Guest Column: Fire! Evacuate!

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Meeker volunteer and BLM firefighters knocked out last week’s brush fire quickly, but it reminded columnist Kaye Sullivan of the need to be ready to evacuate. —BOB TOBIN COURTESY PHOTO

MEEKER | This is an unexpected “smells of Meeker” story addition to the “Sounds of Meeker” series. On Friday afternoon, I started smelling “campfire” smoke, meaning, smoke nearby, not the less intense odors from the ongoing western Colorado wildfires. It seemed like it was coming from just outside our door, and indeed it was.

Just about three blocks away, up by the water tower and hike on China Wall, flames were leaping up and smoke was rampant. Here was the making of another horrible wildfire that could also destroy our house. 

I immediately thought that a fire could quickly spread up the trees and become difficult to fight. This beautiful park is straight uphill with lots of potential to spread from treetop to treetop. We know how fast the wind can shift and spread smoke and fire in any direction.

One of the learnings from many Colorado years of wildfires, is that smoke can be immediately deadly. We knew without formal warning (where was the emergency alert by the way?) that we should prepare to evacuate within 15 minutes, a timeline we learned from friends near Boulder whose entire neighborhood was burned to the ground within minutes.

I called 911 who assured me responders were already on their way and indeed they increased steadily within minutes.

Meanwhile, we activated our tentative evacuation plan that I had never completed. Jay hooked up our trailer that is our house on wheels and partially ready to roll all the time. 

I packed meds, phones, laptops, and cables. From many travels, I learned that without the cables, your devices are useless. Next, random pick of clothes (next day I discovered I packed all my shorts and not one sweatshirt), a bit of food, water, and other drinks. I just threw everything into the trailer and stuck to my 15-minute evacuation goal. 

Meanwhile, the fire was raging and smoke spread around us. Did I mention that the electricity in the house went out? I knew we had to be prepared to leave and go anywhere, right away. In this terrifying moment, it does not matter where we might go, just not staying here.

Then, while trying to pack our vehicles and trailer, I noticed all the spectators who came to watch, some worried about their own or friends’ property, some wanted to chat, and none offered to help us evacuate. Hmmm. I encouraged folks not to block this dead-end street so that it would be clear for first responders’ potential need to access the fire and a neighbor needing to evacuate her horses. 

Thankfully, our valiant firefighters brought the fire under control and the smoke also quickly dissipated. Thank you all for your timely response. We were on the edge of devastation and appreciate all your hard work to control this fire.

For us, this was a very close call and reminder to be ready for anything, including immediate evacuation. We learned some lessons that we will add to our evacuation planning. I will give us a B+ for sticking to the priorities but we will add a few cherished items to save that we surely would have missed.

Like most homes, ours is full of family photos and many memories, plus Jay’s original art, probably our most precious possession. Yet, we decided years ago that we could not pick and save one favorite piece– sort of like saving one child and not another. So, we already made the tough decision that we would leave it all behind and work at keeping the digital files that would made reproductions possible.

In the end, loss of this beautiful art would be incredibly painful. But they are still material possessions, not our lives or safety. I think it is extremely useful to have these very tough discussions early so that when you only have 15 minutes to leave, you already have a plan and can enact it with confidence.

Again, I cannot thank our firefighters enough. You are again our heroes. To the rest of you, I recommend being prepared, having an evacuation plan, and realizing COVID is not the only thing threatening us. 

By KAYE SULLIVAN | Special to the Herald Times