You know, the sound of dread in the middle of the night - at the very beginning of a Labor Day weekend vacation?
Startled awake at 3am by my work cell phone, two weeks ago yesterday. It could easily have been two months ago, after all that's happened since.
My boss, Hood River Sheriff Matt English, on the line:
"162 hikers are stuck above a wildfire that broke out on Eagle Creek Trail.
"The Crag Rats are out, tracking them with Forest Service rangers. Our deputies are managing the SAR (search and rescue) mission.
"We're tracking families with small kids, a couple of dogs and seniors. They've been out there all night.
"They started out in flip flops and tennies for a day hike. Now they're trapped on the trail.
"We need you and your volunteers to gather food and water and busses to pick them up, bring them back to Hood River. where their cars are parked at Eagle Creek trailhead."
I am an Emergency Manager for Hood River County by day. My friends call me "Disaster Girl." Not just because I do disasters for a living. Because I've lived them. And had bad hair disaster days in between.
The sheriff's call was the start of our all day every day Hood River County Emergency Operations Center (EOC) response.
The Eagle Creek Fire took off and has been burning ever since - today's carnage is more than 48,000 acres of pristine forests in the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area.
We were not alone. Thousands of people were fighting for the Gorge.This fire became the #1 fire in the nation - with 1,000 firefighters camped out at our fairgrounds, managing national teams from all over the country in the last two weeks.There aren't words to describe how much grief we Oregonians feel inside, stuffed down, while everyone jumps in around the clock to help win the battle against the beast.
Today, the Eagle Creek Fire still devours some of our nation's most spectacular scenery...
and still threatens cozy small towns like Cascade Locks and Hood River, near Portland, Oregon.We hope the rains in our forecast and the hard work of so many dedicated firefighters will help save the day. It won't be completely contained until rains come and stay later this fall.Meanwhile, our job in the EOC is to support first responders from the home office, managing logistics and helping meet emerging community needs that rise up in disasters. The goal is to keep firefighters' and cops' boots on the ground.This week, we worked through freeway closures, pet and people shelters, evacuation plans for a community of 7,600 including hospitals and senior centers, boil water notices, early school releases, public warnings, toxic smoke, communications break downs and ever-changing public information needs.We worked shoulder to shoulder with 30-40 partner agencies, across federal, state and local jurisdictions, as well as non profits, businesses, volunteers and citizens.
We are all in this together.We will not stop, or go home until it is done, and our community is safe.None of us can admit it yet, because we have to be strong. We can't show our neighbors that we actually are as scared as they are.
Meanwhile, back at the SAR of all those wonderful people - a happy ending....
My family, my community, have lived it before - and are again right now.
It happened to hikers two weeks ago, out for a fun day. Things changed.
It happened to Texas, and Florida with hurricanes Harvey and Irma in recent weeks.
It just happened to Mexico - the strongest earthquake in a century.
It can happen to you.
Disaster Preparedness: it's not for "some day" - it could happen today.
It’s national preparedness month.
Please don't tune this out.
Evacuations, disasters - been there, done that. Here are my own single dog mom lessons learned:
And just a few months ago, Oregon's three-month long winter storm.
It was beautiful at first - like a Norman Rockwell winter painting. And then it just kept snowing.
This January, an ice storm crippled Oregon. In more ways than one. Snowmeggadon. These things don't always have happy endings. Take it from us.
Last year - June 2016
“911, where is your emergency?”
“Mosier. Oil train derailment – 16 cars off the tracks. Explosions and fire. Kids in school and city residents must be evacuated.”
I teach disaster preparedness. But nothing can prepare you for the real thing. It’s sudden. It’s emotional. It happens when you least expect it.
Your car breaks down – you’re stuck in a snowstorm - or lost on a wilderness road.
A flash flood in rainy season.
A long-term power outage.
These are more common disasters – when being prepared can save your life.
I got into the disaster business after the largest wildfire in California history, the Cedar Fire. I worked for San Diego Fire-Rescue Department.
We tried to help people who’d lost everything – and who were trying to take back their lives. So we built a CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) program, training citizens to prepare for disasters.
I’ve learned so much myself, living through disasters and evacuating my fur kids.
Emergency preparedness matters. It can save lives. It saved ours.
You know what they say - "life is what happens while you're busy making other plans."
My two dog sons Dude and Doodle, a fat cat named Tia and I live in a tiny town now infamous for a recent oil train derailment in the Columbia River Gorge.
If I’d not been standing in 911 at the moment the calls came in, I might not have heard about it until it was too late.
I was the last car in, before the freeway shut down. I ran home to evacuate my kids. After we got out, Mosier residents had no water or sewer for three days – and no idea if Mosier would ever be the same.
First responders considered this a “small, localized incident,” but residents, businesses and tourists in seven counties across Oregon and Washington were stuck in a catastrophic traffic jam lasting 12-18 hours. People abandoned their cars on the freeway and walked. Fire trucks from Portland couldn’t get in.
Roads within 60 miles of the Gorge were gridlocked. That’s a disaster within the disaster.
Gorge residents had an 8-hour drive, not a 10-minute commute.
Think about that. Heading home from work, you’re supposed to pick up the kids...
What’s in your car right now? Do you have a Go-kit? How would your family reconnect if separated? What would you do?
Microwave Fire, Mosier –August 2009
I’m up at midnight making coffee, packing up for the Hood to Coast. I’ll be walking all day, spending the night on the Oregon coast. My dog sitter will be over this evening to watch my kids.
The phone rings – at midnight. It’s my next-door neighbor:
“Have you looked out the window?”
I did. I saw that scene from the picture above, out my kitchen window. The whole landscape, a wall of fire. Just upwind of us.
12:04 a.m. In the background, radio announcer:
"Windsurfers, it’s looking like a classic Gorge summer day – we’ll have 25-35 mph west winds and temps of 85-90 degrees.”
Ugh, that means, wind will blow fire right to our town.
Then the power went out. Pitch darkness. It's impossible to see, or pack the car. (Do you have a headlamp?)
What if this happened after I'd left for the coast?!
Witch Creek Fire, San Diego CA - October 2007
Speaking of the coast - my kids and I were moving from So Cal to Oregon, 1,500 miles away. Everything we owned was packed into a moving truck last night - we're all ready to leave today.
Daybreak - of a 20-hour drive to our new home.
I opened the front door. Ashes raining down - all over the beach - from a wildfire, 20 miles away.
I-5 and other freeways, closed. We couldn’t leave town, nor could the moving truck.
An empty house with no bed, furniture, groceries. A bag of pretzels in the car. We were supposed to leave right now – a new family was moving in later today. We were stranded.
I went back to volunteer for my San Diego Fire-Rescue Department - helping firefighters, and CERT San Diego volunteers I had trained in my time as CERT Program Manager.
My fur kids and I camped out on the living room floor in an empty house because we couldn't leave for Oregon. The good news is - camping gear is a perfect emergency preparedness starter kit.
“Been there, done that” - pet parent lessons learned
Don’t wait for the call – or a knock on the door. Don’t just stand there and watch. Worry and wait. These things happen so fast - your best move is to stay ahead of them.
Kick into problem-solving gear – don’t stay in “I can’t believe it” mode. Do something to help. Take action – quickly – be practical - help others. Breathe. Try your best to stay calm and focused. (Ya, right.) Doing stuff helps.
In evacuations, you literally only have minutes. What's first on the list? Living beings. Pack 'em up.
“Here kitty kitty…”
Immediately put the cat in a small room where she can’t hide (i.e. bathroom) while you find the pet carrier. Do not wait. Once they smell smoke and fear, you will never see cats again. (How do they de-materialize so quickly?) You will not find them to evacuate them.
Expect a scene when you put the cat in the bag (isn’t that where the bad joke came from?) Leash and contain the dogs, they will be stressed, too.
Pack. Go. Go early. Smoke can kill you faster than fire. Animals are super-sensitive to smell.
This is what evacuation looks like
The large hexagon pet playpen is the cat condo Tia lived in, after I evacuated her in the small carry-on bag. The condo folds flat when not in use.
These work great for the dogs, too. I keep it in my car for weekend outings - and it's already packed if you have an emergency.
Or, keep evacuation crates and pens next to your Go-Kit, camping gear and backup water supply in the shed / garage.
Inexpensive nylon pet crates were temporary homes for the dogs – get one for each pet.
And larger cat condos to hold the cats, litter box and bowls.
While evacuating, I tried putting the dogs together, like normal. But today was not normal and they fought violently. Heads up - animals get stressed and need their own space. Separate crates.
Many shelters do not take pets – pet play pens and fold out pet fences create yards for them to hang out in.
You and the kids want to hang together in these situations. You need to see each other, if you can't touch.
As a pet parent - all you have for communication with your kids is body language. That's why visual contact is so important. Pet them often. Can you muster a soothing voice? Calm down. Deep breaths. Settle into the new norm.
Down time. The waiting game. I never realized the importance of a book, game or other distraction until evacuation. Make sure distractions are in your Go-Kit for you and your kids.
Please make a family emergency plan. THIS WEEK. SOON.
Where will you go? How can you keep everyone together? What if you are separated? What if cell phones aren’t working – how will family members stay in touch? What if they don't speak?
Text takes less power and fewer bars, than talk.
Does everyone know the same out of state contact number to call - so you can find out about each other? (In disasters, call a family member or friend in another state. Local phones are usually offline but long distance is still OK.)
Use walkie talkies, ham radio or CB. Think old school communications. Leave a note on a bulletin board. Do not rely on cell or internet.
How do you get information if power is out? Listen to your car radio – and charge your cell phones for later (even if they're not working, you'll need them for contact info, photos of missing loved ones, home insurance pix.)
Add a battery-powered AM/FM radio to your Go-Kit. If broadcast radio and internet are down, look for official information on message boards in front of public buildings and fire stations.
Do you have a family meeting place? A backup? Do you have a trailer or motorhome for easy evacuation? Do you have camping gear?
Make a “Top 5, can't live with out it” evacuation list. Pack and go - quickly.
In the derailment, I pulled out my evacuation list and only had time to gather my top three priorities. Those seemed like they took a couple of hours to pack into the car. Time completely changes in a disaster. If you are better prepared, you are out quicker – and you have time to help your neighbors. They’ll be in denial.
My “Top 5” evacuation list:
1) Living beings. Pets, kids, family and their survival needs.
2) Laptop, external hard drives, charging cables - key documents and photos you’ll need if you lose everything. Files. if you’re old school.
3) Only ONE or TWO* irreplaceable things from life on Planet Earth
Examples: wedding photo, kids’ grade school photo, business plan, grandpa’s letters, Dog Diary writing project. People that lost everything said the worst was not having their kids’ bad hair day/toothless school picture. You know, photos before digital photography saved the day? Irreplaceable.
DANGER! This could suck up all of your time. I keep all of my external hard drives and camera disks in one crate for easy grab-and-go access. Store these items together with your Top 5 evacuation list, so you don't have to think. You will NOT have time to hunt things down. Get out - save your life and your family - first. These are irreplaceable.
4) Cell phone chargers - and cables for wall power, car and battery backup. Those mobile pocket chargers save the day. Get them. Keep them charged in your car and Go-Kit . Have the right cables for each phone and each power source - car, AC and pocket charger.
“Been there done that” note: You burn cell phones in no time. I had a pocket charger for the phone but was missing the charging cable. I had a car charger but you can't stay in there forever. Have chargers and cables in your car - and duplicates in your Go-Kit. After evacuating, you won't get to AC power for a long time to charge phones and laptops.
Text, don't call - it saves power and works when calls won’t. Turn off Wi-Fi- roaming drains your phone. Heads up - in most disasters, you probably won’t have cell service at all.
5) Emergency Go-Kit that supports you and your family for at least 3 days, preferably 2 weeks - food, water, supplies. Pack cash, keep your car fueled up.
Start with your travel/camping/weekender kit, or buy a starter kit - that's easiest.
Keep your family Go-Kit in an easy-to-reach place at home (mine: near the front door of my shed – not buried in back, right next to camping gear and water jugs.) A cooler or luggage on wheels makes it easy to move.
All cars should have an emergency kit – for home, work and travel use. You can buy pre-made backpacks online or at department stores. Start with your camping kit or gym bag and add items for all kinds of weather.
If dogs roam free in the car - make sure your Go-Kit backpack with food is in a safe location (I keep mine in the roof box.) My dog son Doodle is famous for finding every breakfast bar and food item on planet Earth, and carefully extracting them, leaving sealed containers remarkably untouched.
- Food, at least a three-day supply of non-perishable food for man and animal.
- Water, one gallon per person, per pet, per day for at least three days. Preferably much longer.
This is the clunkiest item - but the most important. You can live without food for a while but not water. A camping filter and a water storage bag works if you live around water like we do - but is labor intensive. That can replenish your base of water storage.
I used a water dispenser outside the grocery store - but you'll need large containers to fill - and have to wait in line. If you don't have quarters for this machine, you'll end up inside, in line, to get them - then get back in line outside to use them. Pack cash and quarters in your Go-Kit.
- Radio, battery-powered or hand crank with NOAA weather and tone alert.
- Cell phones, cell chargers and charging cables for every device. Car, wall units, portable phone chargers. Hand held radios or other backup communications.
- Gym bag with changes of clothes. Coats, warm layers, tennies, socks, bathing suit. Extra undies.
- Travel kit of toiletries and First aid kit
- Flashlight, headlamp, cell phones; battery backups for radio, lights. Pocket chargers for cell phones.
- Whistle to signal for help; dust mask or cotton t-shirt to filter the air
- Sanitation - moist towelettes, garbage bags, plastic ties, TP. They have these easy, inexpensive toilet buckets you can buy with a nice seat (or make your own) - a large round paint bucket like you get at Home Depot with a pool noodle cut in half, covering the top edge, to give you a softer seat. It's a real disaster without a plan for where you will go.
- Wrench or pliers to turn off utilities. Know where and how shut off valves.
- Manual can/bottle openers, dishes, eating and cooking supplies
- Cash, maps, key documents – insurance info, contact info, emergency plan, photos of pets and family members.
- Unique family needs – RX, glasses, infant formula, walker, cane, diapers, pet supplies.
Keep a small one in the car all the time and a large one in your garage or shed near the door for easy grab-n-go. Don't bury it on a shelf in the back.
Your camping gear - that's your best friend - bring it for evacuation.
· Soft-sided pet pens – one for each pet.
Pets need their own space. Hard-sided crates take up too much room in the car and are hard to carry. Get inexpensive pop-up nylon crates. Also foldout pet pens, baby gates and mobile fencing to create a yard.
If you have a trailer or motorhome, that's your ready-made evacuation shelter.
- Beds with their own smell, for each pet
- A week’s worth of food and water. Keep in pet-proof containers. Make sure they are Doodle-proof, not just water proof. Doodle is a doggie Houdini when it comes to food. Your pets will spend a lot of time in the car, with your Go-Kit. Heads up!
- Cat box, litter and scoop.
- A first aid kit for all of you, including pets.
- Poop bags. Sealed container for used bags - you won't have access to outside garbage cans – you do not need stink in a disaster.
- Leashes, harnesses, ropes
- Water and food bowls
- Bones, rawhide, favorite toys, Rescue Remedy – anything that offers comfort or distraction. (For you - books, games, music.)
Disasters = stress. About denial.
In emergencies, you and your neighbors will be in denial. Some think they can hunker down and it will all just go away. They want to be home to cope (don’t we all?) But don’t take that risk - save your life. Evacuate.
The Morning After
There’s a new round of baggage. Yes, it really did happen. This isn't a TV show where it's all-better the next day. The stress is almost worse The Morning After.
Plan a diversion for you and the kids - books, games, music, toys. Turn off your brain. Journal if that helps. You’re overloaded - not social. Hunkered down. You won't want to talk about it yet.
Been there, done that – lessons learned:
· Plan ahead for one bad moment – at any moment.
· Don't take one moment of normal life for granted.
· Plan what you'd do - if suddenly, everything changed.
Written with heartfelt thanks to the hard-working, kind-hearted people that help us in emergencies,
Barb, doxie Doodle and Tia Ayers
Surf Dog Diaries / DogDiary.org
Related stories on DogDiary.org:
Love, loss and oil trains - a year of mourning ends today - June 2017
Oil Train derailment - this is not a drill - June 2016
There's a rainbow over Mosier - recovering from the train derailment - June 2016
Mosier gets its Mojo back - celebrating Columbia River Highway, community parade, recovery - July 2016