Five years ago, my cousin, Kathryn found herself loading up her car and her family under evacuation orders because of a local wildfire. We thought she’d be a perfect fit as a guest blogger for our preparedness series this year. So here it is, what you want-and need!-to know to be ready for an emergency evacuation.
In September 2010, on a Sunday afternoon, a wildfire above our community in Herriman, UT forced an evacuation of the neighborhood just west of us. Thinking of my son’s friend who lives there, we watched clouds of smoke stretch across the west end of our town, reaching out over the Salt Lake Valley. The wind direction had kept our neighborhood out of danger, but knowing our friends were evacuating, we gathered our children and used it as an opportunity to discuss “What if…”
I picked up a scratch paper and a kids’ green Crayola marker to write down items as the family brainstormed. What would we take if we were the ones evacuating? Important documents, kids’ favorite blankets, photos, 72-hour emergency kit, wallet…The fire hit close enough to home to make an impression on our kids, and to make the effort real. But because we were not making a list in a panic, we had time to discuss it.
Seeing the fire and smoke on the mountain spreading, we thought it wise to take our “what if “exercise with the kids a step farther.
“Okay, guys…let’s see how long it takes us to find and gather the items on our list.”
Fast forward a few minutes…A neighbor knocked on our door, informing us that the wind had changed and our street was under evacuation orders. As we loaded our “practice drill” items into the vehicles we could see the fast moving orange flames spread quickly down the hill two blocks from our front door. It was a tender mercy that we had already been gathering items on our list. We had time to load them up and make it to safety. Compared with the families west of us, who only had a few moments to grab and go, we felt very fortunate.
So here’s what we learned…
1. Make a list (well in advance of an emergency) of items to take in an evacuation and keep it handy. In an emergency you waste critical time trying to think, and you don’t think well under pressure. In this scenario, you are likely to forget something…like the computer’s external hard drive (ask me how I know…) Rank the items in order of importance in case you have limited time/space.
2. Keep the car gas tank half full. A simple practice, but when you need it, you need it! Also keep spare car keys in your emergency kit.
3. Remember comfort items for kids and adults: a favorite blanket, toiletries, a good book, paper and pencil… Ideally most of these are already in your emergency kit, and you can just grab the favorite blanket on the way out.
4. Keep handy those items you rely on in the first few hours of an evacuation. In the piles of items we stuffed into our vehicles, my teenage daughter could not find her bedtime supplies like pajamas. They were in there, just jumbled too deep to find before she fell asleep stressed and exhausted. She still remembers that. For younger kids, the favorite blankets were our saving grace. For me it would be the cell phone and charging cord. Keep ‘em handy.
5. Official evacuation instructions were sent to our neighborhood through reverse 911 calls to landlines. We don’t have a traditional land line, so we didn’t get a call. We had to rely on our neighbors for specific instructions. (This is when neighborhood block captains come in handy.) Now I am registered with our city’s emergency social media plan that sends urgent notifications via text messages right to my cell phone. Find out your community emergency communication plan and sign up now.
6. If you have time, close windows and turn off air conditioning. Wildfires happen in hot months, so it’s likely your home is going to have air flowing inside. There was more smoke damage than fire damage in our neighborhood, and it entered homes through open windows and A/C units. Nothing like coming home to a smoky house and having to wash bedding, walls, and have carpets cleaned.
7. Keep important documents in a binder ready to grab. (Passports, birth certificates, insurance papers, will, etc.) Our packing list, still written in green marker, is now on the cover of our emergency binder.
8. You might not have time or space to take your whole computer. External hard drives are small and easy to carry. It’s not the computer that’s important. It’s the data and photos. Having said that, digitize photos, mementos and important documents. Consider keeping a backup copy on a hard drive at another location, like a relative’s home or at the office.
9. Store original journals, old scrapbooks, etc. together in a waterproof container (Rubbermaid type with a tight lid) ready to grab if you have the space to take it.
10. Keep a spare cell phone / ipad charging cord in your vehicle and in your 72-hour emergency kit.
My daughter again experienced an evacuation last year during the wildfires in Southern California where she was serving as a missionary. She was calmer that time, having been through the process once before. She added, “Have a plan to keep yourself busy, and pack your overnight stuff somewhere where you can find it.”