Safe Living in Sonoma
Learning from Others: Journal Notes from the Dixie Fire
By Julie Atwood
It’s October 2 and just last week, I returned from a deployment of over five weeks as an Animal Disaster Responder to the Dixie Fire.
I was based in Plumas County, an area hit hard by two very large, back-to-back fires starting in mid-July, as well as by the North Complex Fire last year. At the time I write this, the Dixie Fire is finally nearly 100% contained, thanks to an incredible response and with help from some early rains.
Right now, I’m looking back to this time last year, when my teammates and I were into our third month of responses in six counties to the LNU, Glass, Walbridge, and North Complex Fires. Every year is now marked by fire milestones.
I am struck by the many similarities between Sonoma Valley (where I live and have been run over by, or been very close to, major fires multiple times), and the communities impacted in Plumas County. Both regions are beautiful, pet- and equine-friendly vacation and event destinations, filled with part-time residents and visitors. Both regions are rural, with many one-way-in/ one-way-out roads. Cell service is iffy and Wi-Fi nonexistent in many locations. Many permanent residents are retirees over age 65 and veterans. Like Sonoma County, Plumas County has a deeply rooted legacy ranching culture.
And, like us, residents of several small, close-knit, rural towns experienced sudden, shocking, and total devastation that has displaced hundreds—possibly thousands—of people, many of whom will be unable to return for a very long time, or not at all. During my stay, my teammates and I moved often and had to evacuate our VRBOs three times.
I found myself rewinding many of my own presentations and articles in my head, sometimes helping the college students on our team cope with the realities of life in evacuation, without cell phone service or green smoothies.
I was struck by the level of preparedness of the Plumas animal owners, especially the ranchers and small-town pet owners. Their experiences in these fires underscored many lessons I have learned and provided some new emphasis and insights.
We have come a long way in the four years since the first of “our” North Bay fires. And we have become leaders in community resiliency and initiatives that support other communities. Still, there is always more we can do to up our game. And we cannot become complacent. No matter how prepared you believe you are, you can do better—for your animals, your neighbors, your workers.
Here are some notes from the sporadic journal I kept during my five-plus weeks in a disaster-devastated community far away from my home, but which felt more like “déjà vu all over again” than being here during our own recent events. First, I was once again reminded that we are always just one moment away from the need for self-reliance. Whether fire, storm, or earthquake, it takes just seconds to cut off access to basic or life-saving resources, for days, weeks, or months.
We met so many people who had evacuated multiple times and been displaced for six weeks or longer. They evacuated with their pets safely but were not prepared for multiple and extended evacuations or a lack of veterinary resources, which were nearly all knocked out of service.
Disaster impacts can last a very long time, even if you still have your home, and we need to prepare for longer-term sustainability.
That means packing more medications and more food and sanitation supplies, and planning for ways to keep pets safe and comfortable for long periods. We also need to have emergency health plans in place, like pet healthcare insurance, advanced care directives, and a backup veterinarian in another region.
Microchips do make happy reunions happen and save pets from weeks or months in shelters.
Chickens are stoic but vulnerable to smoke and evacuation stresses. Backyard poultry owners need to learn how to identify health issues and care for their flocks.
Building relationships is the key to resilience, for individuals as well as organizations and communities. Agencies are getting better at this. There’s much greater emphasis on neighbor-to-neighbor communication, and this made a big difference in the Dixie Fire (and Monument, McFarland, River, and other fires in the far north state).
That said, we can—and must— do better. Get to know your neighborhood animals. Create safety sheds with shared resources and improve your communication plans.
Sometimes, it’s easier to cry with a stranger. Especially when you’re hugging an animal. Human and animal connections can, literally, be lifesaving.
Humor really is the best medicine. There’s nothing like being in Safeway when the power goes out and everyone receives a wireless emergency alert (WEA) at the same time. Multiple times. You get really friendly with strangers in a hurry, even in COVID.
Another lesson reinforcement: It really is important to have cash in small bills!
Being prepared means you’ll sleep better, stay healthier, and be better able to care for others, including your animals! We know this. But it bears repeating.
So, let’s make October a month of helping as well as healing, and take a few minutes every day to ask ourselves, “How can I help myself and those I care for stay well and together if a sudden and lengthy emergency confronts us?”
Then, act on your answers.
If you’d like to help others affected by 2021 wildfires and hurricanes, see the list of relief funds for animals, communities, and responders at HALTERproject.org.