Burned Into My Memory

Everyone has their story about being evacuated during a forest fire.  Here’s mine.

This past summer, a forest fire started near our house.  The hot weather had set the forest fire hazard to “high”, though it should have been “extreme”.  Two kids had built a fire pit on their rural, treed property while their parents were out.  They were trying to play safe and put rocks around the fire, but it was windy and the fire blew to a nearby bush.  The fire department came and while they were there, the forest caught fire.

My husband and I were at home that day puttering (it was a saturday) when two or three people called saying they could see smoke on the hill near us.  We had heard that there was a fire near the mill (about 5 minutes away) that morning and that it was taken care of, but after the third call, Darryl and the neighbour hopped in the truck to go take a look.  We couldn’t even see smoke from our house.

Before he had even gotten back home yet, Darryl called and told me to start packing.  While he drove home and started loading the camper onto the truck, I packed our important papers, a duffel bag for Sadie and one for us, then started hauling everything else I thought we should keep to the door.  I also got a hold of a friend who came and picked up my horse just in case we were evacuated.  Before Darryl was finished loading the camper, I was loading the 4-runner with everything I could carry.  Darryl topped up the water tank and threw a bunch of smaller tools on the bed in the camper.  We managed to get one of his knack boxes and the bulkier tools like the compressor and chop saw and my saddle onto an old, homebuilt, unlicensed trailer hitched to the 4-runner.

We knew we’d be evacuated just because of our location and our proximity to the fire; it was only a matter of time.  We live on ten treed acres surrounded by other treed acreges and near crown land.  We felt hopeful though because the wind was blowing away from us down the hill towards town, and the wind never blows that way.

After two hours of packing, the police showed up to let us know he was risking his life to be there and he waited while we were putting the finishing touches on packing.  I packed some canned food into a tote and loaded Sadie into the truck, and then he left.  We spent another 20 minutes on the finishing touches.  After all, we couldn’t leave the chickens with no water or drive away without tying down tools.

We had 23 broiler chickens in an apple box on the porch, so we topped up their food and water, and let the laying hens out with lots of water.  I think I gave the garden a quick soak.  It was hot that day.

It was almost exciting because we both function well in emergency situations, and we weren’t worried about our house being burned.  We were running on a bit of adrenaline but we were still fairly calm.

There were two ways out of our area.  One was the direct route into town through five minutes of suburbs, and the other was a long roundabout route through the mountains on gravel forestry roads that would have taken at least an hour.  We chose the first partly because we didn’t realize how choked up it would get and partly because we didn’t have a lot of gas in the 4-runner or spare tires for either vehicle.

That may not have been the best choice.  Traffic was quite light and moving well until we were about a minute from the highway that took us into town, when we were turned around by a roadblock that had just been set up.  The fire was almost to the main road out of there.  We were forced to follow the flock through winding back roads stopped up with traffic the whole way.  We idled past several homes where the inhabitants were standing in the driveway taking pictures of the fire only a kilometre upwind of them!  Others were playing with their kids in the driveway.  Some were casually loading a few things in their cars.  Maybe they thought it was only the houses above them that were on evac, even though it was all over the radio.

What should have taken maybe ten minutes took 45.  And that was after the police opened up both sides of the street to head out.  We leapfrogged down the road with a family riding and leading out 5 or 6 horses.   I would have handed them water if other people hadn’t already.  They looked HOT!  I felt so bad for the people who had to lead horses out because they couldn’t take anything else with them.  It was either their horses or their junk.  Okay, it’s important junk.  But any horse owner would take the horse before junk.  What I didn’t understand was why they didn’t put the tack on their horses.  A lot of them were riding bareback.  If they had a saddle they could at least tie stuff to it.  It only takes a couple minutes to put a saddle on when you’re in a hurry.  The horse doesn’t have to be shined up for a show.  Anyway, that’s my little rabbit trail.  I would have tied Banner to the bumper if he didn’t have a ride out.

We were planning to stop at the gas station on the way through town, but traffic was being directed around town.  The gas stations were all evacuated.  We passed my friend who hauled my horse away heading back the way we came (they hauled lots of horses that day), but I think they were stuck in town since the highway to their place was closed.  We met up at my parent’s house near the lake, but the wind was blowing smoke from the fire right through the neighbourhood.  The doors and windows were all open and fans were going so there was smoke all through the house.  Darryl mentioned that he’d repainted a lot of houses that were smoke damaged after another forest fire, so the house was shut up after that even though it was stifling hot.  We didn’t stay long and were headed to my sister’s house when my parents got the word that they had to leave.  They had already packed a bunch of stuff, but my dad had to go to work at the hospital so my brother helped mom pack up the van.  Luke packed almost everything he owned into his truck.  He didn’t own very much.

We left the 4-runner at my sister’s house and went to register.  The line up went over halfway around the arena but we found that we moved along pretty quick.  We snagged a flat of bottled water on the way out.

My memory of everything that happened after that is starting to blur.  We met up with a family from church that was staying in their nice camping trailer.  We camped in the church parking lot overnight and were still late for church the next morning.  The bunch of us were invited to people’s houses for meals so we didn’t have to try to cook anything in our camper.  That was nice cause there was so much stuff that we had to keep moving it around whenever we had to drive somewhere.  We managed to get a police escort up to the house that afternoon so we could water our chickens, but it was the only time that happened.

The next night our friends stayed at a (very expensive) campground down by the lake and we parked at a friend’s house overnight so we could plug the camper in.  We also left our trailer there where it would be safe.  Darryl found out they were handing out vouchers so he went to get some.  We ended up with about $450 for clothing and incidentals and another $150 for food.  Mom gave us what was left of their food voucher and we piled a cart with $250 worth of non-perishable food that we used to stock the camper in case we were evacuated again.  We ate a little bit of it.  We spent a few hours in Walmart buying clothing that we’d been needing anyway.  And some that we didn’t need.  The racks were pretty bare by then though.  The SPCA was allowed up past the police lines to look after animals that were left behind, so they watered the chickens for us with water we sent up for them cause the power was off.

The radio was saying that some people may be allowed back home early the next morning, but we followed our friends out to Winfield to stay with one of their friends.  Darryl thought it was nice to be away from all the fire talk and smoke, but I would have rather stayed in town as long as we didn’t have to move again.  Nobody watered or fed our chickens.  No one was allowed.

Sure enough, the next morning our friends were allowed back home but we weren’t, so we stayed at their house.  For the next two days.  The poor chickens did get watered and fed again but I’m not at liberty to say how.

We finally got home after 5 days of traipsing all over town and staying at different places every night like squatters.  It was kind of like an impromptu camping trip without the lazy, do-nothing-all-day-except-eat part.  It was nice to be back.  Except not.  The “gate” to my garden had somehow gotten knocked over and kept the laying hens happy while we were gone.  My turnips, peppers, and beans were almost completely wiped out, and the onions were so trampled I hardly had any survive.  Everything was in dire need of watering.  Somehow everything came back and I got a big pile of turnips, only then I realized what I really wanted was rutabagas.  These turnips tasted like radishes.  I think that little stint of no water finished the corn.  The one cob that didn’t go mouldy was about two inches long and almost two inches across.  Short and stubby.

Unpacking wasn’t so fun either.

But that fire only took three homes.  If the wind had been blowing the direction it normally does, I think there would have been more homes lost.  And it was good that it started on a saturday when most people were home.  Even still, there were a few that couldn’t get home in time and had only the clothes on their backs.

Another fire started at the other end of town but in a more remote location.  It threatened a few homes but didn’t take any.  Then another one started a ways from town and ended up being a tough one to put out because of the terrain.  There were no roads out there and it was windy.  That one took the longest to put out.

What we learned:

-Keep gas tanks topped up (not always possible but a good idea)

-Keep extra fuel in jerry cans

-Keep non-perishable food in the camper

-Keep important papers together

-Have a backup plan for getting out

-Know where you’re going

-Think twice about following the crowd (we heard from a friend that some guy was telling everyone stuck in traffic to abandon their vehicles and run cause they were all going to get burned.  That kind of thing inspires panic…something you don’t want to be caught in the middle of)

-Keep spare tires in the vehicles

-Handheld radios would come in handy (they were at home)

-The police lines are NOT effective at night

-God can turn any situation into something good (we needed clothing and food and dog food and gas money before the evacuation and we wouldn’t have gotten it if we hadn’t been evacuated)



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