Posted by: mrrx | October 21, 2007

You Gain Experience with Wildfires ! (3)

On October 21st, we were treated to the experience of facing a wildfire and figuring out whether to stay or flee.

 I’m finally gaming on this busy weekend, when I walk outside to take out the trash and notice a very large cloud covering the sun.     Without thinking much further about it, I go back inside.

Soon my wife returns home and says “Look at the smoke, it looks pretty close”.    We turn on the television and from there get the idea that the fire is 20+ miles away.    I don’t worry about it too much until I notice the pattern of the smoke.     When smoke is coming from far away, it blows past in the wind much different than when it is close.     This thing was getting really close.    Fast, black-gray clouds were scudding by.

That set my nerves into overdrive.      It was time to pay serious attention to this thing.

I packed up all the electronics, and tried to get the wife to understand it was time to pack up and be ready to run.     She wasn’t buying it; “They’ll come by and tell us to evacuate”.    Then she returned to folding the laundry.   Eventually I did manage to get her to throw a few things into suitcases, when very suddenly she screams.

The fire is cresting the hills right next to our house, on the other side of the street.     It’s burning right down the hills towards us.     Time to hop in the cars and drive away.

There’s a certain element of us that looks forward to danger, to kind of test ourselves and make sure that what needs to be done, is done, nevermind danger.    Protect your home.    Keep it safe.   

Brother, that impulse was completely buried for me by the impulse to get my kids the HELL out of that area.    I pick up a shoeless little boy, crying because of both the tension and because I pulled him away from his trains, and buckle him up.     My daughter asks “What about all my toys?”, and does exactly what I asked her to do – run upstairs, grab the bears that she can carry, and hustle down and get buckled in.

And so in two different cars we make our way down the street, driving past gawking neighbors.    Now, if we were farther away that might have made more sense, but these are people that live 10 houses down, and they’re standing in front of their houses gawking at the flames instead of packing and fleeing.    I didn’t get it at all.

Spent the next five hours at my buddy’s house, who has the most perfect viewpoint to watch the fire from.    We watched it threaten more homes nearby, burn up nearly every available scrub bush, and watched the homes go up in flames.

Canyon Country is a windy, hilly neighborhood with lots of little scrub areas, some surrounded by homes, and most of these scrubby areas ended up going up in flames.    In this way fire hopscotched across an area that seems, in some senses, packed with homes and therefore safe.    As it moved, it found a few to gobble up.     There’s nothing sadder than suddenly seeing a bright flare up, in an area that you know has a lot of homes, and suddenly finding the worst thought confirmed by grainy helicopter video – someone’s home is burning up.

Eventually the smoke cleared a bit.    Streetlights were visible in my neighborhood.    You might wonder how we could tell exactly.    You see, we live maybe five miles apart, but have a clear line of sight to each other by some quirk of fate.    We would flash lights while talking on the phone to see if we knew exactly where the other guy’s house was.    So we knew – the fire was definitely out in my neighborhood.   What to do next ?

Naturally, we went to check on it.    Do I still have a home or not?    The rumor that made it to us was five homes in our development burned to the ground.    Five of 160 is pretty good odds, but I had to *know*.    

The main road, White’s Canyon, was closed.    Side streets were not, although it’s very hard to reach our home other than via White’s.  After trying a circuoutous route to get us to the house, we tried the one that would require backtracking – Camp Plenty road.    

Nobody turned us back, but we had a scary moment passing several fire trucks.    They sat next to two, maybe three homes that had burned to the ground, along with one that was scorched but still standing.    What a scary sight.    The last thing we wanted to do was gawk though, the point was to reach the house again, and we drove on up past the burning embers and eventually were on the approaches to my development.

While it looked good, there was a sherriff’s car circling the neighborhood.    We didn’t get pulled over or anything though, we just drove up and were relieved to find not a single home in the area damaged or destroyed.     It’s not a huge surprise – these are five year old homes with fire protection firmly in mind when constructed.    But 60+ mph winds blowing flames down a hillside might have gotten through all of that.

Lessons learned from the experience :

  • They *do not* come by and tell you to evacuate.    Not when 10 other wildfires are burning in the region and every firefighter is going head to head with flames.
  • The media is *completely useless* and probably counterproductive at telling you what you need to know.    It’s helpful to be distracted with once you’ve gotten out of harms way though.
  • Use your own good judgement about when to leave the house.    If the fire seems to be coming your way, pack up and get ready to leave.    
  • Keep the garage door open unless you know exactly how to manually open it ( I don’t).    Power goes out often in fire damaged areas.
  • Run your sprinklers if you can.    Wet vegetation is good.   I turned them off before I left though, no sense in lowering the water pressure when the firemen try to fight it.
  • Turn off your air conditioner, and close all the windows, if you have a tile roof.     Those are the two things that might cause your well-protected home to burn.
  • When you see flames, you might only have a couple minutes.   That’s all we had.     This is why you have to be ready, it took us a few minutes just to get the kids in the cars and leave.

Given the hotspots I saw and the other areas on fire, we decided we weren’t going back home tonight, so I waved goodbye to my pal and we drove to the wife’s childhood home instead. 

And so I write this at my in-laws house, partly catharsis and partly boredom – this machine *does not* run EQ2.    We’ll return in the morning and get things back to normal, while thanking God we weren’t among the unlucky people with their lives turned inside out.

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Responses

  1. Thoughts are with you. Glad you’re safe.

  2. I’m glad you didn’t get burned.

    That list of lessons learned is great, btw. Should make that its own post.


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