"Don't Panic" Lessons Learned During a Wildfire Evacuation

September 10th, 2020

This Fire Year 2020 has been a challenging one. As I’m writing this from my home in Reno, I’m looking out my window. I used to have a nice view of Peavine Peak, but today it’s hidden under a blanket of dense smoke from the Loyalton Fire. So far this year, thousands of Nevadans have experienced evacuations due to wildfire, including my friend Sam, who I work with at University of Nevada, Reno Extension. Sam was kind enough to answer some questions about his experience evacuating his home during the Poeville Fire. I hope that his story will help readers understand what to expect if they are asked to evacuate and provide some resources and inspiration to help people prepare for evacuation due to wildfire.

Smoke on the Mountain

In the late afternoon on June 27, 2020, Sam and his dog Olive were at his home in the Horizon Hills subdivision, about 12 miles north of Reno, when he realized that there was a fire rapidly burning toward his neighborhood. “I was in the house with the windows closed, but suddenly I noticed the smell of smoke,” he recalls. That smoke was from the Poeville fire which would eventually burn about 3,000 acres and destroy eight structures, including one home.

Soon after he smelled smoke, Sam was asked evacuate his home. “Just as I was getting up to find out where the smoke was coming from, a sheriff’s deputy knocked on my door. He told me that at that point there was a voluntary evacuation in progress.”

The deputy asked Sam whether or not he was going to evacuate — he said that we would. Then the deputy used flagging tape to mark Sam’s mailbox indicating that he was planning to evacuate — a standard practice that helps agencies quickly identify which homes have already been evacuated so that they can quickly and efficiently carry out evacuation orders.

Sam and many of his neighbors made good use of the early warning from the Sheriff’s department and chose to evacuate early. He described what was happening in his neighborhood while he prepared to evacuate. “Once outside I could see the smoke in the air. It was thick enough that I could not see the hill three blocks away. Everyone on my street was busy loading up, but no one was panicking. I got a nod or a wave from my nearest neighbors which meant to me that they knew what was going on and were okay.”

This is Not a Drill

Sam keeps an emergency Go-Bag in his front closet, “But all I keep in it are a utility knife, my smoke handkerchiefs and a spare leash for my dog Olive.” When it came time to evacuate, he realized that if he and Olive were going to be away from their home for some time then they would need a few more things, so he grabbed his Go-Bag and started packing.

“I grabbed the bag and loaded in my spare keys and glasses, some granola bars and dog treats and a couple of bottles of water. I took a laundry basket and threw some clean clothes, a jacket and a blanket. I grabbed another [basket] and threw in the bag of dog food, bowls and dog toys. Then I grabbed a few “valuables” like my favorite pen and the watch my dad gave me, and the portable drive with my computer backup on it and my box of program disks.”

Sam loaded up his car and did some last-minute things around his home before he evacuated. “I loaded the laundry baskets in my trunk and the Go-Bag in my front seat. Olive loaded herself — anything for a ride in the car.” He made sure to place a step ladder against the house, which is helpful for firefighters if they need to get on the roof and he also changed into jeans and a long sleeve cotton shirt to protect himself just in case he came close to fire.

He said that it took about twenty minutes to evacuate his home and, in that time, the fire had grown and become more dangerous. By then, officials were urging residents in Sam’s neighborhood to evacuate. Mitchell recalls checking in with a neighbor as he was leaving, “It wasn’t until I was up the road a short way that I stopped and texted a neighbor to see her plans. She had just got the mandatory evacuation notice and she and her roommate were headed to relatives. I let her know what I was planning.”

Sam decided to head to the dog park and let Olive run around while he figured out what to do next. “That helped Olive to run off some energy and calm down. That is about the time that friends in town started texting. I was lucky to have a few offers of where to stay in case the evacuation lasted the night — it did.”

Lessons Learned

Thankfully, the evacuation order of the Horizon Hills neighborhood only lasted one day and Sam returned home to find that there was no damage to his property. Although it sounds like Sam’s evacuation went pretty smoothly, I asked him about any challenges he experienced while preparing for evacuation. “I had to make a couple of decisions. I decided not to try and unplug my computer and lug it with me. I had no way of moving my old SUV, so I had to leave it,” he said. Sam had an emergency Go-Bag, but it wasn’t fully packed. “I was glad I had at least some things packed, but I now have a Go-Bag that is ready.”

I asked if he learned anything new that could help him prepare for future emergencies like evacuations due to wildfire.

“I learned a couple of things from the experience. First, don’t panic. It does no good and could make things worse. Two, get ready to wait. Find a good spot to park or stay because it will be a while. If you have kids grab something for them to do. Even having a deck of cards or a coloring book in the Go-Bag might help. And three, although I wouldn’t want to lose my house, it’s all just “stuff”. Life is more important. My dog is more important. I wouldn’t want to die while trying to save my riding mower.”

This experience has also made Sam interested in taking more steps to prepare his home for wildfire, like creating defensible space. “One of the things I noticed as I was getting ready to go was how there was a lot of fire fuel around my house. Lumber, evergreen bushes, a propane tank. Someone told me about having a fire-safe margin around your house. I need to find out more about that.”

The “someone” Sam’s talking about is probably me, or one of my colleagues at Living With Fire. We really are passionate about helping people live more safely with the threat of wildfire — even our office-mates! Sam’s referring to what we call the “Noncombustible Zone” which is an important element of creating defensible space and improving the likelihood of your home surviving a wildfire. It’s the area that extends about 5 feet from the base of your home. Keeping this area free of combustible material reduces the risk of ignition from flying embers that can travel far ahead of a wildfire.

Creating a Noncombustible Zone around your home is one of the many things that we recommend to help people mitigate the risk of wildfire and to create resilient and fire adapted communities. To learn more, check out the resources listed below.

Thanks again to Sam for sharing his story. To learn more about defensible space and packing an evacuation Go-Bag be sure to check out these upcoming Zoom workshops:

 

Resources

At the Living With Fire Program, we provide recommendations and resources to help people live more safely with the threat of wildfire through preparedness. Check out some of our publications below:

Also, join us every Tuesday in September from 11:30 a.m. - 12:30 p.m. for our free Zoom workshop series, "5 Ways to Prepare Your Family & Property for Wildfire." Check out our calendar for information.

 

headshot of Megan
Megan Kay is the Outreach Coordinator for the Living With Fire Program. She served as a wildland firefighter for five seasons in Carson City, Virginia City and Incline Village before earning her Bachelor of Arts studying fine arts and graphic design. She’s passionate about serving her community. While working as the Associate for the Nevada Arts Council’s Touring Exhibition Program she traveled all over the state of Nevada installing art, getting to know Nevadan’s in every county and building lasting relationships. When she’s not busy helping Nevadan’s learn how to minimize the threat of wildfire in their communities, she’s probably at home with her husband and daughter or playing music and crafting with her friends. Contact Megan at [email protected]

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