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Don't Just Panic... Pre-Panic!

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Scott's tips for when a forest fire approaches

If ever there was anything designed for optimum consternation it has to be having too much time in which to panic. This, and the light-hearted bloodshed, bruising and light banter that often go with it, should be limited to two minutes, no more.

  What if you were given just a few minutes to load up in one or two vehicles everything you couldn’t stand to see go up in the flames of a fast moving conflagration? What if you were given a week?! See what I mean? You’d soon be reduced to a puddle of quivering stupefaction and your driveway would look like a yard a sale had sex with a twister.

  Keep it short, keep it simple. If it’s insured (the elderly not included), take pictures and leave it for the adjuster. 

  One holds dear far more than what they will admit to, at least initially. Throw in that first bite of panic to find your butt or at least the big column of smoke that precedes it and, voila, indecision.

Sunday, July 5th started out calmly at 57 degrees and headed quickly into the breezy upper 80s. Not atypical for northern Idaho in early July, except, that is, when it’s trying to unnerve the tomatoes and squash with threats of frostbite or conversely by scaring the bejeezes out of every other living creature in the Panhandle with gale force flaming mayhem. 

At 12:28 in the afternoon, give or take, something happened near the water line of Lake Pend Oreille about four-and-half miles east of us, on the other side of Cape Horn Peak. Details are sketchy, but had I been present, this story would undoubtedly take a different slant on the subject of panic, with a probable nod to the fickleness of fate when firing frickin’ flares near a forest of flammability.

We can’t see well in that direction from home, but the sudden appearances of large, jet-powered tankers flying at low altitude out of the west told me what my nose could not yet know. Then I noticed through the treetops the smoke plume blotting out Bernard Peak to the southeast. Sunday morning melancholy gave way to rapt attention. I went up my hill for a better look-see but having somewhere along this long journey of mine lost the ability to climb the trees that have grown up to block the panorama I once enjoyed three decades ago where I could get a good view of the Three Sisters and Cape Horn, all I got was a light workout and a slightly better view of the smoke and bombers. Then I could feel it. Thrumming in the full heat of the afternoon, with a big hot sun and sudden breezes, smoke, choppers and bombers filling the sky south and east as well as over our house, deep down in the chest, there it was, dead center, doin’ about ninety. The old adrenalin pump.

Shunning the television to save my sanity anytime imminent danger is on the horizon and my patience for inane commercials for drugs only doctors should be telling us about dips to zip, I turned to Facebook for what might be popping up on my feed. Sure as all getout, there was trouble brewing and people were high-tailing it on a road I know well, vacating a beautiful neighborhood with only one way out in peacetime as well as panic. 

We hadn’t had any precip since the end of May and even that was dismally light. This became evident when strong winds, as though conjured up by Zeus himself, started playing with all things flammable. And there was plenty of that.

Suddenly it was a big scoop, not to mention FIRE! 

“We’d better start thinking about what we might want to put in our two rigs!” my wife and I said together as one, our eyes exposing 30 percent more whites than normal. They would remain this way for nearly a week just to be on the watchful side of living too close to a forest fire.

I’ve been on the watchful side since blundering into a young moose while whistling through some chores back in May, so I was already inoculated, so to speak.

Although we didn’t get crazy (which might have been fun to revisit here), we did review quickly the panic of Firestorm ‘91, where my feminine side, being only about a mile downwind of the fires, drove through a wall off smoke wondering just where I might be, while I was deep in the mix with the rest of my fellow Sagle volunteers and all of our equipment as well as IDOL and the USFS. Not that much fun as a subject of conversation to revisit, less if you were there. In the mix.

Anyway, there we were, listening to the aerial attack four miles off and mentally ticking off that which is most valuable: important paper work, photographs, priceless keepsakes, beer and chips. No rush [subject to change without notice], so I popped a beer to think this over.

My priceless wife, demonstrating superior womanly intuition, pulled the largest tote I’ve ever seen from under the stairs. In it was 90 percent of our photo collection. To this she added the rest, leaving blond spots behind on the pine tongue and groove walls. “That was easy!” she chimed like a Staples button. Getting it out to the back of her Jimmy cost me one good prayer to the god of hernias (both spinal and groinal), which almost always works. Almost.

We packed a suitcase each, plus one for toiletries and prescriptions, as well as a briefcase full of important stuff. The essentials. 

This is where too much time can be a hairball as there was still plenty of room for more stuff. My wife calmly went about packing things she knew we couldn’t leave behind while I tried to prioritize 43 years of marital and professional accumulation. 

This makes twice now that I’ve actually bitten my own tail like a crazed collie for not having built a nice big root cellar by now. What the hell does panic have to do with storing vegetables, you may be asking? Quite a bit, it turns out.

Besides food, a fireproof. earthen repository with an insulated steel door would be the perfect place to stash irreplaceable and/or underinsured valuables (maybe even yourself if the only way out was also on fire) and would eliminate the need to argue the case for taking your prized router in lieu of a prized curling iron or hair dryer. Get my drift?

What I want you to do now is “pre-panic”! Just for the sake of a little enlightenment, take the next (let’s be lenient here) five minutes and see if you can manage a pre-flight scramble. Don’t think about it first, just do it NOW as if you just got a whiff of impending trouble and it’s not your husband or that burrito he had for lunch.

Done yet? NO!? I bet you didn’t even try. How can I make a difference in this goofy world if you don’t listen to reason? I know that chances are you’ll never need to ‘bug out’ with little more than the shirt on your back, but ask a resident of the normally placid Cape Horn neighborhood (or my bride) about those chances and you’ll likely get some raised eyebrows and a lecture.

I don’t want you to just sit down and calmly write out a list of things you should take on a moment’s notice either. It won’t do you any good. Like writing down the protocol for your standard house fire evacuation, one will absolutely never find it for review when the house is actually on fire. Holler “FIRE” in the dead of night and just see what transpires, take notes and make the necessary adjustments. Drill, in other words. It’s the best method. You could even appoint the youngest member of the household to use their smart phone to document such a training exercise. You’d be surprised to see just how human you really are when you think you’re trying to be serious.

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Author info

Scott Clawson Scott Clawson No, he's not the electrician, he's the OTHER Scott Clawson, who's a quality builder when he's not busy busting a gut while writing his humor column for the first issue of each month, or drawing his Acres n' Pains cartoons.

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fire, forest fire, Scott Clawson, Acres n Pains, urban wildland interface, fire preparation

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