In 1991, I was living with my boyfriend in a tiny basement apartment overlooking the 580 freeway in Oakland. Our front stoop looked east, with a view of rush hour traffic and the Oakland/Berkeley hills beyond. I was working at a rock shop; my boss lived up in those hills in a very grand house. One Sunday morning in October, I came out of my front door and saw smoke in the hills. I called my boss at home; she didn't answer. I called her at the rock shop and her husband answered. I told him what I was seeing; he said, "Thanks, Elizabeth, I'm sure the fire department is taking care of it."
William (my boyfriend at the time) and I shrugged, and jumped in the car and went to see what was happening. We were young and foolish. We went east on highway 24 and then south on highway 13. By this point fire could be clearly seen up above the Caldecott Tunnel. We pulled off 13 onto the first exit, which is Broadway Terrace. There we were met with a long line of fire trucks and active firefighting in the canyon just off the freeway. The fire had jumped highway 13 (It would also jump highway 24). We watched in horror for a moment before a police officer came and told us to get out of there. Traffic was intense; people were evacuating their homes and we were stuck in the middle of it. Finally we made it safely home to our apartment, where we sat on the stoop and watched the fire rage down the hill toward downtown Oakland, before it was finally halted. It killed 25 people, injured 150 others, and destroyed 1520 acres, 2843 homes, and 437 apartments. It also completely leveled my boss's house.
That's a day I'll never forget. In many ways, it shaped the way I think about fire. I was here for the 1989 earthquake, too, and that was a terrible and destructive time in its own right, but for some reason earthquakes don't scare me like fire does. As a child living in a town home in Gaithersburg, MD, there was a very serious fire right next door to us, and I had nightmares about that for weeks. Later in another home of ours, a candle burned down into a piece of my dad's furniture, causing a fire in our dining room that scorched the wall and ceiling. That cemented my fear of fire, though since we heated our home with a wood stove, I was called upon to both make fires and keep them burning every winter, so I guess I got to the place where I was functional with the fear. I'm our resident fire-maker even today, when we camp or make fires at home. Fire also holds a sort of fascination, which is why I guess I agreed to drive up to the hills and see it that day.
Because of all this, I'm extremely sensitive to fire events, and I haven't even had a fire tragedy; I can only imagine how it feels for folks who have lost a home or a loved one. I do think Californians in general are uniquely tuned to the fire danger all around at this time of year. And it's been an especially bad year for fires in the West.
About 2 am Monday morning, I woke up to the smell of smoke. I said something to Tom and he smelled it too. I must have fallen back asleep, because I looked at the clock an hour later and it smelled even worse. So I got out of bed and did the rounds. I had already been up once because of the high winds - I had forgotten to take down the wind chimes and they were keeping me awake. Later I heard that the wind on top of Mt Diablo was 75 mph.
High offshore winds (called Diablo winds in Northern CA and Santa Ana winds in Southern CA) are common this time of year, which seems especially cruel, as we haven't had significant widespread precipitation since April. They bring hot dry air from the east, along with extremely low relative humidities. Our humidity the last week or so has been around 10%. This is usually higher because of onshore winds that carry fog throughout the bay area.
As you've all seen in your local newspapers, many fires started Sunday night in Napa and Sonoma counties. The death count continues to rise (as of this writing, 15 people have perished), missing-persons counts continue to rise, the acreage of the fires has risen to over 70,000 acres burned, and there is, as of yet, 0% containment of any of these fires. The devastation is horrifying. In the more rural areas, huge wineries and farms are being impacted. In Santa Rosa, which is a very large city, urban areas are burning. The fires jumped ridges from Napa to Santa Rosa, which is about 16 miles, in a matter of hours Sunday night.
It's 42 miles from our house to the center of Napa. It's hard to watch this happening to our neighbors. Smoke has been covering our local skies, and many outdoor events have been cancelled. I just got an alert that there is another red flag warning for our area tonight, which means more high winds are possible.
This, along with the horrors of the hurricanes several weeks ago, has had me thinking very deeply about the state of our personal emergency preparedness. Tom and I had several talks over the last month about what we have in terms of supplies, what our plan is if something happens, and then sharing this with our kids repeatedly. We have plenty of water and food put up, and we have things like flashlights, and we have a list of numbers on the fridge (do you have your kids' cell numbers memorized? I don't), and we have an out-of-state contact, and meeting place, but that's about it. We really felt (and continue to feel) as though we need to be more prepared for an emergency. Around here, the mantra is that you've got to be prepared to spend 72 hours alone and without help or power.
So, I got busy. I ordered water in pouches for the car, just in case we are stuck in there during an earthquake. Water in pouches lasts for five years, longer than bottles, and fits neatly in a compartment in the trunk. I also ordered mylar blankets for the car, which take up little space, and both Tom and I vowed to fill the gas tanks whenever they are half-empty. For home, I ordered a battery-powered radio and made sure we have enough extra batteries on hand. We have an extra propane tank, our grill and camping stove for cooking if need be, and I also have spent a good deal of time working on an emergency binder. This includes all kinds of lists, copies of our insurance policies, and copies of our medical insurance cards. I've made copies of all these things to go in our safety deposit box as well, which is where we keep things like passports and social security cards. I went around the house and garage and took pictures of everything we own; I've downloaded those pictures onto a thumb drive that also will go in the safety deposit box. I've made a list that is now on the fridge under our 'emergency numbers' - this list contains what we need to grab in an emergency - things like medications, or extra shoes, from most important at the top to least important at the bottom. If we have only five minutes to get out of the house, this can help us get what we need quickly.
I'm not the only one thinking along these lines. I follow a blog called Northwest Edible Life, and she had a whole series of emergency preparedness posts in the month of September. This was a great help to me as I worked my way through my to-do list, and I heartily recommend you check it out. I've also signed up for emergency alerts through Nixle, which is a great service to keep you informed if something is happening in your area.
We are thinking of our neighbors to the north and praying for their safety and for the abatement of the fires. Here is a link to Red Cross if you feel led to help.