Our Wildfire Evacuation, Part 4, by SoCal9mm

(Continued from Part 3.)

LESSONS LEARNED OR THINGS THAT WORKED OK:
  1. Priorities – again, having a to-do list for the day really helped us, even one that we just made up on the fly.
    1. I really wanted to ensure there was no firearm left in the house, and I really wanted to get the flammable materials out of the shed. We took the diesel cans with us, and we left the propane tanks in front of the house at the street (per fire department recommendations).
    2. We really wanted to clear our fridge before everything spoiled, which would have ruined it.
    3. We also grabbed some sentimental items – unbeknownst to me, she grabbed my dad’s wedding ring. (“Dawwww”.)
  2. Insurance
    1. If you’ve got something worth protecting, please make sure you have insurance for it. Know what is covered and what is not – in most standard homeowner policies, damage from fire is covered; earthquake and flood are not.
    2. Start talking to your insurance company immediately after an event. Even though we still had our house, we were “displaced” and could draw on certain benefits outlined in our policy.
    3. As mentioned before, save your receipts on everything you spend. You may be able to be reimbursed by your insurer – be sure to ask them, we found that they were not necessarily telling us everything unless we asked about something specifically.
  3. Talk with friends / family.
    1. It really helped us to be the supportive ones to our friends who were hardest hit.
  4. Extra clothes and toiletries – as mentioned before, you’ve probably got a suitcase in your closet waiting for your next vacation. Pack it with a few days’ worth of extra clothing along with your TSA-approved toiletries kit, and you’ve got your extra clothes in a ready-to-go set up.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR IMPROVEMENT:
  1. We didn’t photograph the food we tossed from the fridge/freezer – fortunately it didn’t come back to bite us.
  2. We didn’t prop the fridge doors open after emptying to prevent mold / mildew – corrected on Sunday 12/10 (the next time we were able to go in).
  3. We didn’t shut off electrical breakers in case of power surges or voltage irregularities when the system gets fixed – corrected on 12/10.
  4. We didn’t “hard lock” the garage roll-up-door – corrected on 12/10.
  5. We didn’t post our contact information on the front door when we left – corrected on 12/10.

Thursday 12/07/17 through Sunday 12/10/17

Thursday

Thursday was the first day that I actually felt somewhat “normal” – well, new normal anyway. We had been to our house the day before and we had all the extra items we were able to grab, we had been able to see the state of the neighborhood during our “visit”, and we got on the hillside and helped fight the fire (or at least reduce the chance of another flare-up). So, we felt better about things

Still no news from anyone as to when we could get back into our house.

We moved from our first friends’ house to another friend’s house today. They were wonderful hosts who put up with more than they should have – we interrupted their lives and their kids’ lives – with never a complaint from them, only offers of more help. We could not overstate how much we appreciated their help during this time.

Friday

The winds died down and the smoke moved in – air quality dropped from bad to unbelievable, visibility was down to a few hundred yards. We had a couple of old N95 dust masks, but the rubber strap broke on mine and the stores were all sold out. So we drove to my work and asked for a few from our safety supplies.

Please keep in mind – everything that I’ve described for past 3-4 days (evacuating in the dark, going the County government center, working around our house & putting out fires on the hillside, etc.) was all done while wearing an old N95 dust mask. It’s no wonder that it broke, it’s a wonder that it lasted as long as it did.

My boss told me that he could follow me through the office area by sniffing for my smoke-saturated shirt. (Yuck).

Saturday

The city council hosted a meeting with several spokespersons from the various agencies to address the public. We were really hoping for some detailed information about when we could return to our homes and what were the progression of steps needed to rebuild for those that lost theirs. But no one was willing to even give us an approximate timeframe – Days? Weeks? Months? Don’t know…

Instead, we got a history of when the fire started (yeah, we already knew that), and how it has moved (right over the top of us, duh), and the State and Federal Representatives for our area standing up telling us that they’re “working tirelessly for us”: One guy said of this comment, “Oh yeah? Where’s your shovel?” All in all, it was not too well received.

A friend heard an off-mike comment from a Cal-Fire official (the Incident Command agency) that they were concerned about the high number of houses that burned and that most were 40-50 years old – when asbestos, lead, cadmium, chromium, mercury, etc. were common in building materials. So now all this “residue” was in the ash that settled on everything and they were trying to determine the “level of safety” in the area – and it may be several weeks before we could get back into our houses.

Okay, well that sucks but at least it tells us something (c’mon, give us information people), and it makes some sense. If one or two older houses burn it’s no big deal, if 350 older houses burn then the ash and residue could be of concern. So, now we made up a new plan – we went out that evening, looking for (and finding) long-term lodging. Yay.

Sunday

The National Guard (NG) had taken over perimeter enforcement of the last few high-impact neighborhoods where residents were still not allowed entry.

We found out that residents would be allowed back in this weekend and we decided to go on Sunday 12/10. The rules were that verified residents could enter for a very short visit, escorted by NG and taken in via bus or van, and each of us was allowed to bring out 1 medium-sized bag of stuff as long as it could fit on our lap.

Everyone was very nice: National Guard, police, local Boy Scout troop handing out water while we waited, church volunteers who made lunches for many people, etc. I really can’t say enough good things about the people of our community, they stepped up and bonded together.

So, we got in and they told us we had ~45 minutes before they’d come back by to pick us up – be ready!

What did we do? We made a to-do list!

  1. Grab some comfy clothes (e.g., PJs, shorts, flip-flops, etc.).
  2. Grab W.’s Christmas presents hidden in my closet (that’s what I get for shopping early).
  3. Prop open the fridges.
  4. Water the hillside and outdoor plants.
  5. Shut off electrical breakers.
  6. Gas meter – it was on our list to shut the gas off, but the Gas Company had already come through the neighborhood and done it for everyone.
  7. Add a “hard lock” to the garage (rollup) door – by this I just mean locking or blocking the track in which the door rollers travel (I used a hammer stuck though a hole in the track).
  8. Grab pet dishes, treats, and a few toys.
  9. Post our contact info on our front door (so police can notify us if they see anything out of place).

The house looked good, no signs of entry and no fire damage or vandalism. We grabbed our stuff and did our tasks in record time, so fast that we were sitting for ~15 minutes before the bus came back to get us.

LESSONS LEARNED OR THINGS THAT WORKED OK:
  1. If you’re ever in this type of situation and you’re not getting any info, try talking to as many “people in charge” as you can – maybe they’ll let something slip, or see if you can piece together something based on what they are not telling you.
  2. Shutting off the power at the breakers paid off. Our next door neighbor didn’t do this and his television  blew up when he first turned it on (he said it sounded like a shotgun going off and smoke came out the top) – he also lost at least 1 of his computers.
  3. I have to say that my place of employment was very gracious with me (wife’s to her also). I called on Tuesday and they said not to worry about coming back until the following Monday. Having that time off was a huge help – getting back into the house, dealing with insurance, and even just trying to get back to somewhere near “normal” would not have been possible without the time to deal with this “stuff” – and we still had our house! I’m sure it was 10 times worse for those that lost theirs…
  4. I also have to say that I really don’t know where I’d be without W. She says that I’m her rock, but she’s really the steady one in our duo. Most of the “pre-work” in our response to this event was done by me; yes, I’m the worry-wort who spent hours planning and making evacuation checklists, pre-staging all those items and boxes and kits, etc. But she’s the one who took the lead on getting our world put back together afterwards – insurance, utilities, clean-up, etc.

(To be concluded tomorrow, in Part 5.)




4 Comments

  1. Where and how did you find long term housing. I would have thought that would have been nearly impossible given how many people were out of their homes. Clearly you had your travel trailer, I’m assuming that was a huge bonus that most people didn’t have access to.
    Great article.

    1. Yes, you’re absolutely correct. With so many people displaced, lodging was very tough – this is why we were trying to stay with friends (when we thought it would be a short-term event). After that Sat. meeting, we knew we were in for the long haul and we started calling all around. We ended up finding a place nearly 20 miles away, because everything else in and around our city was full. Even with this we felt we got lucky, 1 of our friends ended up >30 miles away in LA county because it was all he could find…

      As for the trailer, we could have street camped in it if we had to. We thought we could have “gone camping” too (if needed), but it turned out that most of the campgrounds in our area were either directly in the path of the fire, threatened by it, or already burned.

  2. “What did we do? We made a to-do list!”

    But of course! Never underestimate the value of lists– which obviously you don’t. Good call on opening up the fridges. Won’t have thought of that.

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