Cynthia St. Charles Store

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Wildfire and Evacuation

I haven't been able to continue with my story about the Beartooth Llama trek due to the fact that we were evacuated from our home on Sunday evening as a wildfire swept through the area.

I was in the midst of preparing dinner for family and guests on Sunday evening when a big gust of wind came up, blowing the picnic table and chairs across the patio. Joe went to look out the windows at that point, and called me immediately to come see. There was a huge black smoke cloud bellowing towards our home from the west and the smell of smoke was suddenly intense. As Joe hopped in the car to check the location of the fire, I called 911.

The 911 receptionist told me they knew about the fire and when I asked about an evacuation, I was put on hold. I waited on hold for what seemed like an eternity (probably 5 minutes - until I finally just hung up), but when I saw Joe speeding back into the driveway, I started shouting orders for the kids and their friends to grab their stuff, grab a set of car keys and get out.

Suddenly, the electricity went out and I scrambled to close windows and doors, collect the pets (the cat had run up the hill when the big gust of wind came up), and make sure the other family members were getting out OK. At that point, a fire truck appeared in the cul-de-sac and blew his warning siren. A fire fighter walked around to the back of the house and shouted for us to get out. Joe had loaded the RV with some of his valuables, and I was waiting in the car for him to go ahead. The RV would not start, so he quickly transferred the pets, etc. to my car, pulled the garage doors closed and finally climbed into the car. The kids were all ahead of us in various vehicles. We'd probably had about 15 minutes from the time we first saw the smoke to the time we were pulling out. I glanced at the clock in the car. It was 6:14.

As we started down Box Canyon Road, we could see the flames off to the west, closing in and within a few feet of the road. Joe and I knew not to take our usual route, but my cell phone rang and Elizabeth had somehow missed that instruction and had taken Trailmaster Road. She said she had been turned around by the sheriff, but her voice was shaking as she had driven close to the fire and then was forced to go back again, driving within feet of flaming trees. She said she felt the intense heat from inside the car. Airus was in the car with her. She said she had no idea where to go, so I told her where to turn, but the smoke was so thick it was almost impossible to see the car ahead, let alone the street signs.

A few moments later, Elizabeth called my cell again saying she was lost and had no idea where she was or how to exit the area. There are only two routes out of the subdivision and the only one remaining available is a bit of a maze, involving a drive up a steep gravel road. This was confusing to all our kids and guests who were unfamiliar with this route. Elizabeth was able to tell us the street name where she was located and we drove there, connected with her and had her follow us out. Thank heaven for cell phones!

We had a prearranged plan to meet on First Avenue in front of the commercial building we own, and it took a while for all our party to get there, as the exit route was very slow going - everyone in the neighborhood was on that road with their horse trailers, etc. (about 1500 people were evacuated). After we had everyone accounted for at the meeting place, we made a plan. The kids would stay with friends. The pets would go to the kennel at the vet where we always take them. I started calling around to find a room. We were fortunate to find a hotel not far from our neighborhood, which was offering deeply discounted rates for evacuees. Our room has a microwave, refrigerator, and high speed Internet hook up. I just happened to have my laptop in the car. But otherwise, we left with the clothes on our back.

Our hotel is elevated and has a good view of our neighborhood, so we have been able to keep track of the smoke and flames the past two days. We had to go buy toothbrushes and some food, a change of clothes and clean underwear. Gave us something to do during the long wait yesterday.

Last night, we drove to the road block to see if there was any news. I had been worried about what would happen when they turned the electricity back on. I had been cooking a large pot of beets for dinner, and when the power went off, in the chaos - I failed to turn off the burner. I feared a kitchen fire. The deputy manning the road block directed us to the fire station, where we found a friendly but exhausted fire fighter who called up the hill and arranged for someone to meet us at the roadblock.

It was dark by the time we met our escort fire truck at the road block, but we were able to see the dark shadows of the burned areas as we drove along the road. The fire had burned extensively, jumping the road, going from ridge to ridge and apparently traveling at great speed. We drove past the house that burned down. It is located maybe 1/8 mile from our place, and has been reduced to rubble.

It was eerie driving through the neighborhood. There were lights burning in nearly every house, but nobody was home. I was shocked to see how many lights were on at our place! We'd had a house full when the power went off, but it was still a bit of a shock.

The smell of smoke was intense as we opened the door to our home last night. The kitchen was thick with smoke. The pot of beets had been reduced to ash and the heat from the cooktop was intense. I took the pot out and put it on the patio, and turned everything off. We felt we had to leave quickly because the fire truck was waiting at the entrance to our drive. By the time we got back out to them, they bid us farewell, as they had another task, and we drove ourselves back out of the evacuated area.

A meeting for evacuees was scheduled for 8:00 this morning, and Joe and I anticipated that we might be allowed to return home following the meeting. That was not the case, though. We were told that the fire is 75% contained and we will be allowed to return at noon today. Only residents will be allowed in the area and people will have to show proof of residence to be allowed past the road blocks - which will remain for another 24 hours.

To read the newspaper articles about the fire, follow this link.


Tomme said...

Oh, Cindy, thank God that you post has a happy ending. I can' timagine how terrifying the experience was, and especially for Elizabeth. Please e-mail me if I can do anything for your neighbors who lost their home.

Tina Marie Rey said...

Oh what a horrible experience. Thank God you all got out and are safe. Makes me realize that we had a meeting place set up for where we used to live, so now time to set all that up here. Thank you for the reminder for what we need to do.

kathy said...

I am so glad you and your family are all ok and that your home is ok too. What a scary experience for the fire to be so close to your neighborhood.

joyce said...

What a frightening experience. THankfully you are all safe and hopefully back in your home by now.

Tanya Brown said...

Criminy, this is horrible. I'm glad that you and yours made it through safely.

QuiltingFitzy said...

I'm glad you are safe, albeit a little groggy with burned beet infusion!

It's a good reminder to all of us to keep our act together and prepare ahead.