Lessons from House Fire Survivors ⋆ We Dream of Travel Blog

Lessons from House Fire Survivors

First responders attempt to contain a wildfire in Oregon.
First responders attempt to contain a wildfire in Oregon.

The current wildfire situation in the US has countless people fearing for their lives, homes, and memories. For some, there may still be time for last-minute preparations, while others will sadly be reading this wondering “what’s next?” and struggling to cope with what they have lost.

The following stories are from people who have been EXACTLY where you are RIGHT NOW. They have lost their homes and everything in them and come out the other side, and they have volunteered their time to share the wisdom of hindsight.

You are not alone in this. There are resources, there is hope, and what’s more, there is PROMISE.

If you would like to contact anyone, we will be forwarding your messages to each of the individuals. Just leave your message in the comments below.

Evacuation Preparation Advice

Clean up crews clear emergency evacuation roads following wildfires in the Pacific Northwest.
Clean up crews clear emergency evacuation roads.

Perhaps you, like my family, are currently huddled around your homes with every window shut and cars loaded praying the fires get contained. What else should you be doing? Below is some advice from survivors to act on while you have time!

Video Footage for Insurance

Think about INSURANCE now!! Use your cell phone and record an entire home walk through, and/or take photos of every room, cabinet, attic, etc. Pay particular attention to areas of high value as this will help with claims. Do the same for sheds, barns, etc.

Back Up Your Computer

Back up your computer if you cannot take it with you! External hard drives are the easiest, most affordable, and most compact way to do back up your computer. You can find the hard drives we use here. We’ve been using this brand for years as they’re an affordable option and allows us to have several backups stored in different locations.

Have a Fireproof Lockbox Ready

Ensure you have a fireproof lockbox for your birth certificates, social security cards, etc. This a good thing to have anyway as wildfires are not the only way homes get lost. This should have your cash and irreplaceable items as well, all of which can be grabbed and moved at a moments notice. You can find an affordable option here.

Take Blueprints of your Home

Blueprints of your home, if available, will help with insurance. Be sure to include any upgrades you’ve made via blueprint if possible, otherwise be sure to record them in photo or video form. If you have remodeled or upgraded, you will need proof of this for insurance.

Submerge Items You Can’t Take

If you have a pool or water source, consider submerging items that you want to give the best chance of surviving but cannot take with you. Expensive china, souvenirs, etc.

Have Air Filters On Hand

Buy 1-2 AIR FILTERS for your home!! The smoke in the air is terrible for your lungs and there is no source of fresh air. Keep your home sealed up tight and keep the air breathable. Sadly, anyone living in the PNW may find themselves needing this every summer at this point. Here is one that has great reviews and is currently almost half off.

Prepare a Summer Emergency Kit

If you live in high-risk areas, ensure you have an “emergency kit” by the door and ready during the summer months. This in addition to your lockbox (which you may prefer to keep hidden!). You may want to include water, food, basic toiletries and an emergency list/plan to remind you of other items to take. If you have pets, keep pet crates easily accessible to allow you to quickly evacuate your animals too.

Clear Your Gutters of Dry Material

Large fires spread in part from the large embers they produce and launch. Make sure your home is clear of all dry materials, especially your gutters. If possible, it is also good to plug your gutters and fill them with water.

This orange earth photo was taken in broad "daylight."
This orange earth photo was taken in broad “daylight.”

If you are reading this without any imminent threat to your home, stop right now and quickly make a list of everything you would HAVE to bring if you suddenly had to evacuate. As you will learn, this happens faster than you imagine and in moments of panic, you are likely to forget some important things.

Prepare all of your important documents in a central location now, and keep this list you just made on the top of that stack. This will likely be the first thing you know to grab in a hurry, and your list will help remind you what else you need to gather. Family heirlooms, hard drives, chargers etc.

If there is one thing every story has in common, it’s that no one had as much time as they expected!

Meet the Survivors:

Fire crews drop water on a forest fire in Oregon.
Fire crews drop water on a forest fire in Oregon.

Meet Rosalie

Rosalie lost her home to the “Black Saturday” firestorm that destroyed the entire town of Marysville in Australia. Ten years later, the PTSD and emotional impact is still a very real part of her day to day life.

While I have received most of these interviews by email, Rosalie and I spoke for a bit over an hour on the phone. I highly recommend having a cup of coffee and listening to her story. Just click the Play Button below.

I have also transcribed a synopsis of her answers here:

Question 1: Please describe your personal experience leading up to, and during evacuation. 

Rosalie was watching a movie with her then-husband when he noticed a strange coloration in the sky. They thought it was the next weather system moving in, but stepped outside to see it was a MASSIVE fire storm in the distance.

They prepped the house with sprinklers and such, gathered their belongings, and got out about 3 hours later. Had it been 3.5 hours later, they may not have made it out alive!

Question 2: What would you do differently if you could go back in time?

Rosalie says she would have gotten out sooner. The lack of urgency almost cost them very dearly, and in the end, all that time moving sprinklers and sealing up the house didn’t make a bit of difference.

Question 3: In the wake of learning your home had been lost, can you describe how things felt?

Rosalie says things felt “surreal”. There were moments that felt like it never happened, even though she knew it did.

It was not so much the “things” she lost in the fire that trouble her still to this day, but the community that was destroyed.

She describes a town where she knew everyone and couldn’t go for a 5-minute walk without being out for an hour because of all the people she would see and talk to along on the way. She wanted this to be her forever home, “her little place on the planet”. Yes, the fire destroyed her stuff, but it was the fact that her home and community would never be again that she stills finds most troubling to this day.

Question 4: What advice, wisdom, or preparation would you give someone who is reading that has just lost their home?

More than anything else, Rosalie recommends finding someone “who does more than listen; find someone who understands“. She faced a shameful lack of sympathy from others who tried to downplay her loss – she doesn’t blame those people, they couldn’t possibly understand as they had never experienced it themselves, but that is what she needed more than anything else.

“Find someone who knows your pain, because it is pain. There’s no other word for it.”

We also discussed allowing yourself to grieve for as long as it takes and when you’re ready, accept that what you lost cannot be rebuilt and start building something new. Focus on the things that matter in this world; the people, the communities, the relationships, not the stuff, and move forward. It’s the only way.

Question 5:  Looking back from where you are today, is there any silver lining to this tragedy? 

While Rosalie is still audibly gutted by the tragedy, she acknowledges a sliver of silver in her new appreciation for time and the importance of prioritizing what you do in this world and who you do it with.

“On average, you only get 80 summers… that’s not that long!”

Meet Paula

Imagine losing your entire home in an instant. The smell of smoke revealing an attic fire with only minutes to get out… That is the reality that Paula faced twenty years ago, but the fire continues to affect her, literally, to this day.

Paula has been forced to evacuate again due to the recent wildfires. Despite having been through this once and having a bit more time to prepare, her story is proof that no amount of preparation is “too much,” and her story, like all the others drives home one point: you never have as much time as you think!

Question 1: Please describe your personal experience leading up to, and during evacuation. 

In the case of our fire 20 years ago, there was no advance warning. I smelled smoke, my husband investigated and found the attic fully enflamed and we all ran out of the house. I stopped long enough to grab my phone to call 911, my cat, and my grandmother’s ashes (who had died only the week before and I had just picked up from the funeral home).

None of us were properly clothed and some didn’t even have shoes on. 

In the case of our evacuation last week, I was aware of what was happening in the valley but as it was 50 miles upriver. I wasn’t terribly concerned that it would affect us. I was, however, experiencing a fair amount of anxiety due to the high winds expected, our home being surrounded by a forest of very tall fir trees and the extremely dry conditions of everything.

I didn’t want to be caught unaware so I packed a go-bag just in case. I had time to do this Monday evening and set it aside just in case. Unfortunately, I only packed bare personal essentials and not anything of importance for which I am now kicking myself. The next morning when I woke up to level 3 there was no more time to think. We quickly grabbed a day or two of food and what I had packed the night before and left. 

Question 2a: What would you do differently if you could go back in time?

I would remember that I don’t know how long I will be gone (during evacuation).

In this current case, I thought it would only be a day or two and right now it looks like it will be at least several weeks, and possibly not at all.  The fire is still not contained… we could end up losing our house. 

Question 2b: Is there something you would do now to be better prepared should you ever face this again? 

Knowing what I should have learned from last time, I should have had a list handy of things to pack so I didn’t have to think. You don’t expect to have to go through this twice!

I need to keep in mind that I may be looking at a longer time away from home or losing everything and decide ahead of time what is really important. 

When events like this happen, we lose the ability to think straight. It is normal and we need to give ourselves grace and should not expect to be able to think logically.

Question 3: In the wake of learning your home had been lost, can you describe how things felt?

The seven stages of grief hold true for losing a home as well as a loved one. Emotions run rampant and having the freedom to show and share those feelings is vital.

Feelings are neither right nor wrong, they just are. Everyone’s emotional support needs are different. My husband needed to cry, I needed to keep busy. Life goes into slow motion and everything feels surreal. Don’t expect differently.

*Those who listened to Rosalie’s story will notice this was her primary emotional need as well. If you have lost your home, find someone who understands your pain to talk to! Perhaps one of our guests would even lend an ear!*

Expectations should be kept to a minimum. As a lifelong planner, I had to learn to take life one moment at a time. The one mental result neither of us expected was the loss of being able to read. We are both avid readers but neither of us could read a book for an entire year afterwards. Trauma shows up in the most unexpected ways. 

Question 4: What advice, wisdom, or preparation would you give someone who is reading that has just lost their home?

Know that it is going to be a long road and pace yourself. Sifting through belongings or ashes to itemize for insurance is a daunting task.

Wear a mask and drink plenty of water and remember to take care of yourself when being in the environment of your burned home.

*Note: Do not attempt this at all until someone has inspected your home for dangerous construction compounds that could be lethal to breathe, ie. asbestos.*

Use the resources that are out there. Insurance and Remediation companies are invaluable in moving forward. For us, 20 years ago, it was an entire year before we were able to rebuild and be back in a home with a minimal amount of possessions.

This too shall pass, but it is going to take time. Have patience…with yourself and those around you.

5.)  Looking back from where you are today, is there any silver lining to this tragedy? 

We learned that material belongings are all just stuff. What’s truly important is each other and our relationships.

We also learned that there is a sense of lightness and freedom with less material possessions. It puts all of life in perspective. Acknowledge the blessings as they appear. 

Meet Mary

Mary and Clay lost everything in the Paradise Campfire on Nov. 8, 2018. She, like most, did not recognize the threat as being real until it was almost too late.

Luckily, they had an emergency kit packed and ready with the most important legal documents and some necessities, which she said was “life-saving”.

Also very lucky, Mary and Clay were already planning on moving! Mary leaned on her faith and found the good in everything that happened.

Read her story below.

Question 1: Please describe your personal experience leading up to, and during evacuation. 

I was out walking at 7am the morning of the fire, and a few friends and I were watching the smoke but thinking nothing of it because we see smoke all the time.

I got home at 7:30am and my boss had texted me that the fire was at the back of her property, and to get ready to evacuate. I told my husband, Clay, and then called my neighbor next door to tell her. My boss lives 1.5 miles down the road from me. 

I had to meet someone at 8am and told my husband I would be right back.  I didn’t stay but a few minutes as I was seeing a lot of cars heading down the Skyway.  The extreme danger had still not yet sunk in

As soon as I got home, I ran inside and Clay said, “You have 5 minutes to pack whatever you can in your suitcase on the bed and we are out of here.  The fire is at the far side of the field behind us.”  I looked out the bedroom window and I could see the fire! 

I became totally focused and was thinking only of what we would need as far as clothes, toiletries, money and a little food to get us by.  We were not panicked.  We did not have enough time to take what we wanted, only the essentials. 

We were prepared as far as having an “EMERGENCY SATCHEL” ready to grab if we ever had a fire and Clay remembered to grab it, thank God!  It had our original birth certificates, marriage certificate, social security cards, passports and a copy of each bill we had to pay.  This was a life saver and put us ahead of most people as others didn’t even have five minutes to vacate.

Question 2a: What would you do differently if you could go back in time?

We would’ve grabbed our check book, address book, some pictures, some more money we had stashed away that we forgot about, my cowgirl boots, jewelry, etc.  I lost my wedding ring and my mother’s wedding ring and antique jewelry from her and I had a lot of very nice jewelry but didn’t take any of it.

Question 2b: Is there something you would do now to be better prepared should you ever face this again?  

In the emergency satchel we will have a list of some other things to grab like our check book, address book, photos, important jewelry, small antiques items, stashed money. (We forgot the $400 cash we had just made at a craft fair and Clay forgot $500 cash in his headboard).

Question 3: In the wake of learning your home had been lost, can you describe how things felt?

I was devastated about losing my mother’s jewelry and all our photos and Clay was very sad that he lost his father’s antique rifles and our guns. A month earlier while watching the fires burning in Redding on T.V., I turned to Clay and said, “I wonder what we would do and how we would feel if we ever had a fire and lost everything.”  Now we know! 

I thought I would miss things a lot but Clay and I didn’t; these are material things and you can’t take them with you after this life.  We actually felt a calm and peace.

Question 4: What advice, wisdom, or preparation would you give someone who is reading that has just lost their home?

What I can say for myself in dealing with grief is that knowing the Lord Jesus Christ as my Savior helped tremendously.

We got involved in the House Church in Sedona and the people just loved on us. They had us busy doing different things to help other people which we really enjoyed. It took our mind off the fire and its aftermath and all the paperwork and phoning that had to be done; the paperwork and phoning just went on and on and on.  Having to make phone calls to the same companies three or four times just made us realize how the left hand never knows what the right hand is doing.

Dealing with incompetent people was very frustrating and it was nice to have the outlet of our church and new friends to take our minds off that.

Question 5:  Looking back from where you are today, is there any silver lining to this tragedy? 

On 11-11-18 we went to Calvary Chapel Red Bluff for church and sat down without talking to anybody. At the turn around and greet your neighbor part, the one man sitting in front of us turned to us and said, “You folks are from the Paradise fire, aren’t you?”  How did he know?! 

The pastor offered us a key to their home to come and do laundry anytime, told us we could stay at their house a week as they were going away for Thanksgiving (they lived right on the Sacramento River).

A new friend then asked, “How would you like a homemade meal brought to your motel room tonight?” She set us up for a dinner every night with someone bringing it to our door.  We didn’t have to return anything and the meal would also feed us at breakfast. 

The church was an unbelievable resource, and the kindness of this community was definitely the silver lining within this difficult time.

Final Thoughts

Firstly, thank you so much for everyone kind and brave enough to share their stories. It has been a pleasure and an honor to work with you on this project.

To all of you out there reading this in imminent danger of going through something similar, I pray you avoid tragedy and remind you that the only thing truly irreplaceable is your LIFE. Fires can take parts of your past, but your memories are yours and the future is infinite with promise.

If you would like to reach out to any of the survivors, you can leave a comment with their name below and I will forward it along with your contact information onto them.

Be safe, be well, and be ready!

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6 Comments

  1. Barbara Wait Krueger
    September 15, 2020 / 6:11 pm

    I am sending this site to some survirors of the current fire in Big Creek, California…..I grew up there 60 years ago, and my nephew is the school principal…..they had to leave without much notice, and their house is gone, as well as about 25 others….

    • September 17, 2020 / 4:19 pm

      Oh my gosh I am so sorry to hear that Barbara!! What I learned more than anything is that survivors NEED someone to talk to who listens without judgement or condolences. They are welcome to reach out if they do not have someone like that and we will find the time or put them in touch with one of the other survivors!

  2. September 15, 2020 / 8:04 pm

    Excellent interviews of survivors!
    Having been evacuated at 4 am years ago, during the Japan earthquake and tsunami…. the one thing I observed was how long it took to round up two cats and a dog (45 min!) to get them inside the carrier.

    • September 17, 2020 / 4:21 pm

      YES Kristi! The pet situation puts a lot of people behind, especially if the crates are in the attic or the shed or something. This is exactly what we specifically mentioned leaving the crates by the door in the summer months after Rosalie told us about how much time she lost with that.

      I imagine the animals are aware of the danger and going nuts as well, which doesnt help. Im glad you were able to wrangle them and live to tell about it!!

  3. Aly
    September 15, 2020 / 10:47 pm

    These interviews were so good! I’ve updated our list of what to take after reading through their answers. The other big takeaway for me is feeling more normal/validated in the feelings I’ve experienced since Tuesday’s fires.
    Thank you to everyone who shared their story. 💛 Sadly, it looks like this may become a more common experience. 😕

    • September 17, 2020 / 4:23 pm

      Let me know if you have any interest in chatting with anyone (Rosalie’s accent alone will make you smile.) I also talked mom and dad into ordering a couple air purifiers and think it would be a good idea for you to do the same. Those young lungs need to be protected; when Sophie and I lived in Chiang Mai during burn season, we were “smoking a pack of cigarettes per day” based on how much was just in the air, and we definitely felt it!

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**All photos contained in this photography-based travel blog are copyright of Adam Marland & Sophie Clapton. 
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