Diary of a Wildfire Evacuee

September 8, 2020

3 p.m.

I’m sitting at my desk in my home office working on a client project. Outside the window, fat dramatic of burnt orange and deep purple float on the horizon. Earlier I’d been outside filming the shift from blue sky to lavender and burnt citrus cloud cover. It looks beautiful and scary and other-worldly. I’m not overly worried. We’ve had this in the past, smoke from a nearby forest fire floating over our homes. We are 30 miles from Portland, Oregon, and 50 miles from Mt. Hood in a town known for its river, hydroelectric dam, and miles of forests, farmland and Christmas tree growers. I assume the fire is the one they’ve reported on Mt. Hood and that’s far away, so I go back to writing the back of the book text for a book client. I feel confident the firefighters are getting it under control. Besides, since a fire five years earlier, I’m signed up to receive text alerts and none have come through. There are three levels to a fire evacuation, yellow, green, and red. Level 1, yellow, requires one pack a bag. Level 2, green, is a notice to be prepared to go. And finally, Level 3, red, is an order to “Go Now.”  I haven’t even received a Level 1 alert. So I keep working.

3:30 p.m.

Out the office window, there’s a striking intensity to the heavy dark and red clouds. I think: Should I really be just sitting here working? In the living room, I plop on the sofa and casually look through hotels that will take pets, just in case. I don’t have family nearby, and with a 100 lb hyper Lab mix, I don’t want to overwhelm my friends. At any rate, many of them live nearby, and if I’m going to be evacuated, they’re going to be evacuated.

3:45 p.m.

My neighbor texts me frantically that the fire is close. I start to get scared. But we haven’t received any alerts! I’m renting a small house on 80 acres and have a yurt art studio 300 feet further into the woods. My neighbor and his wife have a beautiful house and horse property, and have to think of moving large animals. I live alone.

I find on my phone that there’s another fire, that these ominous clouds marching across the horizon aren’t from Mt. Hood, but from something much closer, a blaze they’re calling the Riverside Fire.

5 p.m.

I spend over an hour trying to find a place to board my cats. Nothing is available. I figure I will keep my dogs with me, and find a hotel. I sob to one vet tech, and slam the phone down on another. I think of my own vet. They’re eight miles away, and I know on one level they’re the best bet because they know my cats and on another, that they too may be evacuated. I just cannot conceive of bringing two dogs and two cats with me in my small car and trying to find a hotel. It feels too overwhelming. Outside the sky is worsening, the air is thickening, it’s getting harder to breathe. Still no level 1 alerts.

On the phone with my vet, a staff member tells me they close at 5 p.m. I look at the clock. It’s 5. They’ll open again tomorrow at 8 a.m.

“So, if I’m evacuated, I’ll just sit with four animals in my car in your parking lot all night.

“Sorry,” she says.

“Look, this is an emergency. You guys need to change your policy and step up.” She keeps getting off the phone to go ask someone else. I’m standing up, bent over my phone, tense.

“OK, if you come now, I’ll wait,” she says. Later, I’ll learn that they end up remaining open to wait for many people in the same predicament as me.

5:05 p.m.

Luckily my cats are in the house. Usually they’re roaming the acreage, dragging newly killed wild rabbits half their size in to lay at my feet like some prize. I run to get their carriers out of the closet,  stuff them inside, and rush them into the car. Still, there have been no alerts, so I figure I have the time to drive the eight miles into town, drop the cats off, and come home, pack a bag, prepare my dogs, and wait for the alerts. Meanwhile, my sister Whatsapp from Costa Rica. I quickly send her a picture of the sky.

“Evacuate,” she cries.

“I haven’t received any alerts.”

“Get out of there,” she wails.

I get on the road with the cats, and as soon as I turn onto the highway, I realize I’m in trouble. The usually empty road is backed up for miles with trucks and horse trailers, people trying to move their livestock and horses.

5:35 p.m.

I still haven’t reached the vet. I’m only halfway there. Miles in front of me and miles behind me are cars, trucks, campers, trailers. Police scream by in the other direction, sirens blaring. This is a sleepy town, population 3,000. I’ve never seen anything like it. I realize with horror that I may not be able to get back to get my dogs. Everything is changing so fast, and I can’t think. I decide to make a U-turn and speed home. The sky is so black now it’s like it’s the middle of the night. I’m using my wipers to move ash off the windshield.

I run into the house and grab the leashes, leash the dogs and get them into the car. They won’t fit with the cats. I take one cat out of a carrier and stuff her in with the other. They protest with hissing and scratching. I throw the other carrier into the house. I decide to leave the front door unlocked. I have no idea why. I run around the house. I need to take something with me, but what? Sweatpants? A sweater? Dog treats? My passport? My sleeping bag? These are the only things I can think of. My mind is blank. I jump into the car. As I’m driving up my long gravel driveway, the only alert I am to receive bings on the phone.

Level 3: Go Now!

If I’d waited, I’d be in traffic when the alert came through. The fire, or roadblocks might have stopped me from getting back to my dogs. I pet Baby beside me. She isn’t really my dog. My best friend died suddenly 10 days ago, and the police asked me to pick up her Corgi. I’m weepy.

The vet calls. “Where are you?”

“On my way. Please wait. Please.”

6:25 p.m.

I drop my cats off at the vet. I drive for 20 minutes along the highway out of town, the road toward Portland. I’m just so glad to get out from under that ominous, other-worldly cloud of smoke. I pull over to use my phone to find a hotel for me and two dogs.

I’ve lived in Tokyo, London, Boston and Seattle, and assumed until I moved to rural Oregon that most hotels didn’t take dogs. But I soon learned that in Oregon, animals are a big part of life. By the fifth call, I start to panic. Rooms are being snapped up faster than I can dial. First the closest towns nearby, then the next towns after that, then the next, and the next, and finally I’m calling Southeastern Portland, and finally north Portland, toward the border with Washington State. A clerk at Best Western Hotels say she has a room but can I wait, she’s very busy with people coming in the door.

“No,” I scream. I’ll take whatever room you have for me and two dogs, and I have my credit card ready. Book it for a week.”

She books it. I get my hotel room.

September 10, 2020

I last three days with two dogs in a hotel room and an air quality index in the 400s. To borrow a phrase, “I can’t breathe” in more ways that one. The grit and smoke in the air, even this far north, sticks in the back of your throat. I feel the toxins in my gut, and feel sick all the time.

The outpouring of support during those three days is nothing short of miraculous. The way Oregonians come together will stay with me for years. People send me gift cards. Best Western hotel waives my pet fees and lowers my room rate. Everywhere people step up, offering food and clothing and shelter to people all over the state.

Still I have to leave. I’m close to Interstate 5, which goes north to south along the entire U.S. West Coast. All I can think of is that I want to get on I5 to go as far north as I can get to get out from under this suffocating cloud. I call a friend in Seattle and ask her if she can put out word for me. I need a place to myself to manage the dogs. Atlas, the lab mix, is used to running wild on 80 acres, and is going stir crazy.

With minutes, someone responds. They have a rental on Whidbey Island, 230 miles north of Portland, 20 miles north of Seattle. The tenant moved out early. I can have it for free until October 1st. I call the owner and she offers to bring over an air mattress and sheets. I thank her for her kindness (In the States, rentals are often unfurnished.)

The night before I leave is sleepless. My friends are dispersed, all of them evacuated to different areas, and it feels somehow like I’m abandoning them by driving so far north. This fire, all of the fires dotting the West Coast, they seem like monsters to me and burn up my dreams.

Then there are my cats. Already, the vet has had to evacuate all of the animals they’re boarding, and they’re now in a dojo in Damascus, Oregon. All night I toss and turn. The woman who owns the rental doesn’t want to have the cats, and to go get them means braving Portland traffic at a time when everyone is frantically escaping the fires. I’m terrified I’ll be stuck, terrified the fires will worsen; already they’re creeping toward SE Portland. Fire lodges in a primal fear place in the body, it erodes one’s sense of safety and one’s mental health. I meditate and meditate and keep getting the message: The cats are in the best possible hands.

All over Oregon, people are stepping up to save the animals – livestock, horses, pets, wild animals. On social media, people post offers to go into the fire with a trailer and pickup and rescue horses or a lone cow. It’s this level of commitment to animals that reassures me.

As I drive north on I5, for the three plus hours it takes to get to Seattle, I realize there’s another reason I’m making this journey. Once a journalist in Tokyo, London, and Seattle, and now a novelist tucked far away from the world, I need to see the magnitude of the events taking place.

Thick heavy, back-of-the-throat smoke follows me for about an hour and a half. It decreases by a good 60 percent after that, but still the landscape is enveloped in white mist. Worse, the once green drive toward Seattle is now yellow and withered. I’ve made this drive dozens and dozens of times, and I can’t recognize the landscape. It is so dry. Seattle is called The Emerald City because it’s always been so green, because of the rain. But now it is yellow. This shocks me almost as much as the fires.

It is only hours later, when I’m waiting for the ferry to Whidbey Island at Mulkiteo, 22 miles north of Seattle, that I start to begin to glimpse a hint of blue sky behind what could be mistaken for fog. The island itself is misty but relatively clear, but this will change over the next two days as winds blow the smoke over Whidbey, and far into Canada. Still, the air quality index is 150 here, 189 in Seattle, 470 in Portland, and off the charts in my small town.

September 13, 2020

Over three days on Whidbey Island, I’ll hear that our sleepy town of Estacada makes national news on CNN as the epicenter of the Riverside Fire. I’ll watch fire maps as the fire inches closer and closer to the dojo in Damascas and my cats. I’ll watch a video of a house close to mine going up in flames. I’ll hear conflicting reports about the destruction of my own home. I see post after post about rural vigilantes with guns roaming around to protect houses from looters, and they’re shooting at innocents. I wonder again what the hell I’m doing living in this country.

I live in a rental and am not attached to most physical things. As an expat for years, I often had little more than a suitcase. I am not horribly worried about my house burning. I do have a yurt art studio 300 feet further into the woods, and am grief-stricken with the possible loss of hundreds of paintings, easels, and art supplies it’s taken me years to collect.

And of course we are all mourning the loss of the forest, and of the animals who live there. This is a mourning that is primal, a reaction that still searches for words.

6 p.m.

A friend from a nearby town sends me pictures. For some reason, she risked danger to drive to my house, taking backroads to get around the roadblocks.

“Your house and yurt are still there!” she tells me. She’s scared, though, and wants to get out quickly. The air is unbreathable.

“Don’t put yourself in danger,” I cry.

I’m grateful, but I know when they allow us to come home, we’ll all be returning to a pit of smoke damage. And it’s hard to be too happy as I watch dozens of my neighbors’ houses burn to the ground.

I sit on the blow up mattress, and prepare to launch my next novel. Twenty years ago, a book series downloaded into my psyche called The Elemental Journey Series, Earth, Air, Fire, Water, Ether. Water is set to come out in October. It’s all about one woman’s search for purpose in a world falling apart due to climate change.

I think we all know we’re going to see more crises like these. Scientists have been warning about “compound disasters” for years, the convergence of extreme events as a direct result of climate change. It’s happening now.

My friends and I question what we can do. I was called to write novels about it. Most of us have spent the past few years preparing by getting healthy, working out, eating organic and often vegan, doing yoga, meditating, quitting drinking and smoking. At least if we’re healthy, we can be of more use during a crisis. I know my own health craze has helped me maintain my sanity through all of this in ways that would’ve been impossible just a few years ago. In our work as coaches and healers, artists and writers, we directly address the issues of climate change and finding purpose. We’re activists. We’re fighting for changing outdated systems.We’re growing our own food.

If there is no way around the continuation of such dramatic events, of pandemics, and forest fires, of flooding and earthquakes, what can we do? We can, of course, vote for more aware politicians, that’s a given. But we can also opt for presence. We can focus our energies on physical and emotional presence. We can face what is.

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