All the years we’ve lived in this disaster-prone area — earthquake, wildfire, mudslide, falling trees, power failures — we never got around to preparing for evacuation the way everyone is supposed to do. Until this summer.
The only explanation is denial. My husband bought the house that originally stood here before we were married. It was damaged by the 1989 earthquake and torn down. I moved into this house, newly built to the latest earthquake safety standards of the time, several years later. Ever since then, we must have been living under the illusion that disaster had already struck, and — like the myth about lightning — won’t strike in the same place twice. But there’s more than one kind of disaster. Even if our house could withstand another earthquake, there’s no reason to believe it’s safe from fire, but we acted as if that’s what we believed.
I had a plan when I retired, to clear out the room we use for storage and clean it up to make a space for myself to do creative work, to write, paint, learn how to sew. That was five years ago, and life keeps getting in the way. There’s always other housework to do now — laundry to wash and fold, beds to make, floors to clean, meals to prepare. Fixing up the space for me can always be done later. When I find time to write or work on a project, I make do at the kitchen table, and the storage room has filled up with more and more junk.
The room filled up with treasure and trash, all jumbled together. A wooden crate of record albums from my twenties. A pile of empty suitcases and duffel bags. Family photos in age-stained albums and battered cardboard boxes, handed down from my father-in-law, and his father-in-law. Baby clothes worn by our now 17-year-old twins. Broken gadgets. Tangled piles of electrical cords. A telescope, taller than me, and too bulky to fit in a car, a gift from a friend when the kids were in elementary school. Old sofa cushions, smelling of cat pee. Christmas decorations. Easter baskets. Ceramics made by my stepmother, too fragile to display when the kids were little, placed on the highest shelves. Garbage bags filled with stuffed animals, from the time the kids got head lice and we read that you could put things in plastic bags and set them aside and the lice would suffocate.
This summer we faced facts and decided to prepare in case we needed to evacuate. We got close two summers ago when there was a fire by the exit from the highway to our street. I got our two cat carriers from the junk room and stacked them one on top of the other next to the front door. But that fire was put it out quickly. We didn’t have to flee, that time. This August, with a record-breaking heatwave, and fires burning up and down the state, a freak lightning storm sparked a number of new fires in our area. We monitored the progress of the fires online, and my husband talked to an old friend who said we could stay at his house in Marin County if we needed a place to go.
One night, as I reached to turn off the bedside lamp I thought, You need to pack, to be ready to leave. Why haven’t you done it already? I told myself there was no sense getting started on it then, I could do it in the morning. But I lay awake for hours, making lists in my head — what to pack for me, for the kids, for the cats.
The next morning I told my husband I was going to pack our bags and put them in the car so we’d be ready. He’d had the same thought, and rented a storage unit in town where we could put things for safekeeping — valuables we couldn’t take with us but didn’t want to leave behind and chance losing if the house burned down. I spent the day clearing out my car, and packing what we would take with us. My husband shuttled to and from the storage unit in his car — stowing his guitars, amplifiers and recording gear, family photos, artwork made by his relatives, and our important papers. I added my family pictures, and more artwork made by family and friends, to one of his carloads for storage.
It was an emotional process, moving through the house, sorting, reminiscing, deciding. Asking myself, What do I want in the car, other than the clothes on my back? What do we need to take, to live for a few days away from home? What am I willing to leave behind, if I don’t know when we’ll return, or whether the house will be here? What can’t we take with us, but would break my heart if it was destroyed? In the end, I packed two changes of clothes, with sandals, shoes, and a light jacket for each of us — a bag with our toiletries, medications, and first aid supplies — another bag with food, dishes, and water for our cats. When we got the evacuation warning, the Sunday evening after the first week of school, we were ready. The kids packed up their computers, we crated up the cats, and we drove to San Rafael.
We stayed away for a week, and we’ve been back for two months. Thankfully our neighborhood wasn’t touched by fire. The heatwave has ended and the skies are clear. But fire season isn’t over. There’s a Red Flag Warning in effect for our area now. The anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake also reminds us of the need to be ready. It’s time to pull out the bags again and pack, to be ready just in case. And we’ve made a start on clearing out that junk room, so it’s time for me to get serious about turning it into a place to create.