It’s wildfire season, again, here in southern California. On the chilly east coast, y’all may refer to the first week of September as fall as you pull on your comfy sheepskin Ugg boots and order a pumpkin spice frappalatte from the local Starbucks. Here in California, in the valleys down below my mountain home, Californians have battled through a heatwave with highs persisting near 110 degrees all week. This heatwave has lead to an early devastating fire season already in the first week of September. We see vehicles shoved full of scared cats and dogs, family pets are sacred items when you are being evacuated last minute and forced to flee your home. Neighbors are frantic to get livestock trailers to load scared horses onto as embers fall from the Jeffrey pines in these drought-stricken communities. Family heirlooms are left behind as our forest homes burn down around us and families struggle to get out the gridlocked single-lane mountain highways as green CalFire engines scream past with their sirens blaring. This is our autumn here in southern California and it dawned with blood-red burning skies at noon in the middle of the day on Labor Day Monday as wildfires charred over two million acres in southern California. Happy Labor Day to us.
I should have been hiking high Sierras trails with one of my favorite Hiker Babes buddies, Donna. We were supposed to be hiking fifteen miles a day in the mountains of the eastern Sierras, not fleeing from wildfires with hundreds of other travelers. We had just driven three hundred smoky miles up Highway 395 from our own mountain town of Big Bear Lake, California, north to the alpine beauty of Inyo County. Less than twenty hours later we heard the announcement that basically everything outdoors; Campgrounds, hiking trails, forest dirt roads were closed for recreation in all of southern and central California. We had to get the hell out.
This year 2020, the fire season had started with a roar. Our CAL FIRE (Californias emergency response and resource protection department) resources are dangerously low as many firefighting troops battle, not just blazing fires but also COVID-19 amongst their ranks. Our California firefighters are overwhelmed by seemingly the whole state on fire. This lead to ur vacation ending basically before it began. We had to pack up and go home. Now.
What not to do during fire season
As we packed and repacked the camping gear back into the rear of my SUV (Which was already having engine problems thanks to shoddy gas purchased at this Pilot Gas Station at Kramer Junction) Donna and I were choking on the thick heavy smoke as we said goodbye to our lakeside campsite at Silver Lake. All the campgrounds in southern California had been shut down minutes before we claimed the best campsite in the entire campground and were already pulling the margarita mix out of the cooler.
Tragically, no time for lakeside margaritas and an afternoon with our toes in the water when California was burning down to ashes. According to the United States Forest Service, all the forests were basically shut down for what will probably be weeks to come until some of these massive wildfires are under control. Who would have ever imagined that this fire season the forests were going to be off-limits to outdoor adventurers like us?
As we piled back into my SUV and started the arduous three hundred mile drive home I was a bit stressed as now my vehicle was having engine problems because of the crap gas. I had made mistake number one you don’t want to make when trying to outrun a wildfire; Driving a vehicle not in tip-top condition.
Maintain your vehicles during fire season
I am always the one up to date on my oil changes and rotating my tires so I am usually prepared with a vehicle that is safe, reliable to drive and good to go. But on this particular road trip, I bought bad gas at a petrol station along our route. The best option when you purchase bad gas is to just run it out of your tank. This is a terrible idea during fire season but with multiple gas stations where we were originally traveling, I felt the better option was to just run the gas out and not do any more damage to my car running the shit gas through the system.
That felt like a fine idea until ten miles south of smoky Lone Pine on the drive back south, with a third of a tank of crap gas left we got stuck in congestion on Highway 395. We sat in barely moving traffic for three hours, our gas tank slowly depleting even though we were only coasting at two miles an hour through the orange smoke dusk at three in the afternoon. I’m sure you have seen on the news by now how red the skies are in San Francisco this week, that is exactly how the whole smoky sky looked as we coasted closer to, Lord I hope a gas station. It was a shocking and apocalyptic looking drive. By the time we reached the tiny one horse (And one gas station) town of Olancha twenty-three miles to the south, we had to only have fumes left in the tank. We already had plans for Donna to push my Subaru into the station if we ran out of gas in the middle of nowhere amidst some of the worst traffic I had ever had the pleasure of sitting in. (And we may have joked about hooking up the pup sled dog style to the front of the SUV to pull us into the Chevron station)
You can never have too much gas
One thing locals know when you live in a fire plagued region is always have a half tank of gas. Labor Day Mondays escapades on Highway 395 were a stark reminder of that for Donna and me and one confused pup who really did not want to pull my Subaru through a smoky red skied Inyo County. We sat in that bumper to bumper holiday traffic with thousands of travelers just like ourselves ending their holidays early frustrated, scared and feeling like the wildfire was about to crest the eastern Sierra peaks because the air was that red, dark as night and eerie. With so many travelers on the roads, all using their iPhones and iPads the cell service was down to almost nothing and I may have been driving but Donna in the passenger seat could not get on the internet at all to research if the fire was closer to us now on the incredibly smoky highway. We could not even check how close the nearest gas station was and I was just guessing it was in Olancha, the next small town coming up. I thought to myself, damn how am I so low on gas. I know better as a mountain resident who has seen insane fire seasons most of my life here in southern California.
I’m a life long mountain resident and as one I have lived through my share of evacuations, hellish wildfires and insurance bullshit. I’ve watched friend’s houses burn to the ground on our California nightly news as the uncaring news reporter does not even report the name of the mountain town correctly. I’ve seen friends struggle to rebuild their homes as their insurance company gives them an incredible runaround for years. And the sad thing is we pay a ridiculous amount for fire insurance here in California and for what, when you can not rebuild your beloved family home after a forest fire? I’ve thankfully survived through so many fire seasons, I should know better than anyone to always have half a tank of gas in the tank. I was really cursing Pilot gas stations at this point in our journey as we basically crawled through a smoky red skied Inyo County towards home.
Have an evacuation plan in place
Here in southern California, our brush is so dry that I have friends who have never in their lives considered the fact that they live in a fire zone, now being evacuated. To me, the most important thing when I get evacuated is my pets. Have pet carriers ready to go and easy to locate during wildfire season. If your pets happen to be staying with a pet sitter, always supply leases, pet kennels and an evacuation plan to your pet sitter.
Having important documents, passports, insurance info and social security cards at the ready if you have to leave with ten minutes’ notice is also very important during the fire season. If you take medications make sure you have those in easy to grab locations. Check on elderly loved ones during fire season to make sure they have help if they have to evacuate and can not drive themselves.
Why is it so important to be prepared for an upcoming wildfire season? When you are not prepared you put our first responder’s lives at risk. I know a lot of people who chose not to evacuate during the destructive wildfires we have had in our local mountain communities over the years. Neighbors stayed behind to try and defend their properties against the flames which was very dangerous.
This is one of the worst fire seasons already I can remember and it’s only the first week of September. I went to the scenic eastern Sierra mountains last week with plans to camp and hike in this gorgeous place and instead laced up my hiking boots and walked into a smoky apocalyptic war zone, We live in a densely overpopulated state, where frankly people who visit our natural places care so little about the outdoors they are okay with throwing their Starbucks cups into the forest and leaving blue bags of dog poo on the sides of our trails. We are quickly running low on non-renewable resources and our extreme left or right politicians will never be able to put politics aside and come together with a reasonable outcome that works for both sides and helps climate control. Meanwhile, our California forests and wild spaces are burning to the ground. And we as Californians are too busy trying to figure out how to Zoom with family across the country during a pandemic to have an evacuation plan in place. This is why being prepared for an unparalleled wildfire season is crucial.