Our close call with a wildfire seems so miniscule now that it is over and the news is pouring in about the many people who lost homes and livestock and livelihoods. It feels selfish to keep talking about it and blogging about it. And yet, in this moment, when the question is still there, I do have wisdom I didn't have a few days ago: I know what I would save in an evacuation emergency and I know what I didn't have - an emergency plan.
There are many websites that advise on how to prepare for an emergency. I am thinking that some of my neighbours and friends have already googled them for their own information. Good for you - I did not have one! Alberta has a great one at Alberta Health Services Disaster-preparedness Guide and the Canadian version is at Get Prepared. These guides provide a lot of great advice on preparation. Here's how it would have made a difference for me.
1. Local Emergency Management Contacts - I did not know who to call in case of a threat like a wildfire. I had to depend on my neighbours with cable TV and non-existent radio warnings (what was that all about?!). In desperation, I called the RCMP to confirm our situation. So, step number one is to make sure I know how I can get information about the situation threatening me: wildfires, earthquakes, floods. All can hit without warning. And learn the lingo - I now know an evacuation alert (if you are lucky enough to get one) is a gift to get ready while you have the time. Pack your car! Be ready! We did and never regretted it - not even when we were unpacking the car when it fizzled out to "stay in place". The sense of relief wipes out the inconvenience - trust me.
2. Important papers and documents - Prepare a list of important papers and documents you should take with you - insurance, birth and marriage certificates, passports, licences, wills, and land deeds. I would suggest you scan copies into your computer and store in a secure place with passwords etc. you can remember in an emergency. I did not have a list - only some sense of urgency as I tried to remain calm and remember it all and check them off in my head.
Keep your important files/documents in an easy, portable storage system. Thank goodness we did this right - especially without a pre-written list as per #2. Our files are in cube containers that fit into those IKEA type cube storage systems. A large storage file that fits inside a file cabinet etc. would work too. Safety deposit boxes work too but may not be accessible immediately and would be more useful for storing valuable jewellery or keepsakes. It was a relief to know we really just had to grab two boxes and all files were safe. That could be pared down to one to save space but two was easier than none! The passports and birth certificates were not in this location. Nothing was scanned for safe keeping and easy access. That will change!
3. Medical records and prescriptions - I had our medical records that related to recent developments requiring specialised care or consideration in my important files box (well a few recent ones were still laying on the guest room bed but....easily grabbed!) I would suggest that you keep a list of your current medications (the drugstore always gives you one when you re-fill your prescriptions) plus the over the counter ones you can't live without for a week. Keep your list inside your medicine cabinet and have a baggie or something designated for transporting so you just have to grab it, dump the meds and pack them. The guideline does suggest having an emergency stash of two weeks-worth of essential medications in your preparedness emergency kit. I am just thinking of the rushing I did to get the stupid plastic bag for all things in the bathroom in the first place. In retrospect, I know I could have just grabbed my travel ziplock that I keep in the cabinet and fill that up. I just need to put it in a more conspicuous place. Panic does befuddle your brain!
4. Emergency contact list - I did not have one! Have an emergency contact list available that includes your Doctor but also your family members phone numbers. Here is my story. I depend on my cell phone for ALL my phone contacts. I do have one list I keep on my laptop also. Thursday night my cell phone died right at the beginning of the event. I packed my laptop in a panic and threw my charge cords into my camera case. I wanted to make some calls and could not find the numbers without unpacking my laptop etc. and could not remember where my charger cord was to give me access to my phone. Panic destroys your thinking capability. A printed list that I could have easily grabbed would have been such a big help at the time.
5. More about lists, I would suggest that you keep all of these lists with your emergency plan booklet - yes, the one you and I are all going to sit down and fill out tonight. I am going to file it in with my important documents and files - the grab and go box I will be able to take with confidence if I am ever faced with this situation again. I will also include an extra charging cable for my cell phone.
6. Personal Contact - Have an out of town contact person that lives far enough away they will not be affected by the same emergency. A neighbour is not good enough. I did not have one officially set up and those I thought of were on my laptop in the car or on my phone that was dead and my mind could not unfreeze enough to even think my way back to that. With a plan and a specific contact in mind, you can let someone know your situation, where you are going and how you are getting there. At least you are not operating in a vacuum. Without having thought about this before, I could not even think well enough to even recognize the importance of it - even while we sat and waited to hear if we would be evacuated. I was thinking - "it won't happen"; "I will let someone know if it does happen"; "I'll call when I am safe." Faulty thinking! Panic brain thinking! Call or email someone with exact information and plan.
So the next big question beyond what do you need is what would you take? In my first burst of panic, I grabbed my undigitized photos of my kids. I am so glad I had already downsized and handed off the important informal family photographs but the formal ones - the "baby" pictures - those do not exist anywhere else - those needed to be saved. I also included my youngest daughter's baby book - that will be handed off at her next visit! The laptop went into a suitcase along with my tablet and a few clothes. My phone went into my purse. The charge cords, as I discovered later, were shoved into my camera bag. Medicine and some often-worn jewellery I keep in the bathroom were tossed into a plastic bag with my toothbrush. I could have saved time here if I had designated a bag - I had to look for one! After a short discussion about files, the boxes of important papers and documents were loaded as is. The last thing to go into our little Honda Civic were my watercolour paintings - all in one box - I guess they are important to me after all! With a plan, we would have saved a few minutes of talk for other important things. Overall, I would say it took us fifteen minutes. If we had not been in a down-sized stage in our life with everything so organized and at our fingertips it would have been at least thirty minutes or more.
No diamonds or other expensive jewellery made it in. Nostalgia won over price. It was a mess, but it was packed. Raouf and I worked separately; with a plan and a list of the essentials, it might have gone more smoothly. In retrospect I think I would have thrown in my prized pictures from Africa and Thailand, and now I am clearheaded I must remember to put my mom's locket on my list of things to save. I had written it off along with the diamond rings and gold bracelets I never wear. There are a few other things that mean a lot to me that did not make it into the car - they will go on the list titled "if there is time."
As you know, we did not get the evacuation order. We had time while we were waiting to save other things. Call it denial; call it acceptance, but, I remember looking around and thinking, yes, I could let go of everything else.
There is SO MUCH MORE in the Plan Guidelines. With the emergency past and the panic subsided, I am going to put my plan together. Stay tuned for a picture of my emergency kit. I want to see a picture of yours, too!!