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San Diego skyline against the smoke at sunrise...

San Diego skyline against the smoke at sunrise October 23, 2007. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When most people think of natural disasters in California, they think of earthquakes.  But earthquakes aren’t what most Californians worry about.  Sure, we prepare by having bottled water, flashlights, etc., but we don’t think about The Big One every day.  Since there’s no way to predict when an earthquake will hit, all you can do is make plans and carry on.

What Californians worry about are wildfires.

I’ve lived in Southern California most of my life.  But prior to 2003, the only wildfire I remember was the Laguna Fire in 1970.  I was 8 at the time of that fire and I remember playing in my backyard pretending that the gray stuff floating down on me was snow.  It was, in fact, the ash from a massive wildfire about 40 miles to the east.  I think I don’t remember other wildfires because I’ve lived mostly in the very urban areas of San Diego, closer to the coast.

We moved into our current house in the southeastern suburbs of San Diego in 2001.  Our house is situated in an area surrounded by mountains in three directions.  These are not tall, majestic mountains, but big, scruffy hills.  And they’re farther away than they look (10 or so miles).  Visually, the mountains appear much closer.  In 2003, there was a massive wildfire, this one known as the Cedar Fire.  This fire event was actually several fires in several locations, all big and all bad.  We could smell the burning and see the smoke.  Over a short period of time, the smoke got so bad, we couldn’t go outside for more than a few minutes.  You just couldn’t breathe; there seemed to be no oxygen in the air.

At night, we looked out the windows of our house and saw the fire crawling down the side of one set of mountains.  It looked like lava flow in a Discovery Channel documentary.  It also looked very close.  This fire ended up jumping the freeway and heading toward our suburbs.  The television and radio news reports announced voluntary evacuations for our neighborhood and police patrol cars drove down the streets broadcasting the voluntary evacuation order.

I  thought I was calm, but I probably wasn’t, when I gave each kid a pillowcase and told them to pack their most favorite toys.  I grabbed a change of clothes for everyone while my husband videotaped the entire house (in case of an insurance claim).  We loaded up the minivan with sentimental mementos and photos (we were pet-less at the time) and headed over to my parents’ house.

The evacuation order was lifted in less than eight hours and we returned home.  No houses were burned in our immediate area and the fire was brought under control.  But the experience was traumatic for kid #3.  She was only 3 at the time and has never forgotten how terrified she felt.  To this day, just the sound of a smoke alarm sends her into truly terrified hysterics.

School was cancelled for almost two weeks and we were told to stay inside as much as possible because the air quality was atrocious.  It was a long two weeks.

In 2007, San Diego had another massive wildfire, the Witch Creek Fire.  This one

Wildfire in Santa Clarita, California in Octob...

Wildfire in Santa Clarita, California in October 2007. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

was almost more terrifying than the Cedar Fire of 2003, even though we didn’t evacuate.  There was fire crawling over all three sets of mountains around our house.  I really thought we were trapped and our only way out would be to head south, possibly into Mexico (we’re fairly close to the border).  It was surreal to look out the windows at night and see the red making its way down all the mountains all around us.  My husband kept saying we’d be fine, the fire wasn’t that close, but it seemed to be closing in all around us.

The 2012 fire season has begun.  This week there was a (relatively) small fire in rural eastern San Diego County.  The smell of burning and haze of smoke hung in the air for a day.  One elderly man was killed because he didn’t evacuate.  I’ve got a couple of go-bags prepped and am slowly acclimating kid #3 to thinking about what she’d grab in the event of another evacuation.

Wherever you live, there are bound to be natural disasters.  Whatever your geographic vulnerability is, please take some time to make a plan and lay in some supplies*.  For crying out loud, if you’re asked to evacuate, grab your kids and pets and LEAVE.  Nothing in your house is worth dying for.

*Here’s a great article on putting together an emergency kit on a budget.