Evacuation

I was thinking today about another story from my life here in Alaska and thought I would add it to the “My Life in Chapters” portion of my blog site.  I hope you enjoy.

I was nine months pregnant  and one week away from my due date with our third child in May of 2002.  We lived in a little unfinished house that we were building “out-of-pocket” little by little every year on seven acres in Anchor Point, Alaska.  The house was built with our own unique designs and characteristics, and one of those being that the Master Bedroom was on the upper level of the house accessible only by a ladder.  The idea was to eventually replace the ladder with a spiral staircase, but until then we climbed that ladder several times a day.  In our arctic entryway, we had a “hatch” in the floor that would open up to a little storage area where we threw our gloves and hats, and shoes we weren’t presently wearing.  The house itself sat atop cement pilings and was skirted in with plywood with access underneath that you entered from a door on the outside of the skirting.

I had spent many days under the house in that crawl space during winters when my husband was working away.  When the temperatures dipped low, our pipes would sometimes freeze, and so I would crawl under the house with a Buddy diesel fired heater and blow the heat in the direction of the pipes until they thawed.  This was also our storage area for things that wouldn’t fit in the little 880 square foot house.

It was a sunny day as I recall, and my first-born, Bethany was with my friend Melanie who had taken them to the Anchor Point Fire station for a “bike rodeo” where they taught bicycle safety, gave out helmets, and held a raffle to give some bikes away.  Jamin and I were at home with our son Jaron who was two when our neighbor stopped in to warn us that a fire that a neighbor had started to burn up brush was out of control and could very well head our direction. Upon hearing about the fire, my husband Jamin dressed to go and help to fight the fire with our neighbor.

Meanwhile, at the Bike Rodeo, the dispatcher received a call about a brush fire out of control on our road, and the Rodeo was quickly dispersed so that volunteer fire fighters could jump in their trucks to respond.  My friend Melanie took Bethany, and headed our direction.  She stopped in to our home and offered to take Jaron for the afternoon in the event that we needed to evacuate and I agreed that would be a great idea.

I had never thought about what I wanted to save the most in my home if there were a fire.  I began to think about some changes of clothes, favorite blankets, pictures….oh and the taxes….I still needed to file the taxes for that year and so I didn’t want to lose that paperwork.  I made my way upstairs and began going through drawers and boxes and packing up things of value.  Suddenly I heard a commotion downstairs that was unfamiliar, and so I stuck my head down the hole that was the entry to my room to see two more of my neighbors detaching my washer and dryer from the wall in the entry and loading it up on a trailer in the driveway.  This was followed by another neighbor who began unpacking my kitchen and putting everything into large garbage cans and carting them out of the house.

“The fire is headed your way,” my neighbor Ron Tavera said, as he quickly and decisively disconnected my appliances and hauled them out of our house.  Suddenly the situation became very serious to me, and I realized I needed to move faster.  I grabbed laundry baskets and filled them with everything I thought was valuable to the family and handed them down the hole to the neighbors.  Then I ventured down the ladder to see someone unloading my dirty dishes from the dishwasher and packing them away.  I remembered Jamin’s snowboards under the house, and some of our storage items, so I hustled outside to the crawlspace and spent the next several minutes crawling around pulling things out from under the house and carrying them outside to be loaded in yet another trailer brought by another neighbor.  Soon our pastor showed up and he and his wife began unpacking our home.

From my windows I could see flames shooting up above the tall spruce trees and it looked like it wouldn’t be long before they were licking up the trees on our heavily tree populated acreage.   We all moved faster.  Our home had no insurance.  We had been building it ourselves and used every available penny to complete it.

The wind changed and moved the fire north-east of our home, jumping the creek that divided our property from a 40 acre parcel and began devouring that land across the creek from us.  From my living room windows I could clearly see the fire sweeping its way across the landscape.  Fire Jumpers were flown in to combat and contain the fire and they called in C-130’s to drop orange retardant on the flames.  The volunteer fire department was joined by many neighbors.  From my now nearly empty home I could see it all.

My home had been completely evacuated of possessions in a matter of three hours.  All that is, except for the love seat in the living room that I asked the neighbors to leave to burn.  It was broken and I didn’t mind if it went.  Upon the command of my neighbor Frank, a retired Fire Chief from Sacramento, I laid down on that love seat for a few minutes while he assessed my pulse and blood pressure.  I was red from all of my hustling, out of breath, and still running on adrenaline.

“Your blood pressure is too high, Cate.” Frank said.  “You need to get to the hospital, because you have a baby to consider.”

Our driveway and yard had become the gathering place for many neighbors, and the volunteer ambulance was down the road ready to give assistance to the fire fighters.  They called the ambulance into our driveway and I realized I had no shoes to wear to go out to meet it.  Remembering the hatch in the entryway, I opened it up to find that there were still a few things in there.  I grabbed a pair of heeled dress shoes,  put them on and pranced out the door.  The EMT’s checked my vitals and agreed that I needed to get to the hospital, but they thought if I could find a ride in that would be better since they needed to stay there to tend the emergent needs of the fire fighters.  Not a problem, there were many neighbors in my house now and so Bryan and Wilma Epley agreed to drive me into the hospital.

I left the scene not knowing where Jamin was.  I was having contractions and feeling still charged up on adrenaline when I arrived at South Peninsula Hospital.  My mid-wife was called in to check on me and I was placed in a hospital birthing room in the event my labor would progress.

Sometime after I left, Jamin returned home –dirty and covered in soot.  He entered the house to find it completely empty.  “Where is everything?” he asked.  The neighbors filled him in on the recent evacuation of our things and assured him that our possessions were safe and sound in the back of trucks and trailers that were hauled across the road.

“Your wife went to the hospital.” Frank told him.

“Oh, really?” Jamin asked.  “At least something good could come of this day.”  He was thinking about the fact that our son might be born that day.

“No, her blood pressure was sky-high and she was overheated.” Frank responded.

“I’d better get to the hospital then.” Jamin said.

Jamin went to the bathroom to wash up only to find the soap was gone.  He went upstairs to find clothes to change into only to find the bedroom bare.  Realizing he would have to just go the way he was, he returned downstairs.

“Has anyone seen my car keys?”  Jamin asked looking around.

“If they were on the counter, they went out with the first load in a large garbage can that is now across the road.” replied Ron.

Another neighbor volunteered their car to Jamin and he gratefully got in and drove the 20 miles in to the hospital to meet me.

Jamin was filthy when he entered the hospital.  He rushed in to where I was to check on my status and finding me fine, we began to exchange stories of the past four hours.  I told him of the neighbors coming and evacuating the house and he told me of the shock and surprise he found when he climbed up the hill to our house after helping with the fire and seeing so many people gathered in our yard, then entering our house only to find it completely empty.

“There wasn’t even toilet paper on the toilet paper roll, Cate.” He recounted.  “My keys were gone, all the clothes were gone, and there wasn’t even soap at the sink to wash up with.”

We laughed and sighed as we realized what we could have lost if not for our wonderful neighbors.

My mid-wife monitored my contractions and helped me get re-hydrated.  After a couple of hours, she said, “Cate, it doesn’t look like these contractions are going to develop into labor.  My best advice to you is to go home and rest for the night and see if anything further develops.  Most likely, your contractions were brought on by exertion, but will settle down as you rest.  Call me if they don’t.”

Jamin and I looked at each other…”Home??” we said in unison.

The fire missed our home that day, and thankfully was contained before it could destroy any other houses.  It was a historic and memorable event that we and our neighbors will never forget.

Jamin and I left the hospital and headed home.  We then began the process of moving back into our house, and what took us three hours to empty took us two days to restore.  Still our third child waited until his due date to come, and one week later on May 28th, Chad Jamin was born.

 

 

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