safety.
In addition to getting ourselves and our dog out safe (our little one came three years later), we focused on things we couldn’t replace. All our most important documents (think birth certificates, marriage certificate, passports, wedding photos on CD) were in a small, easily transportable, fire safe. We grabbed our computers, heirloom jewelry, easily accessible photos, enough clothes for one week, medicine, and a few things off the walls that were irreplaceable. We left everything else.
On the way to my aunt’s house, I called my dad to let him know what was going on. In the background, I could see the fire raging down the mountain. It looked like really bad special effects from a movie. Dad was the mayor of my small hometown and he was getting ready to go to a town meeting to talk about disaster preparedness. In particular, they were focusing on wildfire. What had seemed like a humdrum meeting suddenly became much more relevant since a wildfire was directly impacting his daughter.
That night from the bedroom we were staying in, we could see the hillside burning and the especially bright spots that were houses being destroyed. We were mentally prepared to not be able to go back to our home. We were mentally prepared to lose everything.
Thankfully, a couple days later we were able to return home, to an intact home with no damage. Some of my family lost everything except each other to the fire.
Recently I was speaking with someone on the Wildland Fire Team in Colorado Springs, and he said this year’s conditions are shaping up to be like those leading up to the 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire and the 2013 Black Forest Fire. So what can you do to be prepared and best protect your family?
The Colorado Springs Fire Department has a fantastic website that has information about property mitigation to make it less likely to catch fire, planning for evacuation, a wildfire risk map, among other resources. It can be found here.
At the very least, know what you would do if you had to evacuate on short notice. Know what is most important to you and your family and be ready to quickly grab the Six P’s:
- People and pets
- Papers, phone numbers, and important documents
- Prescriptions, vitamins, eyeglasses
- Pictures and irreplaceable memorabilia
- Personal computers and hard drives
- “Plastic” (credit cards and cash)
I would be happy to never repeat a wildfire evacuation again. I’m not sure I’d be so calm and collected now that we have a daughter as well as a four-footed fur-baby. But I can assure you, even though I may not be as calm if we had to evacuate again, I know exactly what would be going with us.