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Not immune to the fires

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By Greg Dobbs

Just because we’ve dodged some bullets over the years here in Evergreen, we’re not immune to fires. Fires like we’ve just seen in Northern California. Fires that flatten everything in their path. And kill people in the process. This year, they were out west. Next year, they could be in our own backyards.
We’ve always lived here with the threat of fires, so we’re pretty good about mitigation — trimming limbs too close to the house, cutting down dead trees, raking up dead leaves, replacing wooden shingles with something synthetic. But in a perfect storm of fire-friendly conditions won’t save us. Most of the homes ravaged in Santa Rosa were suburban, not exurban. There really wasn’t even a whole lot to mitigate. They had trees, but not as big or dense as ours. Their ground cover was mainly manicured, not wild like ours. There is more fuel to feed the flames here than there.
Ever since the Hayman Fire 15 years ago between Denver and Colorado Springs, which was the biggest wildfire in the recorded history of our state and looked for a time like it could send sparks and fan flames in our direction, I, for one, have never complained about rain or snow. We’re safer when the subsoil is wet than tinderbox dry. However, we don’t get to choose the timing, as people learned all too well around both Colorado Springs and Fort Collins in 2012 and ‘13. Several died, 1,100 homes burned down.
As I read news coverage of the devastation in Santa Rosa, I thought back to two massive fires I covered many years ago, both also in California. One was in the hills of Santa Barbara, where wind whipped a small fire into a frenzy and just like Santa Rosa, the flames ran so fast that people had just minutes to escape. Hundreds of homes were leveled.
The third day after, my camera crew and I went looking for refugees. On a beach, we found a woman and three little kids, with a station wagon nearby. I asked her to tell me about her escape.
She said a police car with a loudspeaker had warned to get out and get out fast. What did she do then? “I got my kids and grabbed the stuff I need the most and piled everything into the car and barely got out in time.” When I asked what “stuff” she had saved, she broke into sobs and just pointed. At the station wagon. I looked inside. There was her vacuum cleaner. Her toaster. Her coffee pot. Stuff she could replace any day of the week. She had panicked, as many of us would, and thought only about what she used a lot, not what she loved a lot. Her scrapbooks, her jewelry, her records of life itself, all were now ashes.
The other fire was around the town of Grass Valley. A camera crew and I were helicoptering in but before we got to town, we set down on the two-lane highway leading out because we’d spotted a stack of cars almost melted together in a single heap. Everyone had tried to evacuate at once, which led to a traffic jam, which led to a chain-collision. The flames came so fast, people got out and ran. Their cars were incinerated.
There are lessons here. Before you panic, plan ahead of time what you’ll take, and have it ready to pack in your car. And, plan your evacuation route. More than one in fact. And don’t wait too long. Fires move faster than you think.
We’re not immune.

Greg Dobbs is a 30-year Evergreen resident. In the 1990s and early 2000s, he was a regular Courier columnist.