Text and photographs by Shauna Potocky and Kirk Keeler.
On Monday, August 18, 2014 all the meetings, planning, and preparation paid off. Just days before, on Friday, August 15, 2014, I posted an article entitled Surrounded by Fire, which explores fire ecology in the Sierra Nevada, fire-related issues facing California foothill communities and ways to build resilient communities in the face of ecological challenges.
This is an immediate update to that article. An update that I hope inspires you to prepare now for whatever evacuation you might need to be ready for, whether that be for a fire, earthquake, snowstorm, hurricane, or flood–you pick, based on your bioregion.
I arrived home from working in the field on Monday afternoon, August 18. It was another hot, dry summer day on the western slope of the Sierra and I was finishing emails and computer work when I began to hear sirens. The emergency response sounded significant, as if building to a crescendo, so I turned on the police scanner, a free application I had downloaded onto my smart phone. The response was for a fast moving fire that had begun in the town of Oakhurst, California, located in the Sierra Nevada foothills. The fire was located on the other side of town and a significant distance from where I live, yet it was close enough to pay attention to, considering the current fire conditions in California.
I do not recall how long it took before I could see smoke from my desk. What I do know is that it did not take long. The air filled with the smell of fire and I went outside to look at how close it might be. I could see a mix of black, brown and white plumes to the west. Listening to the scanner, it was evident the fire was building, air tankers were being called in and a full-scale response was in action. The fire was making a fast and furious run through town.
The incident, known as the Junction fire, was exhibiting aggressive fire behavior. The fire itself was burning extremely hot with large flame lengths rising above the burning trees and brush as well as spotting (sending embers) well in front of the fire. With the extreme drought conditions, the vegetation acted as a fully receptive fuel, which enabled the fire to move quickly uphill—essentially the fire was racing through town. It moved through neighborhoods, business areas and the edge of foothill wood and grasslands, all of which are located adjacent to Highway 41. Then, as a shock to many, the fire jumped a wide section of highway, making a run down a drainage and coming up the other side. It crossed where businesses and homes are located, and some of these were lost.
This is when the planning paid off.
Evacuation calls and email messages via the reverse 911 service were popping up on my email as well as my personal and work phones.
If your area has a reverse 911 system and you need to sign up for emergency alerts—do it TODAY. Do it now, don’t wait, just do it now. Having this system in place can make a significant difference in your being prepared for, and responding to, an emergency.
If your community does not have a reverse 911 system, call your local law enforcement, fire agency and local representatives and tell them that you want one.
The dark calico smoke was building, the hum and buzz of spotter planes could be heard circling and the daylight began to take on an ominous orange hue. With this began a series of calls between neighbors—our community group communication plan was now in action. Everyone was checking in with each other and making sure people had places to go, that we knew where people were going and assisting neighbors that needed help.
This is a testament to knowing your neighbors. It takes a team to handle some of the big things life throws at us and we cannot always manage alone. Get to know your neighbors now; you will know whom you can team up with. Share your contact information, build a sense of community, make a plan in case of emergencies and help each other.
You may also find that in an emergency, you suddenly have to be flexible, adaptable or a solution finder. This happened to us. The fire, which was now located south of us, was coming towards our neighborhood. The major highway was closed below our neighborhood, essentially cutting off the route to the designated emergency shelters. Thus, evacuating to the shelters was not feasible. We had to figure out another plan.
A small number of neighbors designated a meeting location north of our neighborhood and secured temporary overnight accommodations with our pets and belongings in tow. For as stressful as an event like this can be, we were calm, organized and adaptable, which made all the difference.
During the entire incident, the neighborhood community group that I referred to in Surrounded by Fire stayed in contact. We were checking in and sharing information, discussing what people knew from their vantage point, as well as debating what information was credible and what was rumor. It is true, that when an incident is occurring and lots of information is circulating, some of it may or may not be accurate. For example, what time evacuation orders might be lifted, how the fire started or what families or business may have been directly effected. Sometimes, the information just needs time to be vetted by the proper agencies. The most important part, though, was that we were communicating and we knew we had each other to count on.
Once the evacuation orders were lifted, our group followed up on our communication plan. We shared information, made updates and added resources to our toolbox. Of course we swapped stories and added many more neighbors to the community group. We had people asking to be included and offering to be an active part of being prepared, as a neighborhood. This perhaps is the greatest sign of success for such a collective effort.
Resources that make all the difference:
- Reverse 911: this service is critical for alerting residents that there is an emergency and how to respond to it. At our annual neighborhood meeting, a special focus was put on making sure neighbors had signed up for this service. Neighbors, who needed assistance signing up, received that support.
- Our larger community has two established Facebook pages for incidents, where literally thousands of people can stay up to date on important information. If your community faces seasonal or ongoing threats, a Facebook group page can be a powerful tool to communicate critical information to a significant number of people, quickly. Where I live, this is the go-to tool during incidents.
- In addition, there are free police scanners both for the Internet and for smart phones. When an incident is occurring, this is an important way to monitor information AND I can guarantee, it will build your respect for the hard work Emergency Services personnel provide.
- Be sure to become familiar with the emergency services in your area. Be aware of your law enforcement, fire, and other agencies, and check to see if they have Facebook pages or other information hubs where they post incident updates. It is great when you can get the information you need directly from the source.
- Finally and most importantly—BE PREPARED. I cannot stress this enough—you will be better off and relieved when the pressure is on and everything you need is ready to grab and go. You need to have a plan and be ready to follow it. Be prepared and be ready to go because when it does happen, it happens really fast! It can feel chaotic and you won’t have time to dally and think about what to grab.
- Take time to think it through and put your grab-and-go items together. Do you have children, pets or are you a caregiver? Think about what you need to get through at least 1 – 2 days away from home, along with your must have items. Prepare them.
Over the course of the week following the Junction fire, I heard heartbreaking stories from people who did not have a chance to grab what they needed or wanted. People left with only the clothes on their backs or never had the chance to grab their house paperwork or that special photo. In these cases, one is left with no choice but to wait and see—and that is the hardest part.
We all face challenges where we live. Here in the foothill communities and throughout the Sierra Nevada, fire is a part of the ecosystem and our lives. Wildfire is a reality we constantly face.
You may live in a remarkable place with a completely different paradigm of ecological factors and challenges; perhaps it is hurricanes on the East coast or in the Gulf, perhaps it is blizzards and ice storms in the Northern latitudes or earthquakes, such as along the Pacific Rim.
Regardless of the hazard, being prepared will make facing such challenges easier. The better prepared you are, the better you will feel when you actually have to use your emergency plan or if you are evacuated and find that you have everything or nearly everything, you need.