The Dixie Fire in California has spread to become the largest in California, and I’d like to share my firsthand experience of the evacuation process and the aftermath of it’s devastation. While fire is a natural part of the life cycle, it can also be devastating to both people and animals in it’s path. Here is our family’s story: Leaving the Shores of Almanor.

The Morning

On Saturday morning I missed a call, assuming it was another call about my car’s “extended warranty.” It had been a long week, and I just needed a little bit more sleep. I woke up enough at some point to see that it was actually my Mom who had tried to call but figured she would have tried to call again if it really were an emergency. So I went back to sleep, not knowing that they needed help.

When I finally woke up later in the morning, I saw a text message asking for us to come help them evacuate and informing me of the official warning. We immediately sprang to action and started getting ready to go. I reached out to my parents and apologized for missing their call, hoping it was not too late.

They asked us to get on the road as soon as possible and to bring several items which had been misplaced in all the chaos.

We packed the following list of items, knowing that we were going to be driving into the fire warning area and remembering the lessons of prior fires where people became trapped during shifts of wind and fast-moving flames.

Time was against us as we quickly got dressed, got gas, packed some emergency items (see list below), located the items my parents had asked for, and got ourselves on the road.

Our Emergency List

  • First Aid kit.
  • Jumper cable kit.
  • Work gloves.
  • Good stable shoes on our feet.
  • Cell phones, which we charged while we packed and also in the car because we hadn’t planned the trip.
  • Large fire extinguisher, which I also checked the gauge to make sure it was good.
  • Food in case we got re-routed or stranded somewhere.
  • Medicines to last at least a few days, just in case.
  • One gallon of emergency water in addition to water for that day.
  • Straps and ropes to be able to tie things down.
  • Fire resistant clothing in case we needed to shield ourselves from flames.
  • Full tank of gas upon leaving Reno.

The Trip To Almanor

On our way to help my parents evacuate from the warning area we discussed the situation and planned. We hoped that we could get there early enough to save my parent’s things and also to be able to help them instead of them having to do all the work. We drove as fast as the speed limit and road safety would allow, and checked that the roads would be open as we traveled.

Screen capture from my phone. We copied the map in case we lost internet.

The map I had on my phone showed me a small section of road that had an estimated six minute delay, but did not have further details about what was going on in that spot. We arrived to that area to find that the road had been under construction and there was a section of crucial road being used by both the public and firefighters which was narrowed to only one lane.

Single lane in and out of the fire evacuation zone.

At first we thought that maybe they didn’t need the pilot car and should just open up the road, and felt very impatient knowing that my parents were on the other side needing our help. It took a long time waiting for the pilot car and I remember saying that they should just wait to do the construction and let people use the road, complaining that evacuation was more important than doing construction that day. But they had already paused the construction and had the pilot care there for our safety.

The single-lane road in and out of the fire evacuation zone.

Upon Arrival

When we arrived, the smoke was not too bad. We had expected to need masks to protect ourselves from thick smoke coming from the other side of the lake, but at that time it was not too bothersome so we just got to work. My mother had recently experienced multiple surgeries, but was doing her best to help and to direct the rest of us in what we needed to do for them and their neighbors.

Mom overseeing things.

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The Picnic Table

The picnic table was one of the first things that I saw and the most obvious destruction. It already had ash and maybe even a few embers which had coated it before our arrival. I took a few pictures of it while talking with my parents to find out what they needed us to do. It was so surreal that even though it was shocking, I felt more curious at that time than upset. I started taking pictures, and these photos lead to the entire photojournal that I’ve presented. Once I took these pictures, I had my phone with me and just kept taking pictures between other tasks.

In many ways I think it was a distraction from everything, and I was able to view it almost as an outside observer rather than panicked family member by continuing to take pictures and documenting the process. It also was so surreal that I don’t think any of us really processed our emotions until much later. And to a large extent we still are.

Picnic table covered in ash from the Dixie fire in Northern California.

The Kayaks

The first task was to decide what to do with the kayaks. There were my parent’s kayaks plus a few others to safely stow, and one suggestion was to potentially tie them to the dock and sink them to intentionally put them under the water and protect them from both heat and ash.

We determined that would take too long and that they would likely be ok if they were moved to the shoreline and flipped upside-down so that no ash or embers could get inside. That limited the potential for damage and allowed us to move on to the next task.

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A Note About Wildlife

All the wildlife was unsettled, and I saw a wide range of animals acting to protect themselves. Bids were flying in large numbers over the treeline, bees were gathering in the few remaining areas where there were still fresh flowers that had not burned or been cut to prevent the spread of the fire, water birds were gathered in large numbers in the water and alternating between being very quiet and quite noisy….it was really something to see.

Leaving Almanor

Leaving there had a particular sense of urgency with the smoke becoming thicker and ash starting to rain down upon us. Our knowledge of the single-lane exit was on all our minds, yet there was also a sense of wanting things to be ok and to just sit down and have lunch.

We all kind of looked at each other, took a quick view of the property and guessed that the things that were left were either of no value, were likely to be fine, or had to be written off because there was no way to salvage them. Some items remained, like our cat’s water dish and an old kettle which we looked at and said to ourselves that they would be fine although in retrospect we should have just grabbed everything we could.

It was unsettling seeing things stacked and trying to imagine if things would or would not be ok where they were and how close the fire might get versus absolute worst possible scenario. One of the most vivid images for me is seeing my parent’s love-seat up on end so that it couldn’t catch embers and had the greatest chance of surviving the blaze if everything else was on fire. And on the way out I watched as a guy hosed down his property and all of the power poles in hopes of staying safe.

Leaving Almanor.

The duality between seeing everything as potentially on fire clashed with “it will be ok.” And that was really challenging to be able to decide what could stay and what to pack in our one trip out. There were moments it felt unsettling, but overall the stress and excitement and endorphines combined with the smoke and made it feel unreal. It was so surreal that it didn’t hit me until a few days later when I really broke down and cried for our potential losses, the losses suffered by our neighbors across the lake already, and the potential for untold destruction across the region.

The Drive Home

The drive home was both exhausting and worrisome. When we first left the shores of Almanor, we knew we had to wait for the pilot car at the construction and worried as the smoke became thick but not knowing how far away the fire actually was in real-time.

Smoke in the mountains during the Dixie Fire.

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