On evacuating—and returning home

Sometimes travel isn’t planned or desired, but having a community eases the struggle

Thomas Fire

Photo: Scott L. / Wikimedia Commons
The La Tuna Fire burns in the Verdugo Mountains in the Eastern San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles, CA. 9/1/2017

Larrie Wanberg
Features Editor

The unprecedented Thomas Fire on the Central California Coast spread impending anxiety across all generations of those who experienced the threat of evacuations from surrounding wildfires.

For me, in an assisted living facility recovering from hip surgery in Santa Barbara, the order to evacuate came at noon in the dining room where “grab-and-go” bags were handed out for what possessions one can carry as evacuations began.

Normally for residents in assisted-living centers, pre-arranged plans at admission carry a contingency plan for relatives to assume temporary care if evacuation orders for a facility are issued. Many residents in independent-living facilities, however, have families at great distances and some are unable to provide care during an evacuation crisis.

My prearranged personal plans for evacuation were not feasible, as four potential households of my family members in Santa Barbara were all evacuated simultaneously. My two adult children and three grandchildren’s households with six great-grandchildren all evacuated in different directions with only “grab-and-go” bags” in their possession. My daughter and I left to stay with my closest family in San Francisco.

The upside of the experience was that I was able to spend some time with my two sons who live in Marin County and some of my grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The downside was 11 days of unexpected day-to-day living with only the material things I selected to carry with me—which was limited to what was most valued and could fit in a backpack.

Severe weather-related disasters can cause people to take personal stock of what they value as an individual and as a member of an extended family.

Fortunately, with today’s cellphone technologies and web-based postings, families can use social-media connections to keep in touch or post messages to give assurances of their safety, needs, or whereabouts. Most important for me, all of my family members were safe; none lost their homes or possessions.

The realization of how important “community” is to daily life becomes evident—how everyone pulls together in a common crisis, cares about their neighbor, and makes sacrifices for a common good. All community resources and government agencies become mobilized with their applied skills, like the firefighting crews who came from across the country and became an organized unit. Likewise, the American Red Cross and military and civilian flight crews with air tankers fit together as a task force to contain the wildfires.

A raging fire on a nearby ridge can be terrifying, but a fire in a fireplace in a dinning room is comforting and welcoming, especially with good food, music, friends, and festive decorations.

When forced evacuation orders were lifted, all assisted-living residents returned to enjoy Christmas together and connect again with friends and family. We came “home” to festive surroundings and a sense of personal place. Whether family or community, coming home a few days before Christmas was especially festive; the welcoming decorations, music, food, and the sounds of laughter were a gift of normalcy.

One of the 100-year-old residents shared her experience, saying, “Sharing a room during the evacuation was difficult, as I missed the comfort of my surroundings, my bed, and my room with pictures. What felt so good was coming home and celebrating activities with my friends.”

Another elderly resident—a 101-year-old lady with a great sense of humor—said, “I evacuated twice, first to my daughter’s home and then we both were ordered to leave to my son’s place. The good thing was extra time with both. At my age, I’ve learned to ‘go with the flow’ and ‘take it as it comes.’”

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 26, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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Larrie Wanberg

Larrie Wanberg, 1920–2021, contributed features to The Norwegian American for many years, drawing on eight decades of life experience highlighted by three career recognitions: as a researcher through a Fulbright Scholarship to Norway in 1957; as a health care provider in behavioral science through a 27-year military career and awarded upon retirement in 1981 the highest non-combat medal, the Legion of Merit medal; as an educator, through a 50-year career in college education, culminating in the 2010 Public Scholar award at the UND Center for Community Engagement. Wanberg passed away in May, 2021.