When Disaster Strikes: Trying to Maintain Calm in the Chaos

Jennifer Arnold by Jennifer Arnold Additional Needs

Jennifer Arnold

Jennifer Arnold

I’m passionate about raising awareness about disability issues through education and outreach. When I’m not wearing my writer hat, I’m usually tryi...

On July 23rd, a recreational vehicle blew a tire on the outskirts of Whiskeytown Lake, a popular summertime destination about ten miles from where we live in Northern California.

When the tire went out, the metal rim hit the concrete and sparks flew onto the dry grass on the side of the road, igniting what is now one of the largest wildfires in California’s history, the Carr Fire.

It is now almost two weeks later, and the fire is still going.

Over 150,000 acres have been burned, thousands of homes have been destroyed, and several lives have been lost.

Wildfires are common in California from late Spring to early Fall.

The hot, dry landscape becomes kindling and every year we can expect various small blazes around town and especially in the wilderness that surrounds our small city; but this was nothing like anyone has seen before.

It produced a fire tornado that reached up to 143 miles per hour winds that ripped neighborhoods to shreds and came on so fast and furious that some had minutes to evacuate to safety.

Since we live in an area known for earthquakes and wildfires, our kids have had plenty of safety lectures.

We’ve talked to them about house fires.

They’ve toured fire stations, drawn maps of the house to plan escape routes and got to watch firefighters in action when our neighbor’s house caught fire across the street last year.

You can prepare your kids for all types of disaster scenarios, but the truth is that when it really happens, you find yourself winging it to get by.

Even though the fire thankfully never reached our part of town, our whole family has been affected by it, especially Lilly and Chance - our two with special needs.

Two days after the fire started, you could taste the smoke in the air.

The day after that, it reached city limits, and the evacuations started.

This thing jumped fire containment lines, a river, and a highway.

I obsessively checked Facebook for updates and any new evacuation orders.

It was far enough away that we weren’t in immediate danger, but close enough that we told the kids to pack one bag each.

Anything you can fit in the bag, I told them, but just one bag.

If we were to get evacuated in the middle of the night, we would need to be able to get out fast.

We packed, and we waited.

Since packed bags in our house equates to actually going somewhere, there was a little bit of confusion and a lot of frustration.

Lilly and Chance were having a very hard time understanding why we weren’t leaving, and while the waiting and uncertainty were stressful for us, it was torture to them.

Any parent with a child on the spectrum can tell you that waiting is not a strong suit.

The day came and went with no cause for evacuation yet, so we put two disgruntled children to bed, trying with no avail to explain, again, that we had packed “just in case.”

It was such an abstract concept to them that there was no justifying it.

We spent the next few days barely sleeping, watching news of the fire, and trying to keep some semblance of routine for the kids.

We kept our fingers crossed, and our bags packed.

Cabin fever started to set in; with the unhealthy air quality, playing outside was not an option.

Chance has chronic lung disease, which adds a whole new level of stress.

He has been doing amazingly well, but still every time he coughs or wheezes the anxiety flares up again.

We are starting to get a glimpse of the aftermath.

Whole neighborhoods have been wiped out.

Our city has a population of roughly 90,000, and over 30,000 people had to evacuate. It’s hard to wrap your mind around it.

Several people we know lost their homes.

Even though the worst of the fires is now far west of us, our nerves are still pretty active.

I don’t like being away from home for more than an hour or so.

I keep thinking, “What if a spot fire were to pop up in our neighborhood when I was away?”

I have been letting the kids sleep in my bed for both their solace and my own.

This area will be feeing the devastation of the Carr Fire for a long time to come; physically and emotionally.

The silver lining in this is that we have seen the community come together in wonderful ways, donating their time, their money, and their resources to the people who lost their homes.

It will take some time, but we will heal.

Now that the real danger is behind us (knock on wood) I’ve been able to sit down and process a bit, and I’ve come up with a few things I feel I need to pass on in regards to a disaster like this:
  1. Be proactive. You never know when disaster may strike. No one thought this fire would make it past city limits, but it did. Make up a small emergency bag ahead of time for each family member that you can grab on a moment’s notice. Make copies of all your important papers and prescriptions and put them in one of the bags.
  2. We have some medical equipment, but it’s portable, and I kept thinking of the folks who may have had a lot more and not that much time to evacuate. If you have a lot of equipment or it’s cumbersome, have a backup plan in place; find out your supplier’s policies ahead of time for this type of situation.
  3. Make sure you have renters insurance or a good homeowners insurance policy in place.
  4. It’s OK to feel every emotion known to man in a short period of time; fear, sadness, thankfulness, and survivor’s guilt are just a few of ones of the roller coaster we have been on.
  5. Keeping a routine helped with the kids, as much as we were able, but they were still feeling overly anxious. Lots of reassurances, hugs, and cuddles were needed.
  6. Most important of all- if you are told to evacuate, do it! Your house and your things can be replaced, but lives cannot.


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