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Have you ever had to evacuate your comfortable and familiar home to save your own life, or the lives of others? It’s a chilling thought. Despite living surrounded by pine forests and mountainous terrain, in a thoroughly arid state, I had never experienced evacuation - until now.

I lived through the so-called “Thousand year flood” of 1972 but wasn’t living in the heavily impacted Gateway to the Black Hills (Rapid City, SD) at the time. I was in the higher hills, where the worst impact on us was broken sewer and water pipes (which subsequently emptied directly into a creek, leading to a recreational lake). That flood now ranks as the single worst natural disaster in the history of the United States, taking the lives of 438 people, and living in the town during its decades-long recovery was a cautionary tale.

I’ve experienced a few tornadoes - despite the old wive’s tale that tornadoes never touch down in mountains.

But at 9:15 am on the morning of March 29, a wildfire began just outside the western edge of town, fueled by dry conditions and gusty winds of up to 70 miles per hour. (Other fires soon appeared near Mount Rushmore and other South Dakota locations).

Since I live on the west side of town in the direct path of the fire, I immediately began packing. At the same time, fire-fighting units around the region readied for what was clearly going to be a Herculean effort.

For the next few days, which I spent hunkered down with my two cats at my daughter’s house, progress reports were few, and containment percentages disappointing. At one point I glimpsed a view of my neighborhood on TV with so much smoke that the houses were obscured. The roar of Slurry bombers and Black Hawk helicopters was omnipresent 24/7 for the next few days, but the fire clearly had the upper hand. [In fact, as I write this, the fire is still not fully contained.]

So now I’ve experienced evacuation. And the biggest lesson? No matter how often I had pondered what I would take in case of an emergency, I was woefully unprepared. I arrived at Lorna’s house with all of my children’s photo albums, but no tooth brush (or even a comb). I ruefully watched my nine month old granddaughter devouring a banana as I pictured the banana ripening on my kitchen sill! I did (miraculously) remember my cell phone charger, but was forced to visit the library about half-way through my exile because the 800+ page book I had brought did not suffice. I packed cat toys but not enough clothes for myself. I brought an immense number of paper documents, but not the tour itineraries and Covid financial files sitting right on my desk!

I can’t decide if this is a word of caution, or a “there but for the grace of God” moment. For myself, it’s a little bit of both. The cats and I survived an incredibly stressful experience, and we had an intact home to return to. There were no human casualties and only two homes were lost in the 2,200 acre burn area.

And our store of gratitude has been replenished.

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