Notes from California – Time to Evacuate! What Will You Pack?
When confronted with imminent evacuation — as thousands were during the largest fire in Los Angeles in a century — what do you take with you?
Smoke billows up and over the brown mountain ridge. Ash sifts down in swirling flakes and settling dust. The sky is an eerie golden gray, the color of the end of the world. Helicopters roll over and around every few minutes with ominous hums, dropping fire retardant in great white swaths onto flames.
August is fire season in Los Angeles, a month predictably scarred by blazes, when fires spread across the bone-dry desert chaparral like water sliding downhill. This one, the “Station Fire,” was the largest forest fire Los Angeles County has seen in a century and a half. It burned 242 square miles, destroyed 80 homes, and killed two of the nearly 5,000 firefighters who bravely fought the blaze. The scope is unfathomable.
It began August 27 in the San Gabriel Mountains at a Los Angeles County Ranger Station (thus the name) a mile above my parents’ house in La Canada Flintridge. We stood in 101-degree heat and gazed up at flames raging through the familiar mountains — our mountains — that rise behind our house. Mandatory evacuations moved closer and closer to our neighborhood — streets three, two, one block away. And then we got the reverse-911 call: Gather your things and leave.
What do you take? Well… everything. But, then again… nothing. When you’re forced down to the essentials — the bare essentials, not the essentials for a two-week trip to Peru — it suddenly becomes easy to be sparse.
Before my last extended backpacking trip, I spent hours writing a packing list. I agonized over what to bring: which jeans, how many shirts, what books. I sought the perfect pair of shoes that were versatile, compact, durable, and lightweight (which don’t exist, by the by). I departed with a 60-liter backpack packed with precision and care, full of everything I would need for the next six months — and, damn, was I proud to have fit my life into a backpack.
Now, in the face of a different kind of trip, an involuntary, displacing trip, there wasn’t time to make lists, wasn’t time to plan. Ironically, it’s the most important trip that you’re least prepared for. And when faced with the possibility of losing everything, suddenly trying to fit anything into a backpack seems futile.
We packed the really important things — house deeds, tax returns, insurance papers, etc. Baby pictures, family albums, paintings off the walls. And then I found myself staring into the bottom of an empty carry-on luggage bag. Now what?
I had friends in New Orleans who had packed for a weekend trip and returned months later to find their lives had floated away. There are competing urges: to pack for a weekend trip, a vacation of sorts, thinking only in the scope of days; and to pack thinking the unthinkable — that you won’t come home again. I contemplated my room, the room I grew up in, stumped.
As to the former — I threw in t-shirts and track shorts, running shoes and pj’s. Flip flops, a sundress? Maybe my swimsuit — Oooh, maybe we’ll go to the beach! And then I considered the latter — losing our home — and I felt nauseous. What do you take with you when you are really and truly being evacuated and you might not make it home again? What do you pack?
You pack your irreplaceables, the sum of which forms a very odd sort of poem: “the things that make up a person,” specific to each of us.
I ended up with the same quantity as I had packed for “traveling,” but with the opposite content. None of the clothes matched, they weren’t weather appropriate; I didn’t even pack a toothbrush. I wouldn’t have lasted a day on the road. Instead, I packed all the stuff I had avoided putting in my backpack for fear of literally weighing it down on my hiking trip: my parents’ wedding photograph, the medal from my half-marathon, a portfolio of writing clips. My suitcase was full of nostalgia, of hodge-podge, of memories. It was sparse in a different way. I had traveled with the “bare minimum” — only practical, usable items please — but this time, I found myself loading up with another sort of minimum.
What would you take with you?