The Western United States has had unprecedented wildfires this September. More land burned in Oregon, Washington, and California in days than had been seen in entire fire seasons. The region was blanketed in smoke with hazardous air quality for weeks. And whole towns went up in flames.

We were the lucky ones, “only” having to deal with warm temperatures and air quality that kept our homes shut up even as they warmed. Now, with rain and clear air, we are back on the trails and so thankful for the outdoors.

Many were not so lucky. Some lost their homes, their pets, their lives. Some had to “bug out” and wait it out away from homes until the flames died down. As someone who cares quite a bit about preparedness herself, I read this account in a “prepper” Facebook group I’m in about a family who had to bug out during the Oregon wildfires and what they learned in the process. I asked to share here, and I’m so glad that she agreed. MaryAnn’s post follows below.

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Emergency Preparedness Wildfire Bug Out Test

“No plan survives first contact with the enemy.”

I’ve been a prepper for years and thought I was ready for anything. We had a good plan going into the huge wild fire but now we have a better plan coming out of it and I want to share what I learned/had confirmed with all of you in the hopes that none of you ever need the advice.

We just lived through an intense fire that ravaged our area. It started and moved very fast with 40+ mph winds. Luckily, we were alerted by the emergency broadcast text and saw it coming fast towards us. We sprung into action, putting irrigation
on the house and pulling valuables.

We ended up with a longer period of time to prepare than it initially looked as the fire was slowed by the interstate and so had time to take a second pass through the house for valuables/sentimental items. Lucky for us but tragically for others, by the time it jumped past the freeway and started closer towards us (coming within a 1/4 mile of our farm), the wind pushed it North and the fire missed our farm. A number of homes burned behind us so that a “horseshoe” of fire ended up around us, essentially trapping us in, but it never made it to our farm. Tragically, hundreds of homes were lost.


What We Learned from “Bugging Out”

I wanted to share with you all some very concrete things we either learned or had reinforced for us in living with a triple natural disaster (COVID, wildfire and smoke). Most of this we already knew and had in place but some of it we learned on the fly. I’m a mom so there are a lot of kid things in here, which those without kids can glean bits from but obviously don’t always apply.

First of all, just because you are crushing it in the one disaster department, do not be complacent and assume that is all you will have to face. Mother Nature sometimes plays improv show and says “yes, and…” Just because you are sheltered in place does not mean you will not need to bug out at a moment’s notice. Life isn’t fair; that’s just the way it is. I am actively re-packing all of our emergency stuff right now to be prepped to evacuate again. Fire season is not over for 7 more weeks. Just because I had three disasters to juggle doesn’t mean I can’t have four.

More of the destruction

1. Develop a plan and pack “big out” bags

Develop a family plan for “get out this second” and “I have a bit of time to grab more” Have everyone understand the criteria for all of those. Be concrete and practice your plan. Know where you will go and what is important to take with you.

I know you know this but: Most importantly, have a “bug-out” bag packed all the time. If don’t have one, pack it today. Put it at your front door or in your car. If you have two cars, put one in each. Never steal batteries from it. Don’t touch it except to add or update it.

Assume that almost every natural disaster involves dehydration (even blizzards). Pack water. Water is heavy. Accommodate for that. It must be a comfortable backpack you can carry for long distances if you must. Your bug out bag MUST BE highly portable so don’t add superfluous stuff. Have an independently run cell phone battery charger in the outside pocket (not a plug in one). A disaster can hit when you have 12% battery. Communication is key.

Have a secondary “Mom” bag. This is stuff you would think of if you were a mom, played one on TV or wished you had your mom with you during a disaster. Ideally, this would be a backpack that could fit over your bug out backpack if you had to travel alone. This is the secondarily important stuff. Things that would be great to have but you can live without.

Extra food (remember fats go rancid and plan to pack things that never go bad), baby wipes for cleaning, a carbon copy of your kid’s favorite stuffed animal, playing cards, extra set of car keys, extra glasses, more money, a small amount of pet food, a leash, extra pair of underwear, sharpie pen, tape, packet of instant coffee, Rescue Remedy, morale treats (more on that later) etc.

Think “I’m stuck at a disaster shelter” stuff. Again, keep it light, but this one is not crucial, so it’s ok if it’s a bit heavier. If you have to bug out on foot, put that pack on top. If you get tired, you can ditch it. If you are in a fire and sparks fly down on you, your mom bag can burn but your bug out bag will be protected. I know it sounds scary, but it’s worth considering.

Fireproof document bags are only $30 online. Get some.

2. Take pictures and inventory your home

Take pictures of every inside wall in your house with closets and cupboards open, the inside of jewelry boxes, major electronics etc. If you have to make an insurance claim, it is a lot easier to recreate what you own when you can recreate based on pictures, rather than based on memory. Store those pics on the cloud, not a device so you can access it anywhere.

Have a change of clothes in every vehicle as well as water and non-perishable food. Remember your kids are growing and pants that fit them last year won’t this year.

Whatever the disaster season is for you (blizzard, tornado, hurricane, wildfire), have a bin packed with all your most important stuff in it- documents, heirlooms, jewelry, photos, important letters etc. Have it readily and immediately accessible that whole season. Your mind will be set at ease every time you walk past it. How often do you look at those photo albums anyway? You can always pull things you need out of it, but just put them back there when you are done.

When it is disaster season for you, never let your gas tank go less than half full or your electric car not fully charged all the time.

3. Make a list and post it

Make a list that is posted in an obvious place of things of primary and then secondary need that you will grab if you have time. Your brain will be fuzzy as hell. A list can tell you what to do. You can even make a list for each family member to be responsible for so that everyone knows their role.

Make sure that if your phone goes into “do not disturb” mode at night, you set it so that the emergency response alerts can still get thru at night at any time. Do that right now. If your emergency is ongoing, remember to turn” do not disturb” mode off for the duration of the disaster so that if a neighbor needs help or there are updates, the call/text gets thru no matter what.

If you have asthma, put your inhaler in your pocket first thing. You can’t afford an asthma attack during this. I hsve very mild asthma and used it 15 times running 13 miles that day.

4. Think about kids and pets, if you have them

Train your kids to stick together. They will support each other and that way you always know where all of them are. Teach them not to wander off on their own program. You will have extra panic if you don’t know where they are every second.

Secure your pet/s right away (if there is time). That way you don’t have to waste time chasing down the panicked dog once (or twice) because someone let her out as they were hauling stuff to the car!!!

A kennel next to the car covered over with a blanket is best to keep them available and calm. If there is no time to secure your pets/animals, set them free and shut the door/barn behind you. They have an instinct to get away from danger but will also want to return if they can for protection. Better to find them safe later than trap them. Make sure they are microchipped. If they are livestock and there is time, spray paint your phone number on them or write it in sharpie on their hooves.

Always leave room in all vehicles for all family members. If you have to abandon a vehicle, you want to be able to quickly transition. Put your important stuff in the vehicle most likely to survive/make it.

If you get fuzzy brained and can’t think of what to do next, ask another adult “what next”. They might be clearer and can direct you. Keep your instructions brief and clear. One piece of info at a time.

If you are under acute stress, you will not want to eat and you might be quite nauseous from the adrenaline. Don’t let blood sugar get the best of you. Grab a juice box or something similar to keep the energy going as you rush around.

5. Know your escape routes

Have an escape route and a secondary and a tertiary route well practiced. Our primary and secondary escape routes were in flames. If you had to get out quick, valuable time could been lost winding thru unfamiliar streets. Have an “on foot” escape route planned as well.

Approaching fire in 40-50mph winds

6. Don’t neglect mental health

Mental health: Remember that PTSD is most common after someone goes thru a traumatic experience feeling trapped and/or helpless. Give your kids/differently abled family members jobs even if they are not very helpful because they will be less traumatized on the other side.

A great job for kids is water bearer or juice box bringer. You will get dehydrated fast. If they can just keep bringing you water, it will help and they will feel helpful. Praise everyone as they are working over and over again. It keeps morale up. Even the adults get a boost of energy when they hear “You are doing amazing.” Praise everyone a bunch afterwards. Praise their actions and their attitudes. Let them know what they did right so that they will come out of it feeling brave and empowered rather than more scared. That will (hopefully) reduce nightmares.

Designate one person in advance as the mask distributor if the disaster is fire. If someone grabs them all for everyone else and no one knows, valuable time can be wasted looking for your damn mask that you left RIGHT THERE. 😉

7. Have outside (of the area) help

Designate one person who does not live in your immediate area as your researcher. Make them familiar with ways emergency info is distributed in your area. You might not have time to google the weather or escape routes but they can do that for you. Consider having someone who stays calm in an emergency also available to talk to your kids/you to keep you calm.

If there is time, make sure everyone gets into comfortable, easy to move clothing with SOCKS and shoes to prevent blisters. Jeans are great because you can put stuff in your pockets that you need. Don’t put on your daughter’s shoes that are a bit too small just because they are next to the door. You might not have trimmed your toenails and so they might cut your toe open and you slowly bleed into your shoe while you run up and down the stairs 137 times (as confirmed by my fitbit). I say that jokingly as that was obviously my experience, but shoes are one of the most critical things.

8. Color code and have documents organized

Color code your files/papers with folders that are red or something else eye catching so that if you have time to grab files, you don’t have to think. Consider things that would be a pain in the butt to recreate, like receipts for healthcare expenses and the like. These are obviously not things to grab if you have seconds to leave, but if you have time for a second pass.

If you haver time for a second pass at the house to get more valuables and there is another adult in the household, have them do it as they will think of things you didn’t think of. If you have time for a third pass, have your kids put the stuff by the front door rather than in the car because by then they will be picking up random stuff that (hopefully) you will have to spend the next three days putting away.

Teach your kids what is valuable and what can be replaced. Reinforce this a bunch. It will help them prioritize what to grab first. Understand that what is a first priority to them might not be to you. It’s ok that they grab their stuffed bunny first. Praise them for it. They will be glad they have it if they lose everything else or at least just can’t get home for a few days.

(Angela: plug here for the Smart Money Mamas In Case of Emergency binder as a great outline to prepare and have all the important stuff in one place)

Teach everyone in your household what shock looks like. When the danger is over, one of you might go into shock and if everyone knows what that looks like, no one will be afraid. They will calmly get mom a glass of water and put her feet up.

9. Be prepared to be without utilities – including water

We were without power, water, gas, phone and internet for 6 days after the fire so I learned more about how to do that as well.

10. For sheltering in place in an emergency:

• However much water you have stored, triple it. You would be amazed at how much water you need. Make sure that not all your food stores need water to prepare (dehydrated stuff, pasta etc).

• Have food storage for at least a week and have it be food that you don’t have to cook or refrigerate if power goes out.

• Have lots of paper plates and disposable cutlery. Most disasters involve power outages and you don’t want to waste water/headlamp batteries on dishes. (Angela: not something I considered. May add fully compostable plates and flatware to my stored preps)

• Have flashlights everywhere when power is out and a headlamp designated for everyone. Don’t let your kids play with their emergency headlamps or they will be a pain in the butt to find at night. Have emergency LED lights that you can post at trip hazard locations in your house. The last thing you need is to have someone fall down the stairs. We have orange LED road flares that have hooks that you can hang everywhere and last 60 hours. They also make great nightlights.

•Have more extension cords than you think you need, especially if you have a generator (and if you don’t have one, seriously consider one- it saved our butts in a major, major way).

•Have a bunch of box tape in your preps. You can seal smoke or cold drafts in blizzards out out windows and doors and tape down extension cords so grandma doesn’t trip on them.

•Have a special comfort food stashed that you vow never to steal from until then. Gummy bears that randomly show up boost morale more than anything.

•Try to keep a routine. Adults, children and pets come out of acute stress faster when things feel as familiar as possible.

•Rest when you can. Let people make mistakes. You are all tired and cranky comes next. If you talk about it in advance, you won’t get hurt feelings and be more compassionate.

•Call your phone company and switch to an unlimited data plan during the power outage so that you don’t have a million dollar bill at the end of it. You will rely on your phone a lot to get information.

Don’t be too proud to ask for help if you need it. The people you love really do want to help even if they are far away. If you have someone you love living thru a disaster, let the first thing you say be “what can I do to help?”

We are so grateful to be alive and so grateful to be able to “shelter in place” as so many we know can not. Hug someone you love for me.

-MaryAnn Geness

4 thoughts on “Emergency Preparedness (Guest Post – Escaping Oregon Wildfires)

  1. Wow. To be honest, this is a bit terrifying and overwhelming to me – I’ve never thought or read anything about prepping so this is a lot to take in at once. The Philly area isn’t disaster prone – in the 16 years I’ve been here, I haven’t experienced anything more major than a couple multi-day summer power outages – but as I see climate change advancing it reminds me that nowhere is safe. I’m going to take a deep breath, send this to my family, and set a goal to create a bug-out bag for the fam by the end of the year.

    I do wish this article included what she and her family did to escape – there are references to running up the stairs 137 times, running 13 miles, pets, etc. Having never evacuated I think it would be helpful to know what that actually looked like.

    Now for a practical question – do you keep water in reusable water bottles, or do you have a case of plastic disposable ones? If reusable, do you periodically refresh the water? I guess I should look at some prepper sites to find answers to my numerous other questions!

    1. We actually chose a hot water tank instead of a tankless to help with the freshwater storage piece. Water is something you do want to refresh at least annually, but if you have space you can get bigger reusable ones.

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