I live in a very beautiful part of Arizona. Unfortunately, life in the middle of a magnificent Ponderosa Pine forest also means that wildfire danger is constantly on everyone’s minds, and in their memories too. This is a photo of the sign that is at the end of my road. I see it everyday, often several times a day.
Today is an anniversary. Not a wedding, or a birthday. Five years ago today someone taped a hand-printed sign on top of the one in the photo. It said “BEYOND EXTREME.” It is five years ago today that my children and I had to flee our house in the path of a raging monster.
We were lucky, and thanks to the incredible bravery of thousands of firefighters, the human-caused fire was contained before it reached our home. Others were not so lucky and lost everything.
The landscape here still bears the scars of the enormous Rodeo-Chedeski Fire, as it came to be known. My area remains pristine, but venturing further down the mountain means encountering the blackened trunks of once tall and majestic Ponderosas, standing like burned and scarred soldiers, marching across the landscape.
My son was just 12 days old. My oldest daughter was 21 months. They were both soundly asleep in their cribs when the Emergency Broadcast System sounded the alert around 9:00 PM. The crackly voice on the radio instructed everyone in my area to evacuate immediately. How often we hear those three obnoxious beeps, then: “This is a test of the Emergency Broadcast System, this is only a test, blah, blah, blah.” Only this time, it wasn’t a test.
Fortunately we had had several days to plan for this possibility. The fire had begun on June 18 as an innocent-seeming distant plume of smoke. I had been gathering photo albums and family heirlooms for those few days, never really believing that we would actually have to leave. Other areas farther out were being evacuated one by one. But not us. It couldn’t happen to us. Surely in this day and age, with all our technology, people can “fix” these things. Well, they couldn’t fix this one. They called it “unstoppable.”
It was such a shock. The rumor that day was that things were going better. I went to the grocery store, along with the rest of the town, to finally buy the meat and other perishables that we hadn’t dared to buy before. Everyone was in a jolly mood. But then, the spark jumped. A tiny spark jumped a canyon and that was it. We all had to leave.
Pictures my sister took from her deck that day (June 22, 2002):
I awoke the children and put them in the car, along with my two dogs, my cat, my mother’s cat, my two cockatiels, and my elderly mother. I had already loaded the photo albums, pictures, baby boxes, and heirlooms ahead of time just in case.
I irrationally closed all the blinds. Somehow it seemed that they might offer my dear little house some extra protection, or at least prevent it from “seeing” the approaching flames. Rather like blindfolding a prisoner who is about to be executed. The final act was tying a white rag of surrender to the front door knob, to indicate that we had left.
Fortunately we had someplace to go, unlike the thousands of families who slept on Red Cross cots in the sports arena of a high school 45 miles away. We headed to Albuquerque where my husband lives. We drove all night, an unhappy little Noah’s Ark. But, because the roads at night are full of elk, deer, rabbits, and other wildlife, fast travel was not possible. A four hour drive became more like six.
Due to the prevailing winds, the smoke in Albuquerque was worse than it had been at home. I worried about my tiny son since he seemed to be wheezing from all the smoke in the air. I took him to the doctor.
I worried about my daughter who was not taking it well. She was old enough to sense the tension, but not old enough to understand what was happening. She refused to bathe the entire week we were gone, threw tantrums, and was generally miserable.
I worried about my mother, who didn’t adjust as well to the unexpected as she had in her younger days. She was very upset.
I even worried about the two goldfish that I had to leave behind, and pictured them slowly starving to death (they didn’t, there was enough algae in the tank to keep them quite happy).
I craved information. I constantly watched CNN, but that was frustratingly general. I wanted to know how far the beast was from my neighborhood, my sister’s neighborhood, my friends’ neighborhoods. The local fire department hotline was constantly busy, no luck there. The internet helped a bit, but was still not enough to alleviate the worry.
Rumor had it that the neighborhoods of my town had been “triaged.” The firefighters had already determined which houses to try and save, and which to let burn.
A friend called her insurance agent who had not left right away. He said the sky over his office was black, that day looked like night, and that it was raining ash. He was on his way out of town.
As I said earlier, we were spared. 467 other families were not. This is a small community. We all know someone who lost everything.
After one tortured week away, we were finally allowed back. I was among the first to return. My neighborhood was like a war zone. The only inhabitants were jeeps full of uniformed National Guard troops who patrolled the streets to deter looters. No one was around. No dogs barked. No traffic came by. My house and yard were covered in thick grey ash that had fallen like an evil snow. It all felt vaguely like the end of the world.
We made it. We were all fine. Our house was fine. I wanted to run up and hug every single firefighter who was still uncomfortably camped out in tents on the grounds of the public school. They risked their lives to save our town. How can any of us ever thank them for that?
I hope never ever to have to go through this again. However the one wonderful thing that came out of it all, was the restoration of my faith in the ordinary human. There were lovely stories of people coming together and helping strangers. Those who lived outside of the evacuated area took strangers into their homes so they would not have to live at the shelter. People offered transportation and facilities to evacuate and house horses and livestock. Hotels that didn’t normally allow pets were full of pets.
Now every summer I have my photo albums at the ready. I have an “evacuation checklist” taped to the inside of a cupboard. I created this list when I unpacked from the Rodeo evacuation. Next time I might not have the luxury of a few days to think about it. Everything I would want to take is listed in order of priority so I can take what I have time for.
Someday I might write a post about what people chose to take with them. Obviously at the top of everyone’s list were family photos, but there were actually some really funny things that some people felt they couldn’t live without! Having to prioritize your possessions can teach you a lot about yourself.
I suppose the real lesson from an evacuation should be that things are just things. Life will go on just fine, maybe even better in some cases, without so much of the stuff we feel we need. I came to this realization during that long week away. Now after five years, that zen feeling is fading and I have to constantly remind myself of this.
Here are some photos of what it was like:
What we saw:
What happened after we left:
The aftermath (still here today):
The sign photo is mine. The two from my sister’s deck are my sister’s. All other Rodeo-Chedeski photos are courtesy of the USDA Forest Service.
RODEO-CHEDESKI FIRE FACTS:
- Burned over 468,000 acres
- The largest fire recorded in Arizona, one of the largest wildfires in US history
- 467 homes destroyed
- 30,000 people evacuated from 12 communities
- Two separate wildfires merged to form the Rodeo-Chedeski Fire
- Causes: The “Rodeo” fire: intentionally set by an out of work firefighter wanting work (he got it), and the “Chedeski” fire: began as a distress signal fire by a stranded motorist.
- Cost to fight: approx. $22 million.
- Cost of damages: approx: $329 million.
SOME WILDFIRE RESOURCES:
Tips for creating a defensible space around your home: Click here
How to properly extinguish a campfire (includes a video): Click here
Info on current fires: National Incident Information Center