Wildfire Evacuation: No Time to Think

The fire activity as I left property

Last Sunday was like most others. After a lazy breakfast of tea and toast, I was ticking off my property project list. In the late morning, I gathered equipment – loppers, bug dope, and two quarts of water for myself and the dogs – for trail clearing east of my home. It was pleasantly hot and breezy.

I call this trail the Lollipop Loop: It heads east, up a draw that’s thick with scrub oak, Aspen, Ponderosa Pine, and Douglas Fir. The draw rises steeply on each side, from 7,500 feet to over 8,000. After a quarter mile, it forks, heading southeast and northeast. Head southeast and you’ll find my loop trail climbing 500 feet and crossing a ridge before dropping down to pick up the northeast gully. The path is lollipop-shaped, fun, rough going, and takes only a season to become overgrown and in need of trail clearing yet again.

After two sweaty hours, I’d run out of water and energy and was working my way back home, picking up cut branches and tossing them off the path. As I crossed the pasture and got back into cell service range, my phone rang. It was my friend, Wayne, who yelled through the line, “Maddy, there’s a fire in the canyon!”

Helicopter with cabled water bucket

“What fire?”

Like a cartoon figure, I stopped, pivoted, and cast my eyes on an enormous column of smoke. It had been billowing just hundreds of yards from where I’d been clearing trail. Deep in the gully, with the fire above me on the ridge, I had been happily oblivious.

Now, I was charged. I called another friend, ran to the garage, dropped my gear, and engaged my plan.

Plans actually go against my nature. Self-employed and spontaneous, a run, a ride, a social detour, or one of many property projects often interrupt my schedule. In fact, I stopped calling things “interruptions” and “schedules” a long time ago.

But for this dire moment, here in wildfire country, during a drought, with the scars of the massive 2012 Weber fire just across the road, I had a plan and moved quickly:

Arrow indicates my property. Pink indicates recent fire acreage, about a half mile from home

I called the dogs and raced into the house. I moved to the spare bedroom, grabbed my folder of essential documents, and put them in a suitcase. I left the dogs in the house, grabbed a water bottle, and paused to compose myself and my To-Do list:

  • Hook up trailer
  • Grab two bales hay, dog food, and water
  • Add change of clothes to suitcase
  • Take phone, laptop, and chargers for phone and laptop
  • Breathe

Two friends arrived within minutes. My horses were haltered and loaded within a few more minutes. Dogs and suitcase loaded in a few more minutes. My phone started ringing and buzzing with texts and calls from friends and neighbors, who like me, received the rapid and repeated county emergency management text messages about the East Canyon fire and this area’s mandatory evacuation.

From Lollipop to Loaded in no time.

For years, I have reported on the need to be prepared. As a newspaper reporter, I covered wildfires and interviewed fire fighters and civilians. Never have I been an evacuee and had the logistical and adrenalin challenge that go with evacuation.

Another helicopter dumps water

This week, I learned the importance of:

  • A practiced plan. [Our community has advocated for preparedness and done mock evacuations. I hooked up my trailer and grabbed my essentials quickly and with no fuss. My horses loaded quickly and with no fuss.]
  • Connection with government and emergency personnel. [Texts messages and emails from the county emergency management agency were extremely valuable. Neighborhood communiques were fabulous, too.]
  • Network. [I live alone and could have managed alright. But my friends were Super Stars. They arrived immediately, managed all needy, niggly bits – from animals, to watering left behind garden, to grabbing additional socks and underwear. Other friends offered places to stay for me and my animals. Cold beer, burgers, and wiseass conversation – otherwise known soothing balms in times like these.]

The fire has grown from an initial lightning strike to 3,000 acres in a few days and has brought in VLATs (Very Large Air Tankers) dropping slurry, helicopters with water buckets, and engine companies from across the country. It is a Type 2 fire, which is an indication of its complexity (involving structures in challenging terrain) and its size.

My neighbors and I are grateful to the firefighters and to our collective fire mitigation work over the years (supported by folks like Wildfire Adapted Partnership and local fire officials). Both elements have meant that no lives or structures have been lost. Safety has been the steady focus.

Fingers crossed, I’ll get back to my trails, hikes, rides, wildlife watching, and the spontaneous joys in the backcountry sometime soon.

Read about East Canyon fire aftermath.

Read this piece on the Unsung Heroes of the Rural West.

Posted in ColoradoOutsider Women and tagged , , .

8 Comments

  1. Wow great article! I live on Central Coast of CA, we’ve already seen our share of fires this year (1 shut down the main Hywy 101 last week).

  2. Great article and I loved the link from 2017 to the volunteer firefighter piece. Great stuff. Glad you are safe and out of harms way for now!

  3. So happy you wrote about this allowing us to imagine the experience. Saves lives and property when prepared….great advice. I can only imagine what it felt like to go from Lollipop Loop to evacuate. Talk about managing the “fight and flight” response. So happy and grateful you are all safe and beyond grateful to the firefighters for their courage and strengths. I know I am breathing easier now.

  4. I have never been more relieved to see that you my friend and others are safe. Thank you for being prepared.

  5. Like you Maddy, planning for an improbability is against my nature, as is leaving my home to destruction without attempting any defense.

    Our little house has faced what seemed to be imminent destruction at least two times over the years; once fire came within 50 feet of our house! Many times fire has come as close as 1/4 mile. What I am saying is, I understand and the emotional and intellectual processes you have been, and are now experiencing.

    Last year I helped a good friend evacuate her home. A large 727 was dropping the orange retardant that was falling just 100 feet from her home as we were leaving with 8 dogs, four sheep, and a dozen foul. We collected all her heirlooms and important papers as well. They all stayed with us until the fire was extinguished – they were able to save her house.

    During each summer the possibility of fire is always in the back of our minds. We may not have a written and practiced evacuation plan, but we would be able to prioritize/execute evacuation at a moment’s notice. I have a large fireproof safe placed against two cement walls that holds heirlooms, that I hope will survive any fire.

    Stay safe my friend.

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