Updated on Sept. 14.
Kelly Hardin didn’t grow up around wildfires, so she wasn’t the one diligently tracking the extreme winds hitting Oregon on Monday. The 28-year old’s partner, Adam Lee, is from California — which has been home to devastating fires in recent years — so he kept an eye on his phone.
Hardin and Lee live and work on an organic berry and vegetable farm in the Eugene area. Although the Holiday Farm Fire started far east of them, the blaze traveled rapidly down the valley early this week.
By Monday afternoon, Lee told Hardin they should pack “go bags,” just in case. “We weren’t expecting to evacuate,” Hardin said.
They each stuffed a backpack with some clothes, their computers, toiletries, cellphones and chargers, and important documents — the things they needed “to communicate and things that are of high value,” she said.
The situation turned within hours. At 12:33 a.m. on Tuesday, an emergency evacuation order was issued. The couple rushed to find their two cats — they stuck one in a vegetable crate in their hurry to leave — then knocked on the doors of their neighbors who also work on the farm. Because of a power outage on Monday, people weren’t answering their phones.
As wildfires continue to ravage the West Coast, thousands of Americans are having to make rushed decisions on how to flee their homes — which may or may not survive the flames — as well as what they need to pack whatever they may need while they’re displaced.
While much of the attention has been focused on about two-dozen giant fires in California, Oregonians now find themselves in similar situations in what is already proving to be a record-setting fire season.
An estimated 40,000 Oregon residents had evacuated as of Thursday. (An earlier announcement by Oregon’s Office of Emergency Management erroneously put that number at 500,000, the Oregonian reported.)
The same day, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) wrote on Twitter: “We have never seen this amount of uncontained fire across our state. Currently there are fires burning more than 900,000 acres. To put that into perspective, over the last 10 years, an average of 500,000 acres burn in an entire year. We’ve seen nearly double that in 3 days.”
People rushing to safety sometimes have to pack up their lives in a matter of minutes: some grabbing what they can, others finding their emergency go bags, and others more familiar with the drill after years of experience. In the wake of evacuations, three women told The Lily about what they were able to grab without knowing if they would be able to return home — or knowing if they would have a home to return to.
After leaving the farm, Hardin and Lee were able to regroup with their co-workers at a nearby high school. The 10 in their group had family, significant others and friends who could offer places to stay. Hardin and Lee went to Eugene, Ore., where the owners of their farm had an empty apartment for them.
As of Thursday, the fire seemed to have split around the farm, leaving it intact. The couple was able to go back briefly the next day and grab more clothes and toiletries. With 145,000 acres burning, the blaze remained zero percent contained.
Hardin and Lee were also able to go back and save thousands of pounds of blueberries that remained frozen despite a power outage on Monday. Those blueberries have tremendous economic value — their sales pay the bills for those working on the farm in the winter, when other sales slow. They were able to move them in a refrigerated truck to an industrial freezer.
Hardin knows this isn’t how others might be faring. “It’s important to keep in mind we’re extremely lucky,” she said. “Hundreds of people don’t have homes to go back to.”
Like Lee, prior experience with fires helped prepare Kara Carlson for this week’s events in Oregon. Two years ago, she was living across the border in Hornbrook, Calif., where the so-called Klamathon fire struck and burned more than 35,000 acres, according to Cal Fire. It was part of the reason she moved to Ashland, Ore. “It’ll be safer” farther north, she remembers thinking at the time.
But with fires raging for several days in the Rogue Valley, where Carlson now lives, she realized that “they can really desecrate any area.” As she puts it: “The places I’ve been calling my home for four to six years are in shambles.”
During the Klamathon fire, she just had enough time to leave her house — escaping with nothing but her cat. This time, because she had a couple hours to prepare before the order came, she was able to pack more thoughtfully.
The 29-year-old packed up handmade clothes, toiletries, her wallet, some sentimental photos, a couple pieces of art, old journals and some boxes of nostalgia — tickets stubs, pictures, stickers.
In her rush, she forgot her glasses case — with the glasses inside — and her allergy medicine.
As she prepared to leave, knowing she may not have a house to come back to, she also grabbed a framed poster of the band Furthur’s 2013 summer tour. She had followed the band around that summer when she was 22.
“It was one of the best summers of my life — festivals and music — I just wanted to take it with me.”
Carlson got out faster than some of her friends — someone tried to leave earlier but realized their truck was out of gas, for example. But she feels for those whose houses are already gone or who don’t have a place to stay, like she does.
“People are camping outside, and the quality of air is really bad,” she said. (On Friday, various parts of the state were registered as having “hazardous” air quality — the worst on the scale.)
Carlson may be able to go back to her place soon, at least to grab more of her belongings, but there’s trepidation even in that. “I’m really sad to see what has occurred,” she said. “I’m not ready to see that yet.”
When she does go back, she wants to grab baby wipes, jugs of water, flashlights — more survivalist-type items, now that her memories are protected.
When Debby Swope, 60, left her home in Trail, Ore., a town in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains, she had help from her sister, who lives with her. The two women had to securely pack up their parents, who are in their 80s, and find a safe place for them.
The middle school teacher was driving to her brother’s house in Salinas, Calif., when she spoke to The Lily on Thursday.
Swope has five dogs she needed to evacuate, as well as her parents, who live on the same property. She drove her dad in one car with three dogs, while her sister drove her mother with the other two. Her brother’s house will be the last place, she hopes, they decamp to.
When it came time to pack, she found herself staring at her closet and thinking, “I have no idea what to wear.”
She thought about not wasting time packing more clothes, but then she realized she would need socks and underwear. Carhartt pants, a vest and boots in case she had to fight fires. A shovel for the same reason. Some T-shirts and shorts. Three boxes of tomatoes that were just harvested. Slowly, she started assembling tools for her short-term, nomadic future.
She also packed her Bible, which she reads every day. A computer for teaching remotely, just in case; she’s expecting to be back in two weeks to teach her seventh- and eighth-graders in person. An old cedar chest that belonged to her great-grandfather, filled with family antiques, including a Bible from the 1800s. Old family photos going back generations. The few things that are irreplaceable.
Because she lives in a small town where “the eagles and coyotes come after our chickens,” she had to take extra precautions to prep the place before leaving. She and her sister moved gasoline canisters to the middle of a field, so if they explode, the damage is limited. They also moved guns and ammunition to a remote area so as not to surprise the firemen.
They left a car they couldn’t take on the gravel part of their driveway for the same reason — mitigating the damage from an explosion. They left lights on so the firefighters could find their home. They turned on the sprinklers to wet the parts of the house made of cedar siding.
And of course, there were the chickens, which the Swopes couldn’t take. She kept them in their coop, sprinkling them and their food with water.
“That way the foxes won’t get them, but they won’t starve,” she said.
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article misstated Adam Lee’s name and where he grew up. We regret the error.