This is the first hand account of Carlin Comm, an Austin man who was visiting his parents in central Washington when a fierce firestorm struck nearby in the small, resort town of Chelan. He joined his father, Garth Comm, a local Red Cross volunteer, to deploy with a recovery team to distribute supplies and provide emotional support to residents that were impacted by the devastating wildfires. You can view the original post for this story on the American Red Cross Northwest Region Blog.
Together, Brett, my dad and I visited an area that was even more isolated and remote, tucked away in very narrow canyons. Late last night the utility crews had restored power, so most residents we met had well water available again.
We saw such a bizarre scene: house after house, where the fire had burned right up to the edge of the property. There was a visible line maybe 50 feet in some cases, and charred black and ash beyond that. This was the work of a fire crew and truck that had reached every accessible residence for a “backburn,” which is intended to burn the fuel away from the houses. A very surreal sight emerged beyond the house. Cars, storage buildings, all burned to the ground.
The fire was very unpredictable. In a completely burned area, we found a meadow that was utterly untouched. Further up the road, we saw a pair of deer, walking up a blackened hill, between smoldering trees.
Even with all the loss and damage, the residents we met were surprisingly upbeat and positive. They appreciated us stopping by to check on them. While they were out cleaning up, they were also looking ahead, making plans to rebuild or replace what had been lost.
The Pacific Northwest—like Texas where I live and like every part of the country—has its own kind of disaster threats. Fire, flood, hurricanes, tornadoes, blizzards, earthquakes, volcanoes – each brings its own unique challenges. The wildfires in Washington state reminded me of some pretty important lessons. At the top of the list: make a plan, ahead of time.
Sometimes you can shelter in place, others you’ll need to evacuate. Don’t wait to evacuate. Make a 72-hour plan. Have a kit packed, and ready supplies to survive comfortably on your own for the first three days. Clothes, snacks and food, water. Work gloves and boots. It might be a few days before any help gets to you. The power will probably go out, so have batteries for flashlights, radio, etc. And remember, gas stations can only pump gas when there’s power, so it’s a smart plan to refill your tanks when you’re down to half a tank. If you store gas, do it safely, and away from your house!
Don’t expect services like water, power, phones and cell phones to be available. They probably won’t be. Make a communications plan. If you are separated from your family, you’ll want some way to get word to each other of the situation. This may include a relative in a different part of the country, who could relay messages. And designate a meeting point, an agreed upon landmark, such as a fire station or police station that would be manned.
When possible, having some kind of alternate power, such as a solar panel and battery or a generator, could keep your cell phone charged, and emergency radio working in an extended power outage.
So, what’s your plan? Mine will be not only to prepare, but to join my local Red Cross, back here in Austin.