Lessons from October wildfires: Make your evacuation list now

The "Follow This Story" feature will notify you when any articles related to this story are posted.

When you follow a story, the next time a related article is published — it could be days, weeks or months — you'll receive an email informing you of the update.

If you no longer want to follow a story, click the "Unfollow" link on that story. There's also an "Unfollow" link in every email notification we send you.

This tool is available only to subscribers; please make sure you're logged in if you want to follow a story.

Please note: This feature is available only to subscribers; make sure you're logged in if you want to follow a story.


Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

Kim King is known for being an organized person. For years she kept all her important documents in order and at the ready in the event that she would ever have to flee her house in an emergency.

But when the fateful day actually came last Oct. 8, she didn’t think to bring them.

King never dreamed when she fled her Coffey Park home that nothing would be there when she returned. She figured she was simply leaving for awhile to get away from the smoke that hung over her neighborhood.

Almost a year later, reflecting back on those moments of split-second decisions, she wishes she had thought to take one thing that was precious and irreplaceable — her wedding ring. King found it uncomfortable to wear at night so she would take it off and put it in a little decorative dish in her bathroom. The night of the Tubbs fire, she grabbed the cellphone by her bed but not much else.

You can’t replace the personal things that are most important to you. — Kim King

Agencies from the Red Cross to FEMA have come out with handy checklists on what to take in case of an evacuation. These lists usually focus on essential documents such as insurance policies and passports. But ask people who survived a North Coast fire and many are apt to say that in the long run, it’s the sentimental items that they missed the most and regret leaving.

“Business things you can get somewhere. All my health care documents, my banking documents, I could replace those,” King said. “It took me a long time to get all that paperwork back in order, but even a Pink Slip you can get replaced. You can’t replace the personal things that are most important to you.”

Every emergency situation is different depending on the disaster, where you may be located and how long a notification you had.

Some people may have time to methodically pack their cars. Others may have 10 or 15 minutes or perhaps only moments to get out with their lives.

King also left her cats in the house with the cat door closed, thinking it would keep them safe from surrounding danger until she could get home. That didn’t happen and it haunts her.

Her advice to anyone facing evacuation? First, if you take off your ring at night, put it by your cellphone by your bed. And take your pets first — don’t assume you’ll return, and have their carriers close at hand.

Michelle Hickman was one of those people who had time to think about what to take. She lived in a rental virtually across the road from where the Tubbs fire broke out at Highway 128 and Bennett Lane in Calistoga. Her 12-year-old daughter alerted her after her room began glowing orange and she looked out the window.

Michelle was one of the first people to call 911 that night. She was on the phone with the dispatcher as she gathered her kids and got into the car. Her husband did grab their lock box filled with important papers.

“I grabbed my purse, my car keys and our camera. I had just taken pictures of my daughter’s birthday. I didn’t want to lose the pictures on that camera,” she said.

Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

But if she had it to do over again she would have had the foresight to take pictures of the precious non-digital pictures and back them up on a hard drive, a CD or a flashdrive and then store copies in various place, even with a relative or friend.

It’s been recommended that people post in an easy-to-get to place a list of important things to grab in case of an emergency — and where they are in the house.

Hickman, whose home was hidden in a woodsy area on a hill, had already created those lists, having watched the Valley fire over the mountain in Lake County in 2015.

“It’s great to have that list to grab. Whether you have five minutes or 30 minutes. But I don’t think you truly know what it’s going to be like until you’re in that situation.”

One thing she is more prepared for now is her cat. An outdoor pet, he fled during the fire, only to be found two months later by a neighbor. Now, she keeps her inside and has a cat carrier ready near the door. She has also figured out the animal’s hiding spots to they’re not wasting precious minutes looking for her if they should ever have to evacuate again.

Sarah Knapp hurriedly evacuated her Rincon Valley home the first night of the Tubbs fire after seeing flames on a nearby hill. She left without her cats.

“I couldn’t find their carrier. We had just moved in and I thought I put them in the shed and was frantically digging round in the dark,” she recalls.

Fearful of the proximity of the fire, she and her husband left without the cats. They were lucky. Given a second chance, they are taking no chances. She now keeps the carriers in a lighted shed right by the cars.

When Electra de Peyster fled her Mark West home the first night of the Tubbs fire, she figured she would be coming back once the danger had passed.

A master gardener who teaches classes in seed saving and vegetable gardening, she managed to get her 80-pound dog in the back seat of her Subaru as well as her computer, projector and teaching materials. But aside from some framed photos, she didn’t scoop up anything sentimental.

“Had I known the house would burn and we would lose everything, I would have taken a number of other things — mostly those that connect me emotionally to members of my family,” she said. “It seems every day even now after all these months, I have a memory of something I no longer have. And mostly, it’s very small, seemingly insignificant things — like a beautiful print of a logo I used for a business I once had or an image of a goddess sitting atop the earth, caring for all the crops that we depend on for life.”

The things she misses most and wishes she had thought to take were hand-written letters her mother wrote to her when she was in college in the 1970s, and the fountain pen she used for her letter writing.

“My mother had very distinctive handwriting. I remember her sitting at her desk with her pen writing letters that themselves were treasure,” de Peyster said.

She misses her father’s Swiss Army knife, which symbolizes how her father taught her to be prepared. Folders of her children’s artwork from school, her gardening journals, her Sibley Guide to Birds with notes about which birds she had seen in her 25 years in the Mark West area, and her folder of recipes, are other lost items with little monetary value but that tug at her heart.

“In my mind I walk into our bedroom and I could see my grandmother’s chest of drawers or there was the print on the wall my mother gave me. There was a handkerchief in my bureau that belonged to my grandfather. They’re things that are inconsequential but the emotional connection to memories is what keeps you grounded and keeps you connected to your family.”

She said if she could pass along one recommendation to others it would be to identify right now — well before disaster strikes — at least one important sentimental item to grab before you go out the door.

They’re things that are inconsequential but the emotional connection to memories is what keeps you grounded and keeps you connected to your family. — Electra de Peyster

De Peyster figures she had about a half hour to load up her car before fleeing. But others had just minutes to get out or die.

Bobbi Donovan said she had been monitoring the fire all evening, even going out into the darkened cul de sac in the Mark West area and making a pact with a neighbor that the two of them would stay awake and act as sentinels for the neighborhood.

An increasingly alarmed Donovan at one point directed her husband, who she said thought she was being a “drama queen,” to place the computer by the door. But by 1:07 a.m. they got the call to evacuate. They were out of the house in seven minutes, using whatever mental bandwidth they had to make the agonizing decision which pets to sacrifice, since they couldn’t take all. The dogs prevailed, but it was heartbreaking to leave the iguana, the bearded dragon and the chickens.

With flames rolling down the hill into the creek behind their neighborhood, she spent the few minutes she had left pounding on every door in the cul de sac. Every neighbor got out.

“I wasn’t going to leave until I saw the eyes of all my neighbors,” she said.

“We didn’t take possessions. We didn’t have time.”

Fortunately, her husband had copied all their data and digital photos on a hard drive. But one thing they had not thought to digitally archive were the home videos archiving every Christmas and major event. With the pain of hindsight, she recommends that everyone take the time to transfer old movies to digital and store them somewhere safe, maybe even a safe deposit box. Take photos of things that are important and children’s artwork, she added. You will at least have a photo memory if something happens to them.

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5204.

Show Comment

Our Network

The Press Democrat
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Emerald Report
Spirited Magazine