Today is September 16th, 2020, and 40,000 Oregonians have had to evacuate their homes. About 10 percent of our state’s population, 500,000 people, are in an evacuation zone. Thousands of people on the wetter, rain forest side of the state never expected to face catastrophic wildfires. They expected the earthquake, the “big one” perhaps, but not fires that incinerate entire towns.
In central and eastern Oregon, we are accustomed to the smoke and fires that pile on the worst month of the year–August. Every three years or so, there are fires very near to one of the towns in my county, but until last week, we didn’t have an evacuation plan or “go bag.” Of all people, I really should have one because I need a plan for evacuating livestock and hardening a whole farm to fire.
I have been pulling my head out of the sand about wildfires inch by inch over the last year. Many of us were deeply disturbed by the fire the destroyed Paradise, California. Paradise felt so familiar to many rural mountain towns. I pulled my head out of the sand a little more as my family and I planned to build a house in the woods on our farm. We have made design choices to maximize fire resistance.
I have done a lot of reading and research in the last year about wildfire, and I finally have an evacuation plan and “go bags.” I want to share here what I’ve learned so far. I hope you take it to heart, make your plan, and get prepared for something I hope you don’t have to face.
Long Term Preparedness
Here are things to do not way ahead of time–not in the midst of evacuation.
Preparing your home, whether your rent or own, is important to increase the chances of protecting it and your belongings. If you have a house to come back to after a wildfire, you will recover faster economically and emotionally.
I’ve learned there are three components to think about: vegetation, house materials, and insurance. These are boring topics. Sorry grownups!
Usually, fire moves through vegetation like a ladder from the ground up into the tree tops or into your home. You want to keep fire from getting on the first rung of the ladder, which means removing pine needs and keeping grass green or dry grass mowed. Keep dry vegetation from accumulating in the corners of your deck or underneath. You also don’t want to create a ladder of dry vegetation (like our glorious hops vines) onto your house, surround your house with stacks of firewood or landscape with kindling (aka, wood chip mulch.) I’ve read that you want a buffer of five feet of no vegetation around your house. From 5-30 feet from your house, you want to landscape with fire-resistant plants, limb up trees to six feet, and thin trees whose canopies touch.
Here’s what we’ve done so far: At our farm, we rotationally graze our cattle and then horses (who crop the grass shorter) throughout the season to keep our vegetation low, especially near our house and buildings. Even my daughter’s rabbit, Bunny Jane, pitches in keeping the grass down. My husband has limbed up all our trees up to six feet so that the small, dead lower branches don’t create a fire ladder. Finally, because we’re in the middle of house construction, we expanded our water system and added a lot more spigots near our road and throughout the property to keep vegetation green and to put out fires. I still haven’t been able to give up the hops climbing our barn.
As we’re building a new house, we have been able to choose materials that “harden” our home to fire. We have chosen fiber cement siding (Hardie board), a metal roof, a cement deck, and fiberglass (rather than vinyl) windows. I have also learned a lot about the importance of screening your vents, cleaning your gutters, and blocking your eaves from the CalFire wildfire preparedness program.
CalFire has a list of inexpensive retrofits on their website including gutter covers and stove pipe screening. If you’re a renter, when windows, roof or siding needs to be replaced, talk to your landlord about using materials that harden the home.
Renters insurance is really useful for more than just wildfire. I’ve used it as a renter to recover my belongings after a pipe burst, and a friend of mine used it when he was in a bicycle wreck with a pedestrian. Theft and other events are covered too. If you’re a landlord, please encourage and assist your renters in finding insurance.
For home and property owners, check your policy on an annual basis. When I checked mine, I found great news! Our company, Mutual of Enumclaw, covers wildfire and will even send a private company to apply fire retardant around our home if it is in danger at no cost to us.
Here is what I have learned to do so far if we do have to evacuate.
Make an Evacuation Plan Plan
Here’s what we’ve done: My parents, husband, a few neighbors and I have made a verbal evacuation plan together. I have also written everything up and shared it. We have agreed on the WHEN, WHERE, WHAT, and HOW we will evacuate.
We plan to begin evacuation early before or during level 1 (level three is the highest.) We have discussed the order in which we will move things if we have time (camp trailers first, livestock second) and who will take which animals in which vehicles. We have made sure our vehicles are in working order, trailer tires are aired up, and trailers are easily accessible. We have also discussed our options for where we would go and where we would take our livestock. We have discussed the different routes we can take to leave our valley and who might host us out of harm’s way.
You may not have livestock or a farm, but I’m sure you have specific concerns of your own to think about. Who’s picking up grandma? What medications do you need? Do you have an irreplaceable keepsake at the bank safe deposit box or a storage unit? Do you have a physical disability that will make it harder to evacuate?
Preparedness for Humans
You need a “Go Bag” or “Go Box” that you can toss in your car and leave quickly. Wildfire preparedness educators suggest you need to think about the 6 P’s, but I’ve added a few more: People, pets, prescriptions, phone, photos, important papers, plastic (money & credit cards), and personal computer/hard drive.
Emergency preparedness educators say we all need a “Go Bag” that will sustain us in multiple kinds of disasters. The problem is, this ain’t cheap. Although I have scrounged what we already have for the Go Box, I have spent $150 on further supplies and I don’t have everything I’d like together. Maybe it is something worth building over time so you don’t have to plunk down so much cash at once.
Here is a basic list of what should go in your “Go Bag.”
- Wallet/purse with ID, money and credit cards
- Face masks or coverings
- Three-day supply of non-perishable food and three gallons of water per person
- Map marked with at least two evacuation routes
- Prescriptions or special medications
- Sanitation supplies, toiletries, towels
- Extra eyeglasses or contact lenses
- Change of clothing
- An extra set of car keys
- First aid kit
- Flashlight or headlamps and extra batteries
- Battery-powered radio and extra batteries
- Phones & laptops with chargers for wall and car
- Copies of important documents (birth certificates, passports, etc.)
- Pet food and water
- Camping & sleeping stuff including folding chairs
For me, secondary things I want to take if I can are:
- Photos on the wall
- Expensive stuff & stuff that will quicken recovery. For me this is my saddle, rototiller, and extra rolls of greenhouse plastic. Obviously taking this stuff would mean evacuating very early.
Preparedness for the Home
If we have to evacuate our farm and home, these are some tips I picked up from a lot of articles and podcasts. Do these things well before you have to evacuate. Some of them could become regular summer tasks.
- Temporarily cover attic vents so embers can’t get inside (you can make metal covers ahead of time and have them near the vents at the ready.)
- Move flammable outdoor furniture away from house
- Move furniture inside house away from windows & remove drapes
- Move any firewood, flammable vegetation away from house (I will have to tear down my hops!)
- Close all windows, vents and skylights
- Turn OFF propane or natural gas lines to your house and buildings
- Leave ON electricity and water
- Leave ON all outdoor lights for firefighters
- Turn OFF sprinklers–leaving them running can reduce critical water pressure
- Leave ladders out and available for firefighters
- Leave gates open and doors unlocked
- Leave hoses attached to hydrants/spigots for use by firefighters
Preparedness for Animals
This week I wrote an article about livestock evacuation and preparedness for the Capital Press. I interviewed a couple who evacuated their entire dairy goat herd 300 miles to escape wildfires in the Willamette Valley. I think their experience and tips are very valuable to learn from. (Luckily, their place didn’t burn!)
The main points to know when evacuating livestock are: 1. Ask for help early, 2. Evacuate early, 3. Take what you’d need for 24 hrs.
To prepare a animal/livestock “Go Bag,” I recommend taking a look at the American Veterinary Medical Association website. They break it down by species so it is very useful!
Preparedness for your Community
Once you’ve planned out how to prepare your home, family and animals for wildfire and evacuation, look to your neighborhood and community.
Put people into your plan that might need extra help. Who needs a ride? Who has pets or livestock?
The best thing you can do to help your community is have a good plan and evacuate early. This will free you up to help others and free up resources that can go to someone else.
Thanks for reading!
Your grateful farmer,