Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Forest fire evacuation: The day after

I think I was in a state of some shock and disbelief yesterday.
First, the order to evacuate. Then, the sight of a sky filling with dark smoke just over the ridge that rises from our backyard.
After leaving our dog Sydney with my daughter, I came back to work. Throughout the evening, I edited and directed the news coverage of the Berks forest fire that threatened our family home. At the same time, in this news family of which I am part, my husband Bill March directed fire coverage at The Daily Local News in West Chester, where he is managing editor. We traded information as professionals, barely discussing our concerns as homeowners.
A little bit of shock, a little bit of denial.
As the evening wore on, we learned from our reporter and photographers on scene that the fire danger had passed by our home and was bearing down on St. Peters and Cold Springs roads, about a mile east of us on the top of the ridge.
Other media, particularly Philly TV stations, continued to focus on the fireworks plant next door to us. Here's where the denial was important: I chose not to dwell on sentences like "we don't know what would happen if fire spread to the plant," and "it's unknown how many tons of black powder are stored there..."
I was more worried about flames rolling through the woods to engulf our house than I was about being leveled by an explosion. I was more afraid of what I could see in the near-distance than of what was believed to be underground.
At 9:30 p.m., we got a call that Berks emergency management officials were holding a press conference at the township building. Reporter Frank Otto was about to go home when I nixed that idea and sent him off with videocamera in hand.
About 11, after an update from Frank and from Evan Brandt who was also still here posting updates on Facebook, I decided to head home with my daughter and the dog. Bill had already gone home from West Chester and reported the barricades were passable, and most of our neighbors appeared to be in their houses. There was no smoke visible -- not even the odor.
As I drove, I smelled the acrid odor so familiar from being a reporter at fires and an editor greeting photographers who come back into the newsroom afterward. I saw an ominous red glowing smoke plume in the sky, and I almost turned back.
This morning, there was just a faint smell of smoke in the backyard. The barricades were gone; the noises of the neighborhood -- school buses braking, machinery humming, muffled voices talking, Sydney barking -- were back. There was no visible smoke.
Looking back, I am second-guessing those "what to take?" moments yesterday.
What would happen if what I took was all we had?
If my kitchen, filled with parts of my life, went up in smoke, the one thing I could not replace is the recipe box with my mother's handwriting on index cards. I should have taken that.
Although the computer holds photo memories of the past few years, the albums with pictures of my children would be gone. I would never get over losing them.
My husband might want his collection of albums and CDs, but the music and images I would regret losing is the lone video copy of 18-month-old twins dancing crazily with their older brother to "New Kids on the Block."
I own little jewelry of value, but I have two cameo rings -- one, the first gift my Dad gave my mother, and the other, the first gift my husband gave me. If I lost them, I would be heartbroken.
The possessions to save are not the things we spent the most buying, they are the things we spent the most time living -- the keepsakes of those we love, much more than of things we accumulate.
Yesterday was a day of some shock and denial; today is a reminder of what matters most, and how fragile and dear are the pieces of our lives. If the fire turned and threatened our house today, I would make some different choices. But I would still take the dog.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Evacuated! What to take?

A brush fire became a forest fire.
Winds were picking up.
And, our house in the woods is next door to a fireworks manufacturing plant.
As the afternoon wore on, staff photographer Kevin Hoffman called me several times to describe the smoky fire he was witnessing in the area of French Creek State Park, which is near the house I share with my husband, daughter and dog Sydney.
The fire appeared to be spreading quickly, smoke filling the sky. As the winds were increasing, firefighting efforts were growing, but falling short of stopping the spread of the blaze.
Kevin said fire companies were responding from a four- or five-county radius, some from places he didn't even know.
I sent reporter Frank Otto out to the fire company staging areas, and I coordinated with online editor Eileen Faust posting video Kevin was sending from the scene.
I wasn't too concerned. The fire was on the south side of the ridge behind our house, and Kevin said it appeared to be blowing westerly, spreading in a line a quarter-mile or so behind us.
But then he called again -- a fire official told him they were moving units to our road in concerns that a wind shift could drive fire toward the fireworks plant where explosive combustibles are stored. "We're afraid of losing houses there; you might want to go check that out," he told Kevin.
While on the phone getting that dire message, reporter Evan Brandt got an email alert from Union Township: Mandatory evacuation ordered for all residents of four roads in proximity to International Fireworks.
The news reporter/editor in me just stopped: I was being evacuated.
I had to decide what to take and what to leave behind. I had to leave work and go home to get Sydney.
How long would we be out of our home? And, where would we go with a hyperactive dog?
Would we even have a home to return to?
As I drove home and pulled in my driveway, my neighbors were outdoors, asking each other and me similar questions:
Louise next door worried about how to get her cats in one car without them fighting.
Jill across the street was packing up boxes of belongings and loading them in the van.
The scene was eerily normal. There was no sight of flames, no smell of smoke.
Just a beautiful spring day in the woods, the wild dogwoods forcing open their blooms, birds at the feeder, purple blankets of violets amid the grass.
Four-wheelers with rangers and volunteer firemen were seen driving along to warn people of danger. But there were no loudspeakers, no sirens.
The only sound was the wind -- bending trees, swirling leaves -- and driving danger closer.
Inside our house, I looked around; I called my husband; I put a leash on the dog.
What to take? Clothes, personal items, shoes? How much would be enough? Pictures, keepsakes, family video? I couldn't begin to pack a lifetime into my car in the pressure of the afternoon.
Oddly, I looked around the home where we have lived for the 29 years of our marriage, where we have raised three children, two dogs and an assortment of fish, turtles and a hamster, and I had no idea what to take.
So if you can't take everything, take the place where everything is saved. I took the one place we share, pay, shop, store and play.
I just took the computer -- and of course, the dog. What else do we need?