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.

Choking in Smoke as The West Burns

IMG_20170905_184257376_HDR[1]As I get ready for church choir practice, it seems unusually dark for 6:30 p.m. I leave the porch light on for the first time this summer. The reason for the darkness becomes clear when I turn west toward Highway 101. “Oh my God!” At the post office, I stop the car and fumble for my cell phone to take a picture.

The sun hanging over the ocean is red-orange, discolored by the smoke from the wildfires burning in Oregon and throughout the western United States. Unlike the eclipse two weeks ago, I don’t need special glasses to watch it because the light is muted, not bright enough to hurt my eyes.

My photos don’t do it justice. I turn north toward Newport, frequently glancing left at this sun so like a harvest moon but redder and on the wrong side of the road. When I look again in the church parking lot, the sun, still an hour from sunset, is nearly hidden in smoke.

When we come out, it’s dark. I see neither sun nor moon. There are no stars. There is only smoke.

Unlike the eclipse, this sky show does not bring me joy.

We are over a hundred miles from the closest fire yet the smoke has turned everything gray since Saturday. In brief moments when the sun breaks through, it tints everything a strange orange color. My nose keeps running. I miss my blue summer skies.

But this is just the smallest taste of it. Inland, where the fires are closer and the temperature has been in the 90s and 100s, ash rains like snow. The smoke is so thick it’s not safe to breathe. Like heavy fogs, it covers everything but without the cool refreshment of fog. And the fires, my God. Judging by the photos, all of Oregon is burning. And not just Oregon. Fires rage in California, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado. See the map here. The fires are so big the only hope of putting them out anytime soon is a monster rainstorm to rival the one that flooded Texas and neighboring states with Hurricane Harvey.

Not long ago, my brother Mike’s home was threatened by such a fire burning around his home near Yosemite. His family was ordered to evacuate. They stayed with my niece in Merced, but Mike kept returning to his mountaintop home to check on its status and protect it from looters. At the same time, Mariposa, the town where he works as a superior court judge, sat in the fire’s path, evacuated but for a few people helping to care for the firefighters. The historic courthouse could have gone up in flames. In the end, his home and his town were spared, but the blaze, labeled the Detwiler fire, destroyed 63 homes and burned more than 81,000 acres. The miles of blackened landscape come within 200 yards of Mike’s property, a constant reminder of what could have happened. They’ll never forget the fear or the taste of smoke in their mouths. But fire season isn’t over. Another fire is burning today near Yosemite.

The biggest fire in Oregon right now is in the Columbia River Gorge. It is burning on the Pacific Crest Trail, around Multnomah Falls, and even across the river in Washington. It was started by kids playing with fireworks, a stupid, horrible thing. A cigarette reportedly sparked the Mariposa fire. Lightning started many of the other fires. Some say the fires are a natural process, designed to clear out the forests and start fresh. People and their buildings don’t fit into that equation. Nor do people help when they ignore firefighters’ pleas not to burn ANYTHING.

It has been a crazy year. After four years of drought, California experienced epic rains. So did Oregon. Day after day after day. Then came weeks of extraordinary heat. The result: wild growth of grasses, shrubs, and trees that make perfect fuel for fires. Now we’re burning.

Out my window, it’s as gray as any winter morning, but the grayness is smoke, not moisture. I like sunshine. I like to sit out in the sun, to bathe in its warmth. I dread winter. But today I’m praying hard for rain to put out the fires and clean the air, to give us back our sun and moon and to help all those people losing everything to the flames. If you are in the path of the fires, floods or hurricanes, you are in my prayers.

What is it like where you are? Are you or your loved ones in danger? How are you coping?