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SEVEN DAYS DISPLACED—HOW TO SURVIVE A WILDFIRE EVACUATION


During the early morning hours of August 16, 2020, thousands of bolts of lightning lit up the skies throughout Northern and Central California. Hundreds of fires ignited as a result. Several of these fires in the San Mateo and Santa Cruz Mountains combined to create an inferno that threatened these coastal and mountain communities. It was called the CZU Complex Fire. It was finally contained 38 days later, on September 22, 2020.


Three adults, 1 child (age 10) and 4 cats. One evacuation spanning 7 days. This is our story of being prepared, staying calm and getting out of a wildfire zone with only what we could carry in our vehicles.


We are a family of 4—myself; my daughter, Janet; my granddaughter, Carlie and my daughter’s boyfriend, Jay. At the beginning of the pandemic, we combined households to facilitate caring for my granddaughter while her mom worked as an essential worker outside the home. We had lived in separate homes in Santa Cruz, and in March we made our new home in the Santa Cruz Mountains, in Scotts Valley on a dead-end street on the top of a ridge. At the time we moved up here, we marveled at the abundance of trees standing shoulder to shoulder up and down the street and the sweeping vistas of trees and meadows.


Sunday August 16, 2020 3:00 am: We awaken in the middle of the night to hundreds of lightning strikes. The air is alive with the crashing of thunder and lightning bolts near and far. It’s dry lightning, so the first glimmer of concern enters my mind. I recall previous summers with dry lightning events, but any fires they may have brought were quickly extinguished. The power goes out, but we’re not concerned. We hunker down in our beds and enjoy the coziness of chaos outside our door as we go back to sleep. 8:00 am: Morning dawns and the power is restored. It’s hot and dry and by mid-day will hit 108 degrees. Our little house is surrounded by a dense canopy of redwoods, pines and maples, keeping it nice and cool as we while away the day, just as we’ve whiled away every day since the pandemic—reading, watching tv, doing household chores, playing with the cats. Throughout the day we hear of fires on the coast and west of us throughout the mountains. Our ridge is safe and the nearest fires are over 7 miles away as the crow flies. I am confident that any fires will be extinguished quickly. 5:00 pm: The lights go out. PG&E is conducting rolling blackouts because of the heatwave. They say we should expect our power to be out for 1-2 hours at some point every day for the next week. My granddaughter gathers all the candles, matches and flashlights. We are not paying any attention to the news because we have no battery-operated radio and we’re limiting our smart phone usage. Because of the hot dry weather, we are staying inside, and the windows are shut with the curtains drawn to keep out the heat. Without outside communications, we don’t yet know that there is smoke in the air outside our door. We don’t know that there is an inferno in the mountains over Boulder Creek and stretching to the sea. We don’t know that the fire is creeping into those communities, towards us. But we are over 7 miles away, remember? As the crow flies. And also, as the ash and burning embers fly. Monday August 17, 2020 9:00 am: It will be in the mid-80’s today. The sky is hazy and thick with the sickly yellow of smoke. I can taste it in the air. It is metallic and bitter and sometimes curiously sweet. It is the taste of hundred-year-old redwoods, and fifty-year-old homes and forests and animals. I place an order for groceries to be delivered. We love having an excuse to get out of the house every 2 weeks for grocery shopping, but it’s too hot to go to the grocery store. I have asthma, and the billowing smoke is too big of a risk to go outside.


There is a light coating of ash on our outside furniture and cars. We marvel at how far it traveled, but are still not worried for ourselves, even as we hear Boulder Creek is being warned to evacuate. My mind turns to my many friends in Boulder Creek. Are they ok? Facebook confirms that they are as they check in to report fleeing the fires or getting ready to evacuate. I discuss with my daughter the idea of housing some of those friends. We’ve got a small place, and another couple of people won’t hurt—but that damn virus—it’s easy to forget in a time like this. The friends at risk, seem to have plans for shelter, and so for now, they are ok. But are we? My daughter is concerned. I look out at the sky, the sun is setting bright red. Smoke filters in every time the door is opened. My chest is tight with the exertion of breathing smoke I can barely smell anymore.

 

Can The Inferno Reach Us?

The 2018 Camp Fire destroyed 95% of the town of Paradise within the first six hours. Paradise is 18 square miles. Scotts Valley is less than 5 square miles.


Tuesday August 18, 2020: 6:30 am: It’s warm out. It will get to be 90 degrees this afternoon. Cooler than Sunday, but still, not good for people or fires. A quick check on Facebook and local news sources hints that Scotts Valley may be at risk. While Scotts Valley is a small town, we live in the farthest most eastern neighborhood from the fire. In the hills. We are surrounded by golden meadows, redwoods and pines. The meadows are too golden, I realize. The canopy of trees surrounding our house touches our neighbor’s canopy of trees. One spark and we’re done for. My daughter is concerned, “can it get this far?” I think back on the Oakland Hills fire and the Paradise fire. I remember the folks who got out with barely the clothes on their backs asked the same question. “I don’t know.” I like to know things, and it’s a hard thing to admit, but I just don’t know. I am fortunate. I have a friend who volunteers for the Campbell Emergency Response Team, (CERT). I have been reading their website and following their Facebook page for almost a year. CERT is about all things preparedness; from family preparedness to community preparedness. From earthquakes to First Aid, to wildfires. Since the pandemic, I have been following their advice on gathering food and supplies to prepare for most emergencies. When we moved into our home in March, we brought enough smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors for every area of the house that would need them. We had a plastic storage box of candles, waterproof matches, flashlights and batteries. We had canned food and a growing supply of bottled water We conducted family fire drills and had a family evacuation plan. We had a month’s supply of cat food and cat carriers for each cat. We even assigned one person per cat—that person will be responsible for gathering their assigned cat and putting it in a carrier in the event of an emergency. There was a lot left to do, but we were making a start. How much would we regret not doing? 7:00 pm: It’s still hot. Ash swirls like snowflakes and if it wasn’t so dang hot, one might mistake it for an early and rare snowfall. I step outside and can’t breathe. I know the fire is burning out there somewhere. We are so new to the neighborhood that I don’t even know what our neighborhood sub-division is called. I don’t know the names of the streets or how close one area is to the next. We have been so conscientious about Covid-19, and have followed all the mandated directives, that we haven’t even explored our new town. We live at the top of a hill on a dead-end street. There is one way out of our neighborhood that I know of. There are 100 homes between us and the bottom of the hill. There is one street midway down the hill that T-bones into our street, but I have no idea where it goes. It appears to be little more than a driveway. I probably should look it up, but I don’t. It’s difficult to breathe and I take a couple of puffs off my asthma rescue inhaler. I’m grateful I always have several around. I check Google to try to pinpoint where the fire is in relation to us and find that there is a dotted red-lined area to the west of us. It’s labeled CZU Lightning Complex Fire. I have no idea if the dotted red-line is fire or evacuation borders and can’t find anything online that gives a definitive answer. If it’s fire, we’re in trouble, the red line is already encroaching upon Boulder Creek. I am obsessed with finding out just where this fire is and what the expectations are for where it will go. 8:30 pm: Janet knocks on my bedroom door and opens it before I invite her in. “The next-door neighbor just came over and says he got a mandatory evacuation order on his phone. We have to leave now!” Jay joins us within seconds and says he just got a notification on his phone that it was a false alarm, though he didn’t get the initial evacuation order notification himself. “What do we do?” they ask in unison. “I don’t know,” will become my standard answer for many different subjects for several days, as it turns out.


My CERT friend calls back. He reports that there are evacuations in several neighborhoods, but because he is from the neighboring county, he’s no more familiar with the names than I am. I really should have been more aware of my surroundings, and am feeling that pang of regret. A quick look at the map confirms the evacuations are in and around Boulder Creek. I consult Facebook and find folks talking about getting false alarms. Looks like we can relax a little. As it turns out, not really. We now can’t stop thinking about how my daughter and I received no alerts and her boyfriend only got the false-alarm confirmation and the neighbor only got the evacuation notification. I couldn’t remember which emergency notification system I normally had on my phone, but add Nixle. My daughter and her boyfriend download a different service. Among the three of us, we feel one of us will get a real alert if one is issued. None of us will sleep this night. We will rest fitfully between checking our phones for alerts we fear we won’t hear, and checking maps and reports online. We still are not sure where that fire is. Or, where it will be in the morning

 

The Calm Before The Firestorm

An evacuation warning means there is a credible threat to life and property. An evacuation order is a lawful order to leave the area immediately due to imminent danger to life.


Wednesday August 19, 2020 8:30 am: It’s the first day of 5th grade for my granddaughter. She logs into the computer looking sleepier than usual, but then again, I haven’t seen her at that hour since school let out for the summer. I am less concerned with her at that moment than I am with the sky. The wind shifted and is blowing the smoke just beyond my sightlines. The sky is blue above the trees, and that’s about all I can see. Trees and blue skies. Yet I know, lurking out there somewhere, is that fire. It may not be any closer than it was the night before, but the false alarm triggered a warning in my brain that while it may not be closer, it’s still much too close. I feel curiously betrayed by the blue sky as well. I know it is lying to me from this vantage point, and those trees— are they shielding a fire that will spring out faster than we can run? My logical brain reminds me, the fire is now about 5 miles away, but 5 miles is far, right? We are not in immediate danger, right? Adrenaline will mess with your brain—it demands you fight or flee, and little else. It does not allow for high-level rational thinking. I convince my daughter to stay home from work. In the event we have to evacuate, we need her car and Jay’s truck. According to news reports, the fire is over 35,000 acres now and growing rapidly. The weather is on the side of the inferno, not us—hot and dry. It’s a certainty we’re going to have to evacuate, we just don’t know when. On top of that, there are more rumors of another dry lighting event coming up that weekend. Surely, we won’t be so lucky a second time around. Time to prepare in earnest. With no evacuation warning issued, we had a little more time. It seems officials give you the warning before the mandatory order. We had no idea how much time was between the warning and the order or how much time was between the order and imminent danger. We should have been more concerned about how much fire was between the orders and imminent danger. I have a file somewhere on my laptop, titled Fire Evacuation, but with my adrenaline-addled brain, I can’t find it. I call my Campbell CERT friend. He reminds me that I should prioritize getting people and pets out. Then I should think about what we need for 3 to 7 days. Do we have a place to stay? What about our pets, can they stay with us or do we have a friend who can watch them? I didn’t have answers to all his questions, but knowing I have a friend who could help in a pinch is comforting. He assures me that if we didn’t have a warning now, we should simply prepare for when or if we did. He promises to look up information about the fire while I supervise the family packing up. I finally find my Fire Evacuation file, but it isn’t complete, and it isn’t very helpful. That is my fault. I had procrastinated. Most of our belongings are in a storage facility on the western edge of town—family photos, mementos, books, etc., and that’s where the fire is headed at the moment. We have few options other than clothing and whatever treasures we brought with us to the new house. Janet and Jay are calm and methodical. They are following the family evacuation guidelines—gathering go-bags, cat food, litter boxes, litter and carriers.


My granddaughter packs photos of family, her mom’s teddy bear, and little trinkets that only a 10-year old would find value in. I remind her about clothing and shoes.

With the somewhat limited space we have in my daughter’s compact car and her boyfriend’s short bed truck, we have to be mindful of what our needs will be in the event we can’t find a place to stay indoors. We each take one backpack. In that backpack, we will carry our medications, extra prescription eyeglasses, Jay’s CPAP machine, passports, health insurance cards, and other important documents we needed‚ also, a change of clothing and $20 in small bills that I had stashed in a can for just such emergencies. I slipped several disposable face masks and 2 cloth masks in ziptop bags and gave a bag to each person to put in the front pocket of their backpack.


My daughter writes up several cards that identify my granddaughter including name, address and all our phone numbers and the contact info for an out-of-state aunt who we had texted earlier to relay our plans. Carlie will keep a card in her back pocket, one in her backpack and one in the glove compartment. In the event we have to leave the vehicles and hike out, we need to make sure she can be reunited with the family if we are separated. If forced to hike out, our backpacks with necessities and the cats would be the only possessions we could carry. We fill a 5th backpack with treasured items—family photos, special knickknacks, etc. We only had enough space for one backpack of treasures, and each of us packs something special. My Campbell CERT friend calls to tell me that Campbell CERT has just posted a blog titled, When You Only Have 20 Minutes to Evacuate. He feels it will be helpful. It is. It gives me good advice for other items to pack. I pull out 3 canvas grocery carts with wheels. These will be useful if we have to travel a long way by foot to the fairgrounds or another area that is harboring evacuees.


The first cart is the ‘bathroom’ cart. I fill it with 4 bath towels, several washcloths, shampoo, soap and hygiene supplies. I also flatten out 4 rolls of toilet paper and package them in a large zip lock bag along with a box of 1-gallon zip-lock bags and a roll of kitchen trash bags. We can make an emergency toilet, if needed, with these supplies. I also pack a roll of paper towels, wet wipes, hand sanitizer and our small First-Aid kit. Our First-Aid kit is full of allergy medication, aspirin and band-aids—appropriate for only boo-boos and owies. I regret not being more fully stocked, but it will have to do. The second cart I pack with canned food and bottled water. I include a manual can opener, paper plates, plastic cups and utensils. As I finish up the second cart, Jay informs me that he can take the cats to his family’s home in Watsonville. They have a dog but will keep the cats safely in the garage. This solves a big problem for us and so I set aside the cat carriers, litter pans, litter, and food so he can pack his truck separately.


In the third cart, I pack a couple of light-weight blankets and a pillow. Though we were still in a heatwave, having something to lay on the ground to sleep on might come in handy. We also bring two small electric fans. With the heatwave and smoke, we will not be able to open windows to cool off if we land in a house or motel, and we can’t count on air conditioning no matter where we land. At the last minute, I think to bring a small air purifier and an extra filter. Janet finally finds a friend who owns a small bedroom unit Airbnb in Aptos. There is one problem—we may only have 1 or 2 nights there because it has been promised to another friend in the event they have to evacuate. Not ideal, but we can live with that for now. The room is attached to the main house with a separate entrance. It has its own bathroom and a small refrigerator and a microwave. It has a full-size bed and that is about it. As much as I didn’t want the family to split up, we decide that Janet, Carlie and I will take the Airbnb room and Jay will sleep on the couch at his parent’s house with the cats. With that decision, we pull out a roll-up twin-size 2” memory foam mattress, so I can sleep on the floor and the girls can take the bed. Lastly, we pack our laptops, hard drives, mobile devices, chargers and a surge protector strip. I also pack pens and a couple of blank notebooks. That is it. This will be all we have until something changes. Everything left behind, both in the house and in the storage unit across town will have to be considered lost to the fire or to looters—whichever gets there first. At that moment, looking around at family pictures, my granddaughter’s toys and beloved stuffies, furniture, our books, all the new stuff we had purchased for our home—we will have to just say goodbye. No tears. No fanfare. At the moment, we know that anything else we add to the evacuation pile means something essential has to be taken out.


By evening we are packed and running on nervous energy. The cars were filled with gas earlier in the afternoon. We keep up-to-date on the CalFire Twitter site and the Scotts Valley Police Facebook page. We talk to neighbors in the street and exchange information and plans. We are still checking our phone notifications, worried we’ll miss an important message. We take showers and stuff our socks into our closed-toed shoes and boots. Car keys are left in the middle of the kitchen counter for easy locating. Ashes are swirling outside. The neighbors fear burning embers will travel the several miles from the fire area and land on the trees and rooftops. We take their lead in hosing down the house and property. Who knows if it will help.


That night we go to bed with the lights on in the living room and battery-operated candles in the hall to light the way in the event the power goes out and we have to evacuate in the dark. We make sure there is a clear path from each bedroom to the front door and talk through our family evacuation plan once more. All our prior evacuation drills now seem lacking—they didn’t have the urgency of a real-life disaster, and so there are several things I wish I had the foresight to plan. It is better than nothing. 11:00 pm—My bedroom smells of smoke, even though the windows have been closed for several days. I assume it’s seeping in from the living room, but it’s troubling because my room is at the end of a long hall and the farthest room from the front door. It might also be seeping in from minute cracks and crannies around the window. I don’t know, and it’s alarming.

 

One Way Out

During the 2018 Camp Fire, thousands of Paradise residents heeded the evacuation orders and attempted to flee their homes by automobile. Many encountered gridlock as vehicles ran out of gas or broke down and blocked the only exit roads. Many more abandoned their vehicles and fled on foot. Some had nowhere to go. Seven people died in their cars as the flames engulfed the roads.


Thursday August 20, 2020 Midnight—My asthma is getting worse. I use a rescue inhaler and can breathe easier. I can’t sleep. I cycle through Twitter, Facebook, CalFire sites, and Google, searching for information. It is rumored that at a 6:00 am CalFire press conference that Scotts Valley will be under a formal evacuation warning, if not a mandatory evacuation order. I check my phone every 10 minutes for notifications. 1:00 am: I feel like a canary in a coal mine. I am struggling with asthma. Despite the rescue inhaler an hour before, I still feel that heaviness in my lungs. I don’t smell smoke—my nose has become accustomed to it, but I know it has to be there because I can taste it. I take another hit off my rescue inhaler and try to sleep, but I’m too hyped up on adrenaline. 4:00 am: I’m still awake. I hear Janet and Jay talking in the other room. They can’t sleep, their room is too smoky. Janet wants to pack up the vehicles and leave. Jay feels like we should stay as long as we can before it’s mandatory. My daughter points out that we live at the top of the hill, at the end of a mile-long one-lane dead-end street. If we wait for the mandatory order, we will have to deal with 100 other families leaving at the same time—how long will it take to get down the mountain? What if we’re in imminent danger? This is something we hadn’t planned—an agreed-upon ‘go’ time. Do we leave before we even receive a warning, with the idea we may never need to evacuate, or do we err on the side of caution? Without a confirmed imminent danger warning, it is hard to consider the best course of action. We decide to pack up the vehicles and leave at 6:00, when it gets lighter outside.


5:00 am: A fine layer of ash flakes covers our windowsills inside the house. The windows and doors have been shut, and yet it still gets in. We begin packing our vehicles. Two of our cat carriers are not closing properly. We tie the door closed on one, and make a jerry-rigged cat carrier out of a large plastic storage container with holes drilled in the top and bungee-corded for security. The cats are yowling loudly, but safe and secure. Outside the smoke is thick, ash is falling and we can’t see much farther than past our driveway. All the cars are gray with ash. The proximity of smoke and ash suggests the fire is closer than ever, but a look at the latest fire maps show it is still many miles away. It’s dark orange outside as we pack and we see lights in our neighbors’ windows. They’re likely packing up as well. It’s eerily quiet as we load the vehicles. We are calm and patient, as if we’ve done this a thousand times before, yet it’s only the first time for any of us. There’s an urgency as we finish the loading—we all know this may be the last time we see our house. Anything left behind is potentially gone forever. Jay fills pots and mixing bowls with water and leftover cat kibble—in the event any neighbor’s pets are left on that mountain, they may have a fighting chance. We don’t know if it will be one day, one month, or for that matter ever, before we can return. Janet gets behind the wheel and leads the way down the hill. For the first time we notice all the cars—one or two in each driveway and many more lining the street; 5th wheels and RVs and boats — all the vehicles people may want to bring off that hill when the mandatory evacuation is in place. On that narrow street, it could be pandemonium. We hit the freeway towards Santa Cruz and almost immediately breathe in fresh air. We hadn’t realized how smoky it was up on the mountain and how invigorating fresh air could feel. We take the Aptos exit. Jay and the cats continue towards Watsonville.

6:25 am— Aptos. It’s foggy as we step out of the car. Too early to move everything in, so we grab our backpacks and the rolled-up foam mattress. The Airbnb unit is small—maybe 15’ x 15’ with a bathroom and a small area for a mini-fridge and a microwave. A small desk in the corner will be my office. There is no tv or radio, but we have laptops. We couldn’t be happier at our good fortune. We have a home for today and maybe tomorrow. We are safe and we will finally sleep for a few hours without smoke or fear.


7:00 pm—I make my way down to the nearby bluffs overlooking the beach. Normally I would be able to see Santa Cruz in the distance. While there are blue skies above me, there is a noxious brown haze over all of Santa Cruz and the mountains in the distance. Home is somewhere over there I think, and then I correct myself. Home is here. Where I stand at this moment. It will be ok.


Friday August 21, 2020:Scotts Valley gets official mandatory evacuation orders. That makes it more real. Armed looters are reported in Bonny Doon and around some of the other evacuated sites. I feel sick at the thought. When it was just fire, I could wrap my head around the thought of losing my belongings and home; but looters—preying on the vulnerable, witness to the aftermath of our hastily opened drawers and items strewn aside as we dug for what was most necessary, felt like a violation. Fortunately, Scotts Valley Police vow to block off the entrances to the town and patrol our streets. This is a big comfort. I will gladly give the shirt off my back; I just don’t want it ripped from my back.


Carlie’s school announces it will close for 10 days. Many of the teachers are also evacuating. Some have lost their homes.


Throughout the Bay Area, fires are raging. People in San Jose are being evacuated from the area near the Lick Observatory on Mt. Hamilton. My friends in Carmel Valley, to the south, have been evacuated. Hotels, campsites, and Airbnbs are inundated with requests for lodging and no rooms available. Most of my friends in safe areas of Santa Cruz are housing other displaced friends. The Santa Cruz Fairgrounds has set up an evacuation center with tents and cots. My asthma is better in Aptos, but still bad from the smoke. Wearing a mask has become torture, and I fear it will be worse under the social distancing and masking rules of the Fairgrounds if we have to move. We need a Plan B. We decide in the event we have to leave our little room, we will travel 3 hours south towards San Luis Obispo, where the air is clearer and we might have a better chance at finding lodging.

 

Mistakes Made, Lessons Learned

People who are prepared for disasters are more likely to survive disasters.

Saturday August 22, 2020 10:00 am: We get the phone call we’ve been waiting for. Our hosts say we can stay here for as long as necessary. We are grateful for kind people. For the next several days we will follow a schedule of sorts. At 6:00 am every morning I will watch the Calfire updates streaming online. We are still 0 percent contained and more acreage is added to the tally every day. From our vantage point, there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight. I will log onto my computer at 9:00 am and work my regular job. At 6:00 pm I will watch the latest Calfire updates and as the percentage of containment starts going up, I will begin to hope. The fire seems to have been blocked from breaching Highway 9 into Felton. If they can hold that line, they will save Felton and other small communities, and thus save Scotts Valley. Reports start coming in of homes that have been lost. I am heartbroken as friends share photos of their neighborhoods, pulled from the social media pages of firefighters and news photographers, with red or yellow “X’s” to show where their homes used to stand. The fire doesn’t play fair—a 3-bedroom cabin destroyed with a brick chimney the only evidence it ever existed and 20 feet away a dilapidated old redwood barn still standing, with a patch of green grass in front. We are so lucky. It is only Saturday, we’ve been ‘displaced’ for a little over 48 hours, and yet, it seems already that we left behind our entire life before Thursday morning. We are in limbo—neither here, nor there. We are not ‘home’, nor are we ‘homeless’, we are just in this moment. There is no thought of what we will do tomorrow or next week. At work, I have deadlines and upcoming projects to look forward to. Here, in this little room, I am hesitant to make any plans because I don’t know what the next day will bring. Wednesday August 26, 2020: There is more smoke than usual to the point I wonder if there is a fire nearby. For the first time since arriving in Aptos, we can taste the smoke in the air. There is a rumor that CalFire is doing controlled burns in the mountains. We have been searching for cat carriers all week to replace the broken ones. Every department store and pet store in Santa Cruz County is cleaned out. As a matter of fact, the stores are cleaned out of a lot of items, like bedding, tents, backpacks, bottled water and fans. I suggest we drive over to Gilroy to see if we have better luck finding cat carriers. At the Target and Walmart in Gilroy, they are cleaned out as well, but PetSmart has a half dozen. I grab two. The lady at the cash register is surprised they still have some—they also have been sold out all week. I feel better with the new carriers—if we have to move again, the cats will be safe.

Thursday August 27, 2020 6:00 am: CalFire’s morning update. The fire is now 21% contained and the fire lines are still holding tight saving Felton. Calfire seems to be gaining 3 or 4% of containment each day. I wonder if now that it’s over 20% if the Scotts Valley evacuation will be lifted. Noon:A bulletin is posted on Twitter that there will be a press conference at 3:00 pm to discuss re-populating some portions of Scotts Valley. The wait until 3:00 pm is maddeningly slow. We won’t even begin packing up until we know for sure, so we don’t jinx it.

3:00 pm:The press conference starts on time, but first the sheriff reports on the apprehension of a looter who stole a wallet from a firefighter. It’s hard to be patient. 3:12 pm:Scotts Valley can go home right now! That’s all we hear and we begin packing and hauling stuff out to the car. The rollie carts are handy in our rush. By the time we have packed and cleaned up, it’s 4:45 pm. We know our house has been spared by the fire. We know the fire stayed about 5 miles away, but there is still fear mixed with anticipation. Have looters snuck past the police barricades? Will they be squatting in our home? 5:10 pm: We get off Highway 17, at our exit. A police car is stationed just beyond with a police officer waving and a sign welcoming Scotts Valley home. We wave back. Yes. Home. We drive through town. Two hours after the opening, there are still very few cars on the street. At the bottom of our hill, I take a big breath. It’s very smoky still and the long drive to the top reveals few cars and no boats or RVs in the driveways or on the street. My initial concern about all of the vehicles being evacuated was right. I do the mental math—100 homes multiplied by 2 or 3 vehicles trying to escape at the same time on our narrow road— sounds like it could have been a nightmare. Hopefully, it wasn’t a problem for anyone. As we pull into the driveway, our house looks exactly the same. The hibiscus still blooms bright orange flowers and my collection of potted red impatiens look a little limp from lack of water during the proceeding heatwave. Nothing a long drink can’t fix. In front of the garage stands the pots and bowls of water and kibble. The water is diminished by half. The kibble bowl is ¾ quarters gone. I couldn’t be happier that we had helped a critter or two during this difficult time. Our house is just as we left it. I close the open drawers, the sad reminder of our flight, and hug my daughter and granddaughter. We are home

Summary

While we had done many things right with our preparedness, there were many more things we should have done. When we left, I assumed anything we may need would be readily available in the stores. I was wrong. With tens of thousands of people evacuated in our small county, the need to replace everyday items like blankets and shoes and food, took a toll on our department and grocery stores. Evacuation centers put out pleas for food, water, clothing and camping items and generous folks bought up those items to donate, leaving the shelves bare. While we rightfully could have sought out needed items at the evacuation centers, we did not feel our need was as dire as that of others who stood to lose everything. Now that we are home, I will be much more diligent about preparedness:

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