ALPINE — We could still see pockets of smoke on the mountain as we drove into the parking lot for church services last Sunday morning.
But with the Quail Fire 90-percent contained, we were all breathing a little easier. Living at the base of the mountain, our entire church community was in the evacuation zone on July 3 when fire broke out in the foothills of Alpine, Utah. Most of us returned to our homes the next day, July 4, but the only fireworks we watched were 100-foot pine trees bursting into flames like giant Roman candles, the branches clearly visible from our front lawns, as the mountain burned.
Ironically, even though our local ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints did an emergency drill a few months ago and held a “no-electricity” drill recently, we were not as prepared as a Mormon ward as we would have hoped for the evacuation.
While individual families loaded cars and talked to neighbors, several block captains assigned to contact their neighbors in an emergency were at work when the fire broke out at 2 p.m., and spouses scrambling to evacuate their homes and children weren’t always good backups. A few leaders were out of town, so key information never got past voicemail. Some members (like me) assigned to watch out for one another as visiting and home teachers were unavailable to in the chaos. While neighbors stepped up and other leaders filled in, we were painfully aware of the glitches in our community communication system as well as holes in our personal preparations.
At our “after-action review” at a ward council on the Sunday after the fire, plans were made to address the issues at a ward level. Some things we learned we could do better at a personal level included:
- Long before problems hit, gather copies (keep originals in a safe place) of important documents (birth certificates and IDs, insurance policies, credit cards, deeds), copies of family photos, computer passwords and personal valuables into a “to-go” bag. Put it in an accessible yet safe location you can describe easily to someone else in case you are not home when an emergency occurs.
- Consider including in a neighborhood or church phone directory important phone numbers and policy numbers you might need quickly and other numbers on your contact list that might not be accessible if your phone doesn’t work in an emergency. (Our phone didn’t always work.)
- Talk through with kids what to do if they are away from home or at school. Teens often check cell phones more regularly than adults which may be especially helpful in an emergency.
- With the “to-go” bag, or taped inside a cupboard door near it, post a “to-go” list with additional items you’d like to save if there is time along with where they are located (computers or backups, artwork, heirlooms, antiques, etc.). It isn’t easy to think through in advance what you’d want to save if you only had 10 minutes, but it is much harder in the chaos of the moment when your brain isn’t working clearly. Have your children create their own “to-go” list for key things they want saved.
- Include on the “to-go” list these reminders so you won’t forget in the confusion of the moment (like some of us did):
- Take purses, briefcases, keys and cash.
- Contact neighbors and others you have responsibility for, especially any who are elderly, ill or housebound.
- Take medications, toiletries, walking shoes, raincoats and changes of clothes. Don't forget supplies for infants, pets or older family members.
- In a fire, turn off sprinkler systems to preserve water pressure for fire fighters, and turn off air conditioners that would bring smoke into the house. Move flammables like propane, gasoline or gas engines away from houses.
- Turn off gas (ONLY if you smell gas) or water if there are broken pipes (describe locations).
- Take 72-hour kits, emergency or foot storage or camping equipment if needed.
- Put a sticky note on the front door that says you’ve evacuated and how to reach you or “We’ve heard,” or “We need help.”
- Large Costco shopping bags with sturdy handles, duffel bags, plastic bins or laundry baskets come in handy for collecting and hauling things to the car, and having some of these close to the “to-go” location really helps.
- Let neighbors and church friends know when you are leaving town, especially if you are a “block captain” or church leader. Make sure someone close by could be told how to get in your home to retrieve your “to-go” items. People outside of the evacuation area may not be allowed in.
- Keep your cell phone turned on when you are away from your house. Even though phone service was shut off at times during the emergency, text messages usually worked. However, police recordings about the evacuation only went to landlines, so those without landlines might need to talk to local officials about how they would receive notice in an emergency.
- Pray — for your family, neighbors, emergency personnel in harm’s way and for the elements to be favorable. And then, pray in gratitude and humility for blessings received.
- After things calm down, review with your family how things went and what to improve.
Wendy Ulrich, PhD, MBA, psychologist, author, and founder of Sixteen Stones Center for Growth (sixteenstones.net), most recently co-authored the New York Times bestseller "The Why of Work."