Each evening when the wind picks up, I get nervous. It’s fire season after all, and on this side of the mountains, conditions always seem ripe for a blaze. A broken-down car, a tossed cigarette, a lightning strike. And then the summer wind carries it. Pretty quickly it threatens homes and causes evacuations, gathering in heat and size as it roars along.
Such as what happened the evening of June 28, 2015.
I won’t forget the date because we were a week in our new home, in the throes of unpacking and settling. It was afternoon when we heard news of a fire in Sunnyslope. My 2 ½ year old son and I were in the back room, the coolest room in the house. Out the window we saw smoke in the distance but didn’t think much of it, even as it grew thicker. The fire will be out before it reaches town. We had an early dinner and put our son to bed.
About 9PM my husband, a Sergeant Wenatchee Police Department, got called into work. They were doing evacuations on the north end of town, he told me, and also setting up roadblocks. Ok, I thought, this is getting more serious. I watched him change into his uniform and head out. Be safe, I said. I had another thought, one that would stay with me until the next day when we were given the all-clear, one that I whispered to my body constantly: don’t go into labor right now.
I was pregnant with our second child, which had prompted the move into the new house. My due date was about a week away. I mainly spent the evening pacing the house. I’d like to tell you that I was mentally preparing for an evacuation, but most of the time I spent panicking and feeling useless. If we have to leave, where can we go? Many of our friends are also being evacuated. We could do to mymother-in-law’s, except she’s in East Wenatchee and I don’t know if I’ll be able to get over there with all the smoke and traffic and mess. I can’t believe this is happening. Don’t go into labor right now.
I didn’t want to have to call the police station to get a message out to my husband that I was in labor; I didn’t want to be huffing and puffing in a town with poor air quality; I especially didn’t want my newborn, should it be a quick labor, breathing in the air of a burnt town. I didn’t know how long this fire incident would last.
Friends texted to check on me. It’s getting bad, they said. They are evacuating everyone west of Western. Get ready to go. At the time our Internet hadn’t yet been hooked up, and I didn’t own a Smartphone – I was a late convert – which turned out to be just as well. The anxiety and uselessness lifted long enough for me to make a plan: pack an overnight bag, load the car, coax our cat Luna into her pet carrier (luckily, because of the recent move, her carrier was still easily accessible), load my son, and try and head across the river to my mother-in-law’s. I busied myself with those tasks, resolving to wake up my boy at the absolute last moment I had to.
I was loading the car and putting important documents into our safe, hearing helicopters overhead, when my husband’s colleague came with my official evacuation notice: Level 3, go now. Fire’s just over the hill. It was midnight. I woke my son and told him we were going to a sleepover at Grandma’s house. Clutching his green stuffed monkey, he was surprisingly calm. I gathered him and the cat and dog in the car and we drove off to join the meld of traffic crossing the bridge. I hid my tears from my son. By now it had gotten smoky. Really smoky. Gray walls surrounded us as we pulled along the road. Sirens and flashing lights tore through the smoke often.
A half hour later my son curled up against me and fell back asleep easily at my mother-in-law’s, and I tried to get the sleep I needed. As I took stock of the night, the anxiety returned. Is my husband ok? Would our new house be ok?Please don’t go into labor.
My husband came in a couple hours later to catch a few winks before going back to work. The fire had been contained. There weren’t any new evacuations, but there were road blocks to be maintained and traffic to be re-routed. Our neighborhood had been downgraded to a Level 2. He hadn’t had a chance to check on our house, he said, as he went off to work again. My mother-in-law was at work. My son and I had a quiet breakfast, and all I could think about was our community and the environmental impact of this. I thought about those who had lost their homes (I knew at least 20 homes had been destroyed). After eating we drove around aimlessly, my feelings of panic and uselessness returning. I drove until my son fell asleep in the backseat, then parked in front of Caffe Mela (which was closed, as were most businesses in town, but I was after their Wi-fi).
Balancing my laptop on the center console, I posted on Facebook that we were ok. I also read about the fire and saw images from last night: they showed the entire town and the surrounding foothills engulfed in flames. Immediately my post garnered comments: glad you’re ok, tell me more, keep us posted. A well-meaning friend, responding to the part in my post about being worried for my house, told me that I shouldn’t worry, that as long as my family was ok, that’s all that mattered. Deep down I knew she was right, of course, but my pregnant mind just wanted our new home to still be there. The day dragged on in a haze of traffic, smoke, and tears.
In the end, even though the foothills across the street were charred, our neighborhood was spared. My husband and I returned home that evening. We were gone only one night, but it seemed like weeks. I felt relief and gratitude and an immense sadness for what happened to my town. One of the scariest parts of being home was looking through our front window and seeing on the horizon that plume of black smoke – ammonia from the burned recycling center on the north end.
We welcomed our daughter three days after that. For weeks after, I kept hearing helicopters constantly, a sound that always put me on edge. It still does. I’d like to tell you that that night wasn’t any big deal, that I’m easygoing enough to let it roll off me. But it did take me four years to write about it.
Things to know about wildfires:
- When police and fire come to your door with an evacuation notice:
Level 1: There is a fire activity in your area. Be vigilant.
Level 2: It’s recommended that you leave your home.
Level 3: Go now. They cannot protect your home against fire activity.
- Note that no one can force you to leave your home. But if you choose to stay, you are on your own, and you will not receive another evacuation notice.
- Consider packing a “bug out” or “go” bag with essentials you and your family would need for three nights (longer if you live in a more rural area). Include comforting stuffed animals or dolls. Keep in mind that young children who are toilet trained may revert back in times of stress. Be prepared.
- Consider having a vault or other safe place to store important documents, such as birth certificates, social security cards, etc. Or take them with you.
- Don’t forget the pets! Have carriers accessible, as well as pet food in a place where you can grab it and go.
- When you return after an evacuation, air quality in your home will most likely be poor. Besides health, this can also very much affect mood. Invest in a quality air filter and consider diffusing essential oils (pine and eucalyptus open up the lungs. I’ve also heard lemon is good).
I know I’m forgetting more tips….comment below to add yours!
Photo credit: Don Seabrook/The Wenatchee World. A firefighter battles the Sleepy Hollow Fire June 28, 2015.