What it’s like to be a California wildfire evacuee

By Daisy Simmons | September 14, 2020

Caption: File photo, Pixabay, 2016.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published by Yale Climate Connections, an initiative of the Yale Center for Environmental Communication.

It felt like 100 degrees in my in-laws’ Grass Valley, California, kitchen, but at least the lights were on and for the moment we were safely “distanced” from the Jones Fire. We’d just finished dessert, after pizza and a movie—even though it was Monday in what was to have been the first week of school.

One dessert down, and yet another? “But it’s evacuation night!” my now second-grader said, the best case I’ve heard for bonus dessert (and then some). Obviously we relented.

Many of my conversations, as a mom living in California in 2020, seem to go this way now. Did we survive the disaster du jour? Yes. Great, now let’s console ourselves with chocolate, wine (but not too much, in case we have to evacuate again in the middle of the night), and staying up past everyone’s bedtime because no one can sleep anyway.

Ours is no isolated experience. As a former deputy director of Cal Fire had put it, our part of the state has been experiencing “a four-fer, with COVID, a heat wave, wildfires, and the threat of rolling power outages.”

Yes, as if a pandemic and distance learning and social turmoil weren’t enough, now we’re back to fire season. And this year, for the first time since I moved to California around 20 years ago, I’m learning what it’s like to be an evacuee.

My first evacuation after ‘high-low sirens wailing.’ The night before our evacuation, I woke at 2 a.m. to the nightmarish sound of dry lightning outside our Nevada City home. We’d been under a Red Flag Warning, so my mind was already on high alert for exactly this dangerous weather condition. Anxiously counting one-one-thousands between thunder and lightning, I felt a brief surge of relief when rain began to fall—only to stop a meaningless 60 seconds later. But after what felt like months, but was probably minutes, I could see there were no fires visible from my window and that the lightning had passed. I checked my phone for alerts, and, finding there were none, returned to bed and tried to coax myself back to sleep.

The next morning, Meshawn, my partner, calmly told me that a fire had indeed started locally that night, over by Jones Bar, a once-idyllic watering hole on our beloved Yuba River. It was less than ten miles down the country highway that runs adjacent to our home. But, she assured me, it was possible firefighters could get it under control. Then she left for work.

By midday, evacuation orders dotted the county’s new emergency dashboard, creeping closer to our downtown neighborhood.

The order hadn’t yet made it to our street, but when we heard the high-low sirens wailing down the highway behind us, alerting residents across the street that they need to evacuate, we figured that was close enough. It was time to go.

Five things I didn’t know before my first evacuation. We’ve had an evacuation plan in place for years. But this was the first time I’ve needed it. Here are a few things I learned that day and in the anxious ones that followed:

Leaving is stressful no matter when you do it or how much notice you have.

Every Californian knows, technically, that we should be ready to escape at a moment’s notice. But there are so many ways that can go—whether the sirens are blaring and it’s clear you have to leave immediately, or you’re in the fuzzier “evacuation watch” area close to but not immediately threatened by fire.

A daytime evacuation is preferable to night, mainly because you’re already awake—and there’s some daylight to make things at least more visible, depending on how thick the smoke is. But there are a host of other challenges with a daytime evacuation, too, like maybe some family are at work or school and you have to figure out reuniting with your people and pets. Plus, do you have your full evacuation kit and pets in the car when you go to work? Doubtful.

For us, a daytime decision to evacuate just made things confusing and frankly, stupid.

During the morning, back when it still seemed plausible that the fire could be dealt with quickly, one of my son Jude’s friends came over to do normal kid stuff like scooter around in the driveway. As the fire burned closer, the friend’s mom and I agreed it could be helpful to let them keep playing for as long as possible. Extra play time would soften the blow of whatever came next.

But once Meshawn had come home from work, early and in a torrent of let’s-get-out-of-here energy, our evacuation preparations shifted into high gear in a way that no child, no matter how distracted, could avoid feeling. The kids seemed to need to run faster, to be louder—not seeming distraught, exactly, but definitely unsettled.

What in the world is weather whiplash?

“What if my tree house burns down?” Jude asked suddenly. His friend laughed and they ran off, not waiting to hear my answer.

We already had the basic supplies ready to go but felt lucky enough to have extra time to run around and grab other stuff. Trying to imagine what else we could need in the coming days, weeks, lifetimes, in a haze, we grabbed random old pictures, completely impractical clothing, and all the camping gear we own (just in case!), throwing everything haphazardly into boxes and bags and suitcases we then smushed into the trunk of the car. In our haste, a one-of-its-kind framed picture of my grandmother was shattered.

Even so we left plenty behind. I had pangs of guilt for not bringing the silver and china my great-grandparents had brought across the country in a horse-drawn wagon, and all the other relatives since have kept safe. We also neglected to bring comfortable pajamas, couldn’t find Jude’s old artwork in time, and brought only two toothbrushes for our three-person family.

Leaving is only step one.

In addition to pure grab-and-go considerations, there’s also the question of where you will go. Our plan included a few scenarios, which were meant to be based on which direction the winds were blowing and of course, where the fire actually was. They were based also on who we could find with space for us amid COVID considerations, and on who didn’t mind our pets coming along, too.

But in the moment, it was really hard to decide which one to roll out. Should we go to our dear friends’ home, hours away in Berkeley, or to my in-laws, who live in the next town over? We knew distant would be safer, but it would also be a comfort to stay with family.

Nowhere will be as comfortable as home, so deal with it.

The moment you close the door (unlocked and with the foyer lights on, so firefighters can see and access your home through the smoke), you may imagine that when you are there next, only rubble will remain. Fortunately, adrenaline will help you get from Point A (your precious, vulnerable home) to Point B (some other place not your home).

The place you go to may have no air conditioning, and there may be a historic heat wave. In our case, rolling blackouts were announced, filling us with dread that even the precious fans would stop running. The outages were meant to last only two hours, so we could hope at least the food might make it, so long as the fridge was left mostly unopened during that time.

If you go somewhere somewhat local, as we did, you may also have to go to bed knowing that if high winds hit, you’ll just have to wake up in the middle of the night and move along again. I don’t think any of us slept well that night, wondering whose phone might first get the Code Red alert to evacuate.

If you try to go farther, to someone’s home or a campground or RV park hundreds of miles away, you may be deterred by the map showing fires all across the state, or the hazardous smoke levels that would have no trouble infiltrating your tent.

If you go to an evacuation “point” (not a “center,” because of COVID, at least in our town), you don’t stay there as you might in the old days. You get a voucher for a hotel somewhere outside the evacuation zone. This seems like a pretty good deal, compared with the usual side-by-side beds in a large auditorium or gymnasium. But it still isn’t home, and can be uncomfortable if you have to stay there for a while and have pets or a large family.

After all, when you’re in evacuation limbo, there can be a lot of extra time to stress.

Waiting for your fire to end can run you ragged, even if you are safe.

You may make it through the night, and the next night, and the next, as the fire rages down the street from your home and neighborhood. If, miraculously, the winds don’t rise up, you may be able to return home.

But even if you’re OK, as we were, you’ll probably have other troubles. For us, these included the reality that the return to school, already a grim shadow of its normal self, was being pushed back indefinitely.

You may then, like us, learn the fires are spreading, and worsening, across the rest of the state, including in places you’ve lived and loved. You may feel helpless, or experience survivor’s guilt. You may have explosive arguments with your partner over nothing and feel hopeless, especially if you hear on the radio that there may not be enough firefighting resources to address the statewide devastation, let alone effectively address new fire sparks. I did. You may have to be reminded too, as did I, that you could all use a little extra grace right now.

Does ‘net zero’ mean zero cows?

And it may be only the beginning of fire season, as this was for us.

After the fact there is room in your heart for both gratitude and trauma.

Once you’ve made it safely to the other side of a fire, you may feel overwhelmingly happy just to be alive, as I did. Ideally, you’ll experience the great gift we did of being able to return to an intact home.

But being grateful for your own survival doesn’t mean there won’t be other feelings. We’re human. Living through a fire can be a trauma. So can returning home. It was a relief to walk through our front door once the danger had passed. But it also felt too soon to put things back into order. Do we just leave the heirlooms in the cars until Thanksgiving?

There’s also the issue of living with lingering smoke for days and weeks after a fire. In addition to physical health risks, it can be downright depressing to have to stay inside (even more than you already had to for COVID), and to see ashes blanket your porch and garden. You might also be surrounded by fire retardant, a persistent reminder of your ordeal that coats everything in a sickly red.

Finally, I’m no psychologist, but realizing the threat of fire was at your doorstep, and is getting closer and more ominous each year, seems like an obvious recipe for chronic anxiety—even if your evacuation went according to plan.

Finally, I’m no psychologist, but realizing the threat of fire was at your doorstep, and is getting closer and more ominous each year, seems like an obvious recipe for chronic anxiety – even if your evacuation went according to plan.

My family was extremely lucky in so many ways through this most recent local fire. Beyond the sheer gift of making it through with our lives and our home, our evacuation experience was also less harrowing than those of many others. These are gifts I don’t take for granted.

But what parents want their child to grow up in a place with such ongoing potential for disaster? We can’t control when or where the next fire will strike, any better than we can control the direction or ferocity of the winds.

What we can do. So far, this year’s fire season is off to a hellacious start: As of August 24, more than 7,000 fires have scorched about 1.4 million acres across the Golden State.

For context, last year by this time only 42 fires had ignited, burning a relatively scant 56,000 acres.

As our governor Tweeted, “If you don’t believe in climate change, come to California.”

But there is at least some reason for hope.

For one, forests like those in Santa Cruz’s iconic Big Basin can regrow.

“The forest is not gone,” Laura McLendon, conservation director for an environmental group dedicated to the protection of redwoods and their habitats. McLendon told the Associated Press, “It will regrow. Every old growth redwood I’ve ever seen, in Big Basin and other parks, has fire scars on them. They’ve been through multiple fires, possibly worse than this.”

We’re going to have to take a cue from those ancient trees and learn how to adapt to the increasing threat of fire. We already know some ways to do it. For example, in our backyards, we can clear defensible space. And we can help protect our families by making sure we’re ready to go at a moment’s notice, complete with pre-packed go-bags and COVID-adjusted evacuation plans. We can also work harder to learn from indigenous leaders how we might help restore balance in the relationship between forest and fire.

What’s more, we can work to reduce global emissions now, to help keep future climate change impacts like this from getting even worse. California has always been a place for dreamers. But many of us are facing the rude awakening that fire season is getting longer and more extreme, and that more evacuations are inevitable across the state.

As I write this, news is breaking of a new fire, this time about 25 miles away. I scan the story long enough to know there’s no immediate action needed on my part. A too-familiar song thrums through my head: “Are we out of the woods yet are we out of the woods yet are we out of the woods yet—no.”

Jude waves me over to his laptop, which we picked up from school after the evacuation order there was lifted. He needs help unmuting himself for the video meeting with his class. I listen as he shares his About Me paper. In the blank space after Favorite Place, he has written Home, beside a picture of ours.

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David Polewka
David Polewka
3 years ago

The “four-fer, COVID/heat wave/wildfires/power outages” are a problem only because we failed to enact Zero Population Growth 50 years ago! From Wall St. Journal, Sept 11: Why are so many communities in danger? About 11 million Californians, roughly a fourth of the state’s population, live in what foresters call the “wildland-urban interface,” close to highly vegetated areas that easily burn, according to a 2018 report by researchers at M.I.T. Those communities are by far the most vulnerable to damage from wildfires. Some people have moved there because the soaring cost of real estate in large coastal cities, driven by regulations… Read more »

yellow pages
1 year ago

Good post! We will be linking to this particularly great post on our site. Keep up the great writing