Once a year I write about something morbid, and that day is Halloween. Every spiritual tradition has beliefs about acknowledging our mortality in order to appreciate the life that we have today. I have always found this to be both comforting and inspirational, so I am making the most of the opportunity. Previously I have written about being a full-body donor and writing your advance care directive.
This year I’d like to ask you to consider making an escape plan.
Several of my friends in different parts of California have had to evacuate their homes due to wildfire, both within the last month and over the last few years. To us this is a daily reality, and much more so in October. One of my close friends is currently changing AirBnB’s every ten days because her house burned up, and that was an ordinary house fire, not even a natural disaster. They had to put her little kitties on oxygen and they barely made it.
A football field every three seconds. That’s how fast these fires move.
To make matters worse, a lot of people wind up with no power before the fire reaches their area. There have been situations when they did not receive evacuation alerts, because:
Nobody has a landline
No electricity = no wifi
No wifi = no cell service (for a lot of us)
No cell service = no calls
The first they know that they need to run for their actual lives, it’s when police cruise down their street yelling out of a bullhorn, even though they assume that sector has already been cleared. A mere formality, but a smart one born of experience.
Have you ever had a firefighter beat his fist on your front door because your apartment complex is on fire? I have.
I was sleeping on an air mattress only ten feet from the door, and I didn’t hear it. I have sleep issues, and even as a kid in grade school I couldn’t guarantee to you that anything will wake me up. This includes having popcorn dropped into my slack sleeping mouth. Fortunately my entire family was home and someone was able to physically drag me out of bed and haul me to my feet. WAKE UP!
Wake up. It’s time to get ready.
We know neither the day nor the hour. That means our time could come tonight.
We’re not really sure yet what we would do if a fire comes to our new place. There are a lot of factors in play.
1/3 chance it would happen while we are sleeping (8 hours out of 24)
5/7 chance that if it happens during the day, my husband will be at work several miles away
Non-zero chance he will be on business travel or airborne in a plane
It’s statistically unlikely that we would be in the same building when the snit hits the fan. Therefore we have to have a plan for how to find each other, and that plan has to assume that phones and internet are down across our region.
There are two other confounding factors for our household. They may or may not apply to yours.
We have two pets
We live on the top floor of a pretty big apartment building.
I’ve practiced putting on my go bag, getting my animals out of their crates, and getting them out of the door. My husband says “you could get out of here in one minute” but I know better. Even without smoke, it’s a bit complicated. Get a flapping, panicking parrot into a box and then clip a leash onto a struggling, wriggling dog.
Next step. I have to choose between either the elevator (BAD IDEA), three flights of stairs with three doors, or trying to lower everyone out of a fourth-floor window. Um...?
There are other natural disasters that might come for us besides fire. Tsunami? This is the only one where living on the top floor is actually an advantage. Earthquake? You feel it more on the top floor, but we will probably be fine unless it’s well above a 6.0. Our building is old enough to have been through a few rumbles. Fire is the one that demands quick thinking and preparedness.
Plan A is just to stay put. Chances are that we’ll be fine and so will our neighborhood. We don’t need to be blocking the roads or getting in the way of emergency services if it isn’t necessary.
Plan B, I stay put and my husband tries to get home to me. In a rough scenario, if he had to walk in bad conditions, it could take three hours, assuming a walking speed of one mile per hour. He is a certified emergency medical responder, so if he was late I would assume he was helping other people.
Plan C, I take our animals to the nearest Red Cross shelter and he has to figure out where that is.
If we can’t get through to each other by phone, we can call each other’s parents. If we can’t do that, we can find internet somehow and send each other email. If we can’t do that, I have index cards, pens, and masking tape in my go bag. If I have to leave, hopefully I have an extra 60 seconds to tape a note on the door before we go.
Everything we own can burn. It’s okay. We can always replace our passports and those are the only really important physical possessions we have. I would walk without a second thought. I need the time to be able to help my neighbors, not save my... what? Leftovers out of my fridge? Socks?
To be able to keep our heads clear in a crisis, we have to practice. We have to understand on a gut level that “losing everything” is just stuff. We have to get ourselves out because if we dawdle and try to lug a bunch of suitcases, an emergency responder might die trying to come after us.
We have to GET OUT and we have to do it on our own.
Please, after all the costumes and decorations have been put away and all the candy has been eaten, please extend your role-playing just a bit longer. Take a few moments to visualize how you are going to get yourself and your household OUT OF THE HOUSE in case of emergency. Especially if you have kids. Draw pictures. Set a timer and practice. Make sure all your doorways and hallways are clear. Make sure you and yours can get out if you need to.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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