I’ve written several times on this blog about emergency preparedness, and the importance of being ready to evacuate if necessary. I wanted to offer up useful information to all those poor unfortunate souls who might need to leave their homes at an inopportune time with their animals in tow. Other people. Poor sots. Not me, of course.
Until a week ago, when at 3:44 a.m. on Sunday October 27, the Nixle alert notified me that my number had come up. That number was 8, as in evacuation zone 8, which was now under mandatory evacuation due to the Kincade fire that had been raging for days several miles to the northeast. The fire was nowhere near my neighborhood. The evacuation was due to an anticipated “wind event” that could cause the fire to jump US Hwy 101, and if it did that, there was pretty much nothing besides fire fuel between the freeway and the Pacific Ocean, a corridor about 30-40 miles wide. And my home is in that corridor.
Our neighborhood had been under “evacuation warning” since late the previous afternoon, so there was time to prepare. My neighbor Laura and I had gone over the plan for getting the horses out—her 3 and my 2. But the fire was so far away that we weren’t even getting smoke from it, and there was no wind at all. In fact, it was a beautiful night. That was a good thing, because it made the whole evacuation process a lot easier. PG&E had cut off the power at 8:00 p.m. the night before, so that did complicate things, since the whole evacuation was done by flashlight and lantern.
Things I had done right: The trailer was hitched up and pointed out the driveway. There was plenty of fuel in the tank. I had checked the tires and also checked out the trailer—lights, hooked up properly, etc. My horses load easily. Thanks to Laura and our fab friend Margi, we had a good place to go with the horses.
What I could have done better: I really didn’t think we would have to go, so while I had made a list of what to take, and made sure everything was lined up by the door, I hadn’t actually put much in the truck. So I was scrambling around at 4 a.m. loading hay, feed, water and feed tubs, and my own stuff and the cats’ stuff as well. I didn’t want to just have to unload it when they canceled the alert. The joke was on me, and I really scurried and hoped I didn’t forget anything. Words of advice: If you are under an evacuation alert, pack up everything. If you just have to unpack it later, count your blessings.
I pulled out with 2 horses behind me and 2 unhappy cats in the cab of the truck with me. I had a decision to make. This was a large evacuation. In total, nearly 200,000 people were evacuated over the course of the fire. Should I take the main highway out of town, or the back roads? I was afraid the back roads would be just as crowded as the highway, and with a less orderly group of evacuees. I chose the main highway.
Wrong decision. I was able to squeeze from the side street into the line of traffic, and then I sat there. And sat there. Movement was slower than a snail’s pace. The next road on the route was less than a quarter mile away, and it took half an hour to reach it. I took it. I know the roads around here very well, and I had a few options.
Traffic on the back roads was nearly nonexistent, so in the event of a “preemptive” evacuation, I’d recommend taking back roads that you know well. A “preemptive” evacuation is one done in anticipation of an emergency, not when things have gotten dire. If that had been the case, I would only take the back roads if I was darned sure I wouldn’t get trapped somewhere in the boonies. But we were clearly not in immediate danger so the back roads were the way to go.
By the way, about the preemptive evacuations…I thought that was kind of a dumb idea originally. Why disrupt everyone unless there was imminent danger? Why crowd the roads with people who had nowhere to go because there weren’t enough shelters to handle them all? But now that I have been on the road with horses and cats, I’m a fan. Yes the traffic was unreal. But, because we didn’t have flames licking at our tires and no sparks or embers were flying around, everyone was calm and remarkably courteous. We knew we were all in it together, and since we were still safe, nobody was panicked. Having the neighborhoods empty meant that if the fire did come through, the fire crews could work on the fire and not on saving people. While the evacuation was a real, live event, the preemptive nature made it, in effect, a dress rehearsal.
I have to say, I’m proud of my horses. My Quarter Horse, Cowboy, is an experienced traveler and usually behaves well in the trailer (he does have his moments, though). Dublin, the Thoroughbred, has been a challenge. He loads beautifully. We’ve worked on that a lot, and he now goes willingly into the trailer. He’ll stand calmly in the trailer as long as I ask him to, and then he backs out politely. But when the trailer starts moving, it’s a different story. He generally tolerates it for about 5 minutes, and then he wants out. Immediately. Lots of pawing, the occasional kick, and sometimes a full-blown meltdown. Need I say that I was not looking forward to the evacuation experience, stuck in traffic with a squirrely horse?
But Dublin came through. I believe I told him when I loaded him that his trailer issues were about #43 on my list of concerns at the moment and he needed to get over it. And he did. I got a couple of thunks from him, and then silence and stillness. When we (finally) arrived at our destination about 20 miles away, he unloaded like a gentleman. He did have a couple small nicks on one rear pastern, but considering that I expected a river of blood to pour out of the trailer, that was nothing. I didn’t even look at it until days later, when it was healing beautifully.
We got the horses settled. Cowboy and Dublin scored a large pasture area next to Margi’s horses. As far as they were concerned, I had just brought them over for a spa vacation. Dublin immediately struck up a bromance with Margi’s gelding, stirring up some jealousy in Cowboy, who considers Dublin his personal minion.
I headed over to my brother’s house. I hadn’t warned him that I was coming but I knew his wife was visiting her brother in another state, and that they had a spare room. I hadn’t counted on him being gone and the house locked up. His RV was unlocked, so I got the cats situated in there, stuck a big note on the RV door and taped it shut for good measure, unhitched the horse trailer, and went to Margi’s to meet up with Laura and figure out our next steps.
Laura and I did head back home because another neighbor’s horses needed to be evacuated. We took my trailer because it has a wide back door and it’s easier to load a skeptical horse. The neighbor gave us instructions and said it was the first driveway past a nursery and we’d see the covered arena.
We passed the nursery, saw the first driveway and the covered arena and turned in.
Wrong move. In reality, it was the second driveway we wanted, and now we were pretty much stuck in a fairly small yard that, as a bonus, was decorated with various planters and benches placed randomly around the yard. The owners of the property were on their way out, but were very gracious and told us to take as much time as we needed to get turned around, and even moved a truck that might prove to be in the way.
Learning lesson: practice maneuvering your trailer! I’m barely competent at backing; actually, you might say I’m completely incompetent. I’m embarrassed to admit how many attempts it took to get turned around. It didn’t help that both Laura and I were punch-drunk by then and were not communicating very clearly about where the best spot was to turn around and which way to turn the wheel. But we made it and dropped off the horses.
Another learning lesson: be darned sure that you are turning in the right driveway before you commit yourself.
The next few days are still a blur. I did finally get hold of my brother later that first day. We aren’t terribly close and I didn’t even have his cell phone number. I finally got it from my sister, who lives north of the fire zone but was at a conference in L.A. and was supposed to be flying back that day to the Sonoma County Airport—which was closed except for the fire bombers. So she was trying to figure out her next steps and how to get her car, which was at the airport.
My brother had me take over the master bedroom with the cats (exceptionally generous of him, since he really doesn’t like cats, and now 2 of them were living in his bedroom), while he took the RV, leaving the guest room for my sister who might wind up there too. In fact, she did fly into SFO on Monday and took the airporter up. We were able to get her car by taking back roads to the airport and a kindly security guard freed her car from the lot, but it was so late by then that she also spent the night at my brother’s. The three of us were together again! And just like old times, we barely saw each other. My brother is a taxidermist and works out of his garage, so that’s where he spent his time, I hung out with the cats, and my sister was checking email in the guest room. My brother said it was the best family reunion he’d ever attended. That’s what happens when you put a bunch of introverts together.
The evacuation order was lifted on Wednesday morning and as a bonus, the power came back on mid-afternoon. We hadn’t wanted to bring the horses home without power since we wouldn’t be able to get water from the well. We decided to go back on Thursday when we could get an earlier start to make all the trips we were going to need to make to move horses, cats, people, and then go back to clean up the horse facility, and we also picked up the neighbor’s horses and brought them home again. My boys loaded right up, waited patiently in the trailer while we loaded up the other horses, and rode home without a misstep.
So we were evacuated from Sunday through Wednesday and chose to come home Thursday. No harm done to the homes in our neighborhood, no lives lost. After the horrendous loss of life and property from the Tubbs fire two years ago, officials were taking no chances and cleared the way in case firefighters needed to come in. Yes, it was inconvenient but after seeing what can happen in a heartbeat during the Tubbs fire, I don’t think anybody is complaining too much (well, maybe about PG&E management. They may have some ‘splaining to do about a few things).
I’ve included most of my learnings from this experience, especially the horse-related ones, in this story, but here are a few less critical tidbits about personal care:
-Pack as many socks and undies as you can cram in your go bag.
-Pack more than one warm shirt. I thought one flannel shirt would be enough but I wore it every day, and after 5 days straight in the same black-and-white plaid shirt, I may never wear it again.
-Bring a clean jacket and pair of shoes in addition to your horse garb. You may need to run to town for a sandwich.
-Bring enough personal care items along to be comfortable. Nothing like looking in the mirror on day 3 and not recognizing the hag looking back at you. And remember to bring a mirror.
-Remember your phone charger, both for the car and for an electrical outlet. The phone was my lifeline, my main source of information. I wasn’t able to tap into my brother’s WiFi so my laptop was useless.
-The radio was also a great source of information, so have a battery operated radio. The truck radio was a lifesaver, since many cell towers in the area were disabled due to the fire and the related electrical outages. I do have an emergency radio in my go kit that is both hand-crank and solar powered but I’ve never tested it, so that is on my to-do list.
And finally, a shout-out to all our guardian angels:
-Margi for her huge contribution to finding housing for horses, people and cats.
-Dave the property owner who took in 5 extra horses and put up with their owners with grace.
-My brother Neal for housing not only his little sisters but also my cats without complaining once.
-Parelli Natural Horsemanship for giving us the skills and knowledge to keep things cool with the horses
-and of course, all the first responders who, remembering the tragic Tubbs fire 2 years ago, swore “Not this time!” and battled the blaze with a thousand percent effort. We are more grateful than words can express.