Evacuate Now? What Would You Take?

Disaster piles on disaster. Pandemic, riots, hurricanes, fires. Stay home, we have been told for the last six months. Wear your mask. Avoid crowds. Except for quick runs to the grocery store and the doctor’s office, we have been “sheltering in place.” We miss our friends and family, we miss going out, we ache to travel, but we’re okay

Last week our shelter was threatened. Wildfires, fueled by lightning, low humidity, and temperatures over 100 degrees, raged all over the West, right where COVID has been having a field day. California, Oregon and Washington get fires every year, but not right here on the coast. Until this year.

We woke up on Tuesday, Sept. 8 to orange sky, hot wind, and the taste of ash on our tongues. The sun was bright red, and it was dark in the middle of the day. The light reminded us of the 2017 solar eclipse, except it didn’t go back to normal. A freak hot windstorm caused fires not only inland but up and down the coast, the worst just north of Lincoln City, 25 miles up the road from here. The winds had knocked down trees and power lines, adding to the trouble. Our cell phones didn’t work, we had no Internet access, and the TV offered nothing but “snow.” Here in South Beach, we had electricity, but the lights were flickering.

As the day went on, the fire up north spread into Lincoln City, population 7,000. Everyone from SW 12th Street north was ordered to evacuate. That includes thousands of homes, the outlet stores, Lakeview Senior Living, and the hospital.

The evacuees were bused to Newport, four miles north of me, because we were still okay.

But we were nervous. On a Facebook video interview, an older man sheltering at the rec center told a frightening story. His dog woke him in the wee hours. He opened the door and saw flames 20 feet away. His car wouldn’t start. He and the dog fled on foot through the forest in the dark, stumbling over logs and debris, somehow finding their way to Highway 18, where they were picked up by firefighters and taken to a shelter. “I have nothing,” he said. “I don’t even have my wallet or my phone. But I’m alive.”

Dear God. A friend whose home a little south was not in danger, packed her bags just in case. Other friends had already been told to leave, not knowing what will be left of their homes when they return. I didn’t pack, but I started making a list.

I looked around my house. What would I take? I love everything in this house. So many memories, so much work. While sheltering here, I have been fixing it up. Just last week, I painted the shed out back. I was about to paint my deck. I planned to renovate the laundry room.

I can gather medicines, toiletries, clothes, my guitar, laptop, and a few binders of music and writing. That’s no different from packing for a trip. I can pack the dog’s things in the car. She’d be overjoyed to be going for a ride. But what about my pictures, Fred’s shot glass collection, my antique glass, the Bibles and prayer books passed down over 100 years, the writing stored on my desktop computer, the binders and notebooks, a lifetime of work? What about my clothes, shoes, hats—so many hats? Could I leave my houseplants, some of them with me for more than 40 years? My piano? Dear God. There’s a history in every item.

I know. It’s just stuff. I have insurance. I can replace things—the things that are just things. But the things that are not just things cannot be replaced. When you’re alone like me, sometimes I feel like all I have is this house and what’s in it. My house is safe this time, but my heart breaks for all of those people who have lost everything to the fires. We can try to put a positive spin on it. At least they’re alive. They can rebuild. It’s a fresh start. But it will never be the same.

On Thursday, the weather turned cooler and wetter, making it easier to control the flames around Lincoln City. The air here is still smoky, but it’s less orange now, mixed with ordinary fog. In other parts of Oregon, the fires continue to grow. Small towns have been wiped out. Thousands of people can’t go home. What did they take with them? What will they miss the most? What will they wish they had taken? Will they ever feel okay again?

And what about COVID-19? Suddenly people have been forced out of their houses, people who have diligently avoided seeing even their own children. Now they’ve been thrown together in shelters with people who may have been quarantining, who may have been ill. Will cases of COVID spike in the next few weeks?

Black soot clings to the spider webs on the side of my house. White ash covers my deck and hot tub. The neighbors and I make jokes about Armageddon, but we are not laughing. Our properties are surrounded by trees and brush. We know how easily everything can burn and that we are not immune.

Friends from far away message me on Facebook. They have been watching the news. Are you all right? I’m okay, I tell them. Sick of the smoke, but I’m okay.

But not as okay as when I thought trouble couldn’t reach me.

Please pray for everyone dealing with the fires. Pray for a hard Oregon rain to put the fires out and wash away the smoke. Let the rain reach all the way into California and everywhere else that’s burning. Help wherever you can.

I welcome your thoughts and fire stories in the comments.