BY JULIA ANDERSON
It’s raining outside.
That’s a good thing after going through a week of wild fire threat, fire anxiety (even a bit of panic) and a rapid learning curve when it comes to fire preparation. Lots of questions, few answers.
What fire insurance coverages did we have? What should we pack in a getaway bag? How much might we save out of our house if we had time to save it?
These questions could have been asked and answered 20 years ago when I built and moved to my house in the woods. Like many long-term to-dos, I did nothing until the Big Hollow Fire was burning in heavy timber 16 miles east of my house and growing by the hour.
The fire had roared to life in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest National Forest a few days earlier, fueled by dry timber and a weird East wind. Typically, winds in the Pacific Northwest come from the West bringing rain with them off the Pacific Ocean. But August was a strange weather month with days of record high temperatures over 100 F. combined with weeks of drought that began in mid-July.
The stage was set.
Fires in Oregon (and California) already had fouled the air with smoke – choking smoke. As we returned from a trip out of town, we began checking for Big Hollow fire updates. We called neighbors along our road and researched online Fire Preparation Guides. Our area was at Level 1 evacuation status – be on alert for fire updates.
Once home, we assembled Emergency Supply Kits (suitcases) so that if we had to leave in minutes and be away for an extended period we would have the basics – toothbrush, underwear, extra pair of shoes, tops and a jacket. We put our bags by the front door. It felt ominous.
Watching television coverage of towns in Oregon already destroyed by fire with images of homes in ashes and people in shock contributed to our anxiety. We were on edge after a summer of being on edge from the pandemic, street riots and political turmoil.
After packing our to-go bags, we called our insurance agent and had him make some changes.
We made a list of what we would (or could) save from the house, if we went to a Level 2 evacuation notice, which means be prepared to leave on a moment’s notice. What could we load in our pickup, garden trailer and 4Runner? What was the most important, the necessary?
Let me pause here. Be prepared for your husband to see things differently about what to save. My list was twice the length of his. Mine included original watercolors painted by my grandmother, several antique family quilts, my computer hard-drive, genealogy material and family photos, my dad’s branding iron, art pottery pieces and my collection of tin toy motorcycles. His list was about the contents of our safe – important papers, a jewelry box. His raft and real motorcycle went to a metal shed surrounded by pasture. The rest, he said, was “just stuff.”
I explained that I had huge emotional ties to the things on my list. Losing my grandmother’s watercolors would break my heart and photos of my children, great-grandparents would be devastating. We agreed that we could replace beds and refrigerators, TVs and kitchenware. How would it feel to lose EVERYTHING? I tried to answer that question all week.
We parked our garden trailer by the front door so we could load it quickly. The smoke from all the fires continued to choke us. Dismal, anxious. I could not image what people who had lost everything were feeling.
We took photos every space our house, room by room, top to bottom. We opened closets and drawers, kitchen cabinets. We photographed the downstairs shop, my desk, Ken’s desk, safe contents.
By the end of the week, winds had shifted. Big Hollow was no longer pushing West toward us. Live updates on Facebook from Gifford Pinchot fire people let us know about weather forecasts and that crews were working to contain the 22,000-acre blaze. We began to calm down.
Last night it rained. The forecast calls for more rain. The Level 1 evac notice was lifted.
Only now can I tell myself, RELAX!!! But I sure know a lot more about fire, fire preparation and fire prevention than I did just a few days ago.
INSURANCE: Take photos of everything inside your house. Open all the drawers, photograph the contents. Then take pictures outside – garage, garden shed, whatever. Insurance coverage typically has two parts: Coverage for your house/garage structure and separate coverage for the contents, capped at a certain amount.
Don’t assume the insurance company will write you a check for the dollar amount listed for contents. YOU HAVE TO PROVE what the contents were. A photo record is essential. We now have those photos stored on 2 memory sticks stored in safe places.
Talk to your insurance agent. Ask questions. Make sure you know how the “cap” on contents coverage works. We learned that our coverages for our rafts and camping equipment were too low. There may be something like that that could be scheduled separately by your insurer.
ESCAPE PLAN: Sign up for emergency (text, email or phone) notifications from your 911 agency. Fill out a one-page FIRE ACTION PLAN: If you had to leave in minutes how would you leave and where would you meet up in case you were separated? Name an out-of-area contact person. List numbers for Sheriff, State Patrol and Fire District. Put a copy of this sheet in your kitchen and in your Emergency Supply Kit.
List what you would have at your front door if you had to leave in minutes: Important papers (birth certificates, marriage licenses, insurance documents) for sure. Credit cards, money. Your Emergency GO BAGS. We will keep ours packed and stored in a handy place.
MAKE A LEVEL 2 LIST: Get the arguing out of the way about what would go in the back of a pickup If you receive a Level 2 (prepare to evacuate) notice. There won’t be time to thresh over what to take with you. So have the discussion now. Make a list now.
DEFENDING YOUR HOUSE (in advance): Is the outside of your house fire defensible? Ours isn’t.
My fourth-generation logger neighbors up the road live in a house surrounded by several acres of green pasture and not much else. Their barn and machine shed are a good distance away. Even if a wildfire reached the pasture perimeter their house would be safe. Our house would likely burn in minutes even though we logged our big trees out a few years ago. That’s because we still have too many trees and shrubs and too much dry grass close to the front door. It all easily could ignite our cedar siding and shingle roof.
WHAT’s NEXT on MY TO DO LIST:
Complete our Level 2 Fire Action Plan with a “save what we can” list. Post it on the kitchen bulletin board.
Contact our local fire district and request a Defending Against Fire evaluation of the area around our house – 30 feet out and 100 feet out.
Consider replacing our 20-year-old shingle roof with a metal roof and maybe re-side the house with fire-resistant material. Redesign our nearby landscaping with fire prevention in mind. Trees are nice but not too close to the front door.
Readyforwildfire.org recommends that any flammable material be at least 30-foot away. You can read all about it at the web site under its Defensible Space heading.
I won’t repeat all the useful fire advice we found at CalFire’s ReadyForWildfire.org. But found it to have great information.
After our fire scare this week and after watching the fire destruction in Oregon and California, I have a much greater awareness of how a fast-moving wildfire might destroy my house and my life. I wouldn’t have time to think about saving stuff. Getting out alive would be all that counts. It would be difficult to recover a loss.
The wildfire scare kicked my butt this week. Now, we have a Fire Action Plan, a Get Out Now bag. There is more to do.
FOR MORE: readyforwildifre.org
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