Why You Need an Evacuation Plan When Wildfire Threatens Your Home

Dec 07, 2022
view of hillside billowing with smoke caused by a wildfire


You’re never as prepared as you think you are.

About ten minutes after coming into the house, the phone rang. I recognized the name on the caller ID as a friend of my husband’s.

A little surprised he would be calling in the afternoon, I was prepared to tell him he was in luck. Todd, my husband, arrived home two hours earlier than usual.

But Todd’s friend didn’t call to chitchat with him. Instead, he called to let me know a wildfire started near our home.

“No way,” I said. “I was just outside and didn’t see or smell smoke.”

As I spoke, I walked to the door and peered out across the meadows and dried out vegetation toward our neighbor’s house.

Sure enough, smoke plumes were rising up from the hill behind their home, a little over a mile away.

First signs of fire. Photo by author

I immediately called our neighbors. There was no answer. Since the smoke was becoming more noticeable, I assumed they were aware. But I wanted to be sure.

Todd was surprised when I told him about the fire. Just an hour before, he drove the gravel road right past where the fire was burning. There was no sign of a wildfire then.

My husband wasted no time in getting down to the neighbor’s, making sure they were aware of the danger, and offering his assistance in protecting their home..

The fire was not burning on their property but with the help of the wind, it was quickly heading their direction. And that meant it was traveling our way as well.

The last two weeks of summer heat had severely dried out the lush vegetation of our unusually late spring. With the abundant fuel, high-temperature weather, and warm breeze, it wouldn’t take long for this wildfire to become out of control.

News of the fire was spreading through the community. I was fielding phone calls from concerned friends and neighbors when I heard a knock on the door.

It was the county sheriff letting me know we were on Level 2 Evacuation notice. Less than an hour and a half from the time we first became aware of the smoke and flames, we needed to think about an escape route.

Evacuate Order Level 2

The officer must have read the confusion in my face. He calmly suggested I start gathering up things I felt necessary to have in the event we move to Level 3 which means total evacuation.

Okay, I got this, I thought to myself.

My husband and I have talked about it several times, verbally sharing our list of personal items and important documents we would want to save pending a fire, flood, or another such disaster.

We weren't as worried about protecting our home as we were about having an escape route for ourselves and our animals.

I headed upstairs to throw some clothes into suitcases. Then I remembered the suitcases were in the office. While I was in the office, I thought about all the important papers I should gather together.

As I dug through the file cabinet, my dogs began wagging their tails and staring up at me, sensing something strange was going on. Shoot, I need to pack up dog food, leashes, and collars.

I also need to make sure the dogs stay close, especially my little Skeetie who is deaf. If she ran down to the corrals or into the meadow, it would be difficult and time-consuming to retrieve her.

Into the living room I went to close up the doggy door. I looked out the window to check on the progress of the fire, again. It was moving towards our house, less than a mile away now, even though it was on the other side of the county road.

I saw the horses down near the corrals. Should I go lock them in so they don’t start running around in panic? Maybe I should go hook the horse trailer to the pickup and be ready to move the horses to a safer location.

No, wait. I needed to finish gathering up those important documents. And I couldn’t forget to include my school computer, my personal computer and my husband’s laptop in my round-up of things to take. Aren’t they essential since they are necessary for work?

I literally stopped in the middle of the living room. My brain was struggling to focus on one thing at a time. I was going back and forth from one room to another, preoccupied with the progress of the fire and the safety of those working on it.

An hour and a half had passed since the sheriff’s visit and I had yet to finish gathering up anything. I wasn’t nearly as prepared as I thought I would be.

Preparedness requires an evacuation plan 

When the sheriff came to my door to notify me of the Level 2 evacuation orders, I had no idea where to start even though I knew what items should be saved.

After all, Todd and I talked about it many times. The problem was we discussed it in a casual, off-handed manner. Even though we had a general "escape route." we never really got down to the details of an evacuation plan.

This is what would have been helpful to me:

  • A checklist. Some basic written down, so-I-don’t-have-to-think-about-it-too-much list which would allow me to grab and go if the situation called for it.
  • An exit plan. So I had some idea of where I would go. Sometimes you don’t have the luxury of planning, I know. But having a general idea is better than running randomly. Personally, it helps me feel more grounded.
  • Exit plan for the animals, including food, water, shelter, and transportation. I made sure I was aware of where my animals were and kept them in a place that would be easy for me to get them. But they still needed their “basics.”
  • Easy access to important papers. I should have had all those papers together. Instead, I spent over an hour looking for them in different files, cabinets, and even storage bins.
  • A list of contact numbers and addresses of family, friends, and business associates.

Storing and accessing important papers.

Important documents include titles to property and vehicles, homeowner’s and vehicle insurance, banking information, birth certificates, marriage certificates, home loan/deed/property description paperwork.

But as I pulled out the various files, my list of important papers grew bigger and bigger.

For instance, my husband owns his own business. I needed the paperwork related to that. What about my retirement information, our medical/health information, and our tax records.

The list was growing and the box I was putting the files in was getting heavy. I knew I needed to come up with a better system for important paperwork. The system should be accessible by both my husband and myself, and eventually to our children.

Here are some ideas I came up with. My goal is to choose one and get it done by the end of the year.

  • Scan and store copies of legal documents onto a disk that is kept in a safe place.
  • Or store the information in the cloud. (Which honestly still makes me a little nervous.)
  • Keep additional hard copies in a fireproof safe or bank lockbox (if they still have those available).

Getting the fire and a plan under control.

By early evening, planes and helicopters were dropping water on the fire. Fire crews were on the ground with picks and shovels.

Our neighbor used his bulldozer to build a fireline around the lower perimeter of the fire to keep it from advancing onto their property.

The hard work of the firefighters and the readiness of our neighbors saved our home, I’m sure. During the process, it also gave me time to prepare for the possibility of evacuating my home.

What if I didn’t have that time? Would I have spent less time debating on what to take and just grabbed what I could? What papers, pictures, medications, and personal items would I regret not having later?

It was obvious I wasn’t nearly as prepared as I thought I was. The informal discussions with my husband about what to save didn’t make sense in the reality of it all. 

What I needed was a well thought out plan in writing. A “read and do” reminder so I wouldn’t have to ponder over what to take in the middle of a crisis when my emotions were high.

My mind was divided over fear for my neighbors and the firefighters. Worry over the loss of our home, livestock, and equipment.

And the perplexing task of deciding what was necessary to keep and what could just burn. Suddenly everything was important and yet it wasn’t at all.

Fire under control. Photo by author

Our neighbors and friends were great. Calling with offers of help. It’s what we do here.

But what I needed the most was to think clearly and make logical decisions. It’s hard to do that when you are in the middle of a crisis.

An evacuation plan reduces stress.

Disaster can arrive, unexpected and uninvited to any home or family. The potential is there. But we shouldn’t live in constant fear and worry. There’s enough of that out there already.

Just talking about what you would do won’t help though. Not when the potential becomes a reality.

Having some kind of documented plan helps keep a rational perspective when your thoughts and feelings get locked into the moment. It's called preparedness.

Because when that kind of disaster comes, when you are in the thick of it, safety and survival are all you can think about.

A SPECIAL THANKS — — A huge thank you to all the trained and volunteer firefighters out there. You people are amazing!

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