I’ve been trying to process all the emotions and come up with the right words to share what happened during the Riverside and Beachie Creek fires in September last year. In the end, I’ve decided to share an edited version of my journal entry from the experience.
It was a windy, Monday night in September 2020. The wind was howling through the drafty attic of our 1925 American Foursquare home. The boys were fast asleep in there beds, undisturbed by the storm. I kissed them each extra hard, as I feared we may not make it through the night unscathed. Visions of trees falling onto our home ran through my mind.
Growing up in this same house we live in now, I’ve braved many storms in the bedroom my boys now sleep in. I felt like a little girl, terrified of the wind I couldn’t see. The stress and adrenaline were too much, there was no way I’d be sleeping. I tried so hard to be strong, praying nonstop. To distract my mind I scrubbed the bathtub that was long overdue for a cleaning.
We heard sirens all through the night as the 50mph gusts brought trees down onto powerlines, causing sparks in the dry end-of-Summer heat. I couldn’t help but keep up with the updates in our local community Facebook group. There were 6 fires reported within a mile of our house that night. All on different sides, seeming to block us in. Feeling trapped in my own safe haven was so unsettling I can barely describe it. Most of these fires were extinguished within minutes by neighbors and fire crews. But the fire on the other side of town wasn’t letting up. Many people were evacuated at 2am, and more all throughout the next day.
Early Tuesday morning I packed go-bags, just in case we would need to evacuate. The air quality was so poor from the fires, that we couldn’t go outside to play at all. The strong winds from that night had blown the smoke from far away fires into our front yard, accompanied by the smoke of the fire that began across town the night before. What I didn’t realize at the time was the wind blew the fires into our direction, too. Fires that once were no concern to us, more than an hour drive away in the national forests. Fires that hadn’t been a threat to homes nearby, had devoured entire towns in the night.
It was 2pm Tuesday when I loaded the boys, the 4 dogs, the 2 cats and our a couple days of clothes into the car. The smoke was coming into our drafty old house and causing myself respiratory stress; I didn’t want my boys breathing any of that in with their delicate little lungs.
We left to my parents’ house, just one town over, where the small fire by my house wasn’t a threat. At this time, I was unaware that another fire just miles from my parents’ house may become a threat. As I sat, still fully loaded in the car in their driveway, I watched the fire maps and evacuation commands change with every refresh. More and more of my community was being evacuated. My house officially received the level 2 evacuation notice after I’d left, my parents’ house received a level 3 while I was there. The Sheriff came by and strongly suggested it was time to leave. I went to wait at the high school, which was at a level 2 and the designated Red Cross meeting site.
I waited there at the high school, while my husband, who’d left work a couple hours ago, was back at our house loading up the camper with essentials and extra clothes, now that we were going to be gone more than a night or two. We didn’t know where to go. Everywhere on the map was getting evacuated. Every friend and family member who came to mind was being evacuated, or soon would be. Our home went to a level 3 evacuation. And it finally occurred to me that my husband’s grandparents had space for us, in one small area of the map not being evacuated.
The first night there, I really didn’t sleep. I kept watching those fire maps for changes. The only changes I saw were that the fires were growing. I even found that there was a fire a few miles away from where we were staying now, luckily it was much smaller and containable, only a couple of homes were evacuated in the area. But my anxiety wouldn’t leave it alone. My fear kept getting loud.
On Wednesday, when the reality hit that our home might not make it through the wildfires, my husband went back home to collect our most valuable possessions, plus more diapers for the boys and clothes for us all. The sky was a raging red, looking like a scene from an apocalyptical movie.
We kept a close eye on the fires near our home. The 2 distant fires that weren’t a concern to us before, continued to close in and get dangerously close to our community, eventually coming only miles from our home. Over the next few days, the evacuation zone grew to our entire county being fully evacuated.
Many firefighters and civilians were at the front lines, extinguishing hotspots and digging fire lines. My husband was torn between wanting to go help and wanting to stay with me to help with the boys.
The boys and the dogs were having a fantastic time. They thought we were camping. My grandparents-in-law raise cattle on a sizable piece of proper, neighboring forests and a filbert farm. It’s absolutely beautiful out there, and they are such hospitable and loving people. We really are blessed to have them in our lives and to have gotten to spend this time with them. As scary and emotional as the evacuation was, being there did offer some calm to the storm.
At some point, 4 or 5 days into this event, we got the warning that anyone left in the evacuation zones were in great danger as the 2 major fires in our area were at risk of merging and causing a huge energy shift which would push them forward with intense speed. We were faced with the need to come to terms with the idea of losing everything but each other.
After 8 days away from home, we got the notice that we were reduced to a level 2 evacuation. This wasn’t an official OK to go home, but it meant that the fires were getting contained in our area. I went home to check the air quality now that the roads wouldn’t have been barricaded off anymore and the immediate danger to our home was stable. My youngest boy had outgrown his clothes while we were away, so I needed to grab a handful of one size up from his closet to get us by. I’d already gone and spent enough money on new clothes for all the boys while we were away since we left during the end-of-Summer heat and ended up having the start-of-Fall rains in the next few days. (That’s that Oregon weather for ya.)
I wasn’t making this trip just for kids’ clothes though, I was really wanting to check the air quality in and around our house. Just because the fires were contained, doesn’t mean it was going to be safe air for my kiddos to be breathing. And I wanted to water my garden, assuming it had survived without it. Just because it rained where we were staying 45 minutes away, doesn’t always mean it rained at our house, too.
As we approached our gate, my boys lit up with excitement. They knew it we were at home, and they were happy to see the house was still standing. They were very concerned about their playset being okay, and I had to assure them it was since I couldn’t let them out to play in the backyard and check for themselves just yet. There was a good deal of clean up that was going to have to happen first.
The air was thick, but bearable without a mask. Some areas of the house still smelled smoky, though. We were luckily able to borrow an air purifier to help clear it up, along with a box fan and furnace filter taped up to it. There was a thin layer of soot on every surface on our lower level, so that meant a lot of mopping and vacuuming needed to happen before I let my littles in to crawl around.
The night of the 9th day, we got a notice that it would be raining in our town. A lot of rain. And a flashflood warning for all the areas effected by the fires. There was another wave of fear, but this time I had so much hope behind it, we desperately needed that rain to help with the fires.
We finally went home after 10 days of living in our camper. It felt weird to drive home, like we were just moving on and not talking about the trauma our entire community had faced. It was a strange kind of healing, we’d all gone through this together while we were scattered in different directions, and we healed in a similar way: on our own, in private, but somehow together in it all. Some days it’s like it never even happened at all, and sometimes the fear stands up to me and I am certain I experienced it all. I’m sure this will be a life long healing process, as it is for all who’ve experienced anything similar. My prayers are for your healing, and that we grow from the ashes, not remain buried in them.