Carr Fire Survivor Shares Tips, Coping Strategies: Before & After the Fire

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Jennifer Gibson’s home was destroyed in the 2018 Carr Fire.

The 2018 Carr Fire was one of the most destructive fires in California, but it’s rapidly being surpassed by multiple recent fires.

With friends and family affected by the lightning fires last month, I developed two lists. The first list  is for those who need to evacuate. The second list is for those, like me, who lost their homes to wildfire.

The first list is the very one I used recently to evacuate from the Two Four Two Fire.

I created these lists because I feel strongly that after catastrophic events like this, members of the community and land managers should share their experiences and lessons learned, so others can be better prepared.

Jennifer Gibson’s Shasta home before the 2018 Carr Fire.

If you live in a fire-prone area

1. Before you evacuate, take photos or video of your house, yard, trees, shrubs, driveway, garage, closets, sheds, gardening supplies, pet supplies. Everything.

2. Even if you don’t have to evacuate yet, start making piles of the stuff you need. The rule of thumb is: pets, prescriptions, papers, photos.

3. Get Action Packers or large tubs that have latching lids so you can throw stuff in the back of a pickup or trailer. Being able to haul items in a trailer is very helpful. Even if you don’t have a trailer, you never know who might show up to help you. Duct tape is always a good backup.

4. Reach out to your neighbors and see if they are okay.

5. Reach out to friends or family to whom you can evacuate.

6. If you are told to evacuate, expect traffic congestion, even on major highways. Have a route and a destination planned away from the fire that minimizes traffic congestion ahead of time. You don’t want to be stuck on the highway with a fire front headed your way.

7. Make sure you have a full tank of gas before having to evacuate. You don’t want to be stuck in traffic worried about running out of gas.

8. You might not be told to evacuate; even if you signed up for an alert system. Do not depend on first responders to come to your door, or for a phone call. Be prepared to leave when you do not feel comfortable.

9. If you leave an area under evacuation, you will most likely not be able to re-enter this area. So, once you leave, be prepared to not be able to return for an extended period of time.

10. If you plan to defend your place, have a reliable water source that is not dependent upon electricity. Have trigger points for when you will leave, and an escape route. I would follow the LCES model of Lookouts, Communication, Escape Routes and Safety Zones. Recognize that if you stay to defend your house, you will most likely be putting firefighters and first responders at risk if you can’t get out on your own.

11. The fire may pass through your neighborhood multiple times. So the fire may not take your home the first time, and it may not take it the second time, but it could return and take your home eventually.

12. The power might go out before you are told to evacuate. Be prepared with flashlights, head lamps, etc. You may have to leave in the dark, so be prepared.

13. Don’t unpack everything after you’ve arrived at wherever you evacuated, whether it’s a home, hotel, or Red Cross shelter in the area. You may have to evacuate again.

14. Leave house keys and car keys in an established place in the house where everyone knows where they are. You don’t want to go running around looking for keys when you have to get out fast.

15. If you have time, create a separate bag for items you would need for staying at a hotel or a friend’s house. This would include fresh socks and underwear, toiletries, etc., just enough to keep you comfortable.

16. If you have to evacuate to a hotel or to a friend’s house, keep your receipts for food and any expenses. Your insurance may cover your displacement.

17. If you live in a rural area that has a lot of trees, you might want to have a chain saw accessible in the event there are downed trees along your egress route.

Don’t panic. Just develop a plan and be prepared. I am sorry you are going through this.

 

Jennifer Gibson’s Shasta home after the 2018 Carr Fire.

In the tragic event that you lost your home to wildfire

1. Recognize that you are probably in shock and have PTSD from the whole horrific experience.  Take your time with this. Be good to yourself. Talk to family and friends. Consider talking to a professional. Just recognize that what you went through is very traumatic.

2. Reach out to your neighbors who were also affected.  This is a shared experience that you both will never forget, and talking with them can be therapeutic for both of you.

3. Get some sort of file organizer and folders to keep receipts, and to document interactions with your insurance company, your mortgage company, etc.  Organization is crucial.

4. Take your time with the household-items spreadsheet that your insurance company will most likely request. There are spreadsheet templates online that really help with the process and can help jog your memory.

5. Keep a notebook next to your bed at night so if you remember something you need to do, or an item for your spreadsheet, you can jot it down right away.

6. Recognize that if you do plan to rebuild after a natural disaster, you are most likely underinsured because the size and scope of the event might make the availability of contractors limited, which increases the cost of rebuilding.  You can either take out a loan to supplement your insurance claim, or refer to a lawyer.

7. If you know you want to rebuild now (some people just do), then I would start that process as soon as possible. It is a race to secure contractors, permits, etc.

8. There are organizations that can help you sift through the ashes, and assist with debris removal and vegetation clearing on the property.  FEMA and the Red Cross can help you get in touch with these organizations.

9. If debris removal is offered through the county or FEMA, I suggest you sign up for this.  I am glad I did.  I had my property cleaned up before the rains came.

10. I know it’s a difficult thing to do, but I recommend you pick through the ashes.  And if you do, take along a friend of family member.  Wear proper gloves, face mask, etc.  Don’t sweep ash material, because of the potential for inhaling toxic chemicals. Instead, lightly wet the ash and then remove it. Bring buckets to collect stuff. You will really be surprised what might’ve made it, and you will treasure those items.  I found a piece of melted glass and had an artist friend turn it into a necklace for me.

11. Take breaks from the news and social media. Constant images of fire, burned buildings, or insensitive comments on social media can be a trigger.

12. If you are getting overwhelmed from large groups of friends and family members who are communicating via texts and calls, it is okay to not respond immediately. Take time for yourself to digest what is happening and clear your mind.  You might consider a group text or group posts to let people know how you are.  Or, ask a family member to communicate for you.  I found the constant pinging – along with having to deal with the insurance company- overwhelming at times.

13. People will attempt to give you weird stuff, like used clothes, puzzles; a frozen turkey. It is okay to say “no”.  They mean well, but you don’t want to be driving around with weird stuff in your car and no place to store it.  The most helpful things that I got included a toiletry/make-up bag with stuff like facial moisturizer and a toothbrush. Someone gave me shampoo, conditioner, body wash, towels and socks; things to get you by in a hotel, or as a guest at a house.  If people want to give you something, you can suggest they give you gift cards and gift certificates so that you can buy your basic needs.

14. Along with the above, there is the obligation to thank everyone for their generosity. For some people, this can become another work load that almost becomes stressful, depending on how you were raised.  Again, it is okay to not worry about this, and take time to focus on the priorities at hand.  You can do it later when things calm down.  Or you can ask a relative to communicate your gratitude for you.

15. People are going to say and do things that may come off as insensitive.  Comments that made me wince included being asked if I was going to rebuild or not. And comments like, “I knew this was going to happen,” or suggestions that I should  just “move on and get over it”.  Or statements about how their house made it because they had proper defensive space.

Be forgiving. They are processing what happened to their community, too. They may not understand the specifics about your property, how you tended it, or how you feel.

16. Recognize that even if some of your neighbors had minimal impact or damage to their properties; they may be really impacted and traumatized as well.  Their experience is real, too.

17. The landscape is going look apocalyptic.  And it is going to change rapidly with additional utility and hazard tree work.  I found this really hard to digest because it was a shock each time.  What helped me was taking occasional breaks from the landscape to visit the ocean or other places unaffected by fire.

18. Find a way to honor your property.  Spend time there.  Spread native flower seeds, hang chimes, make art out of what is there.

19. Recognize that after this event, you will have things that trigger a reaction in you. It could be the wind and the sound of sirens.  For some people it is the smell of smoke.  For me it is driving through fire-prone communities, and images of burned buildings and the area leveled just pop up in my head. (I still have this.) Even though you may have a powerful reaction to this, I like to pretend it is my superpower, like the kid in the movie “Sixth Sense” who has the ability to see dead people.

20. You may not feel safe for a while; anywhere.  I think this is natural, but again, it might be worth talking with family and friends or a professional counselor or therapist.

21. If you can, try to do something that allows your mind to focus on something besides the fire so you can take a mental break.  Meditate, play a musical instrument, draw, paint, exercise.

Just give your mind a rest, and do something restorative.

Jennifer Gibson was a resident of Shasta, California, and an employee at Whiskeytown National Recreation Area when she lost her home in the 2018 Carr Fire. Gibson is an ecologist who’s since relocated to southern Oregon where she is Chief of Resources and Fire for Crater Lake National Park. 

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