On Tuesday, November 17th, 2020 the Pinehaven Fire tore through southwest Reno and I was one of more than 1000 households forced to evacuate. There was no question our street needed to evacuate.
Ashes were in the air and thick black smoke was visible nearby. On the nearest corner, I was able to see a large hillside of flames.
I had 5 minutes to grab my toddler son, dog, and cat. We jumped into the car.
I had my purse and phone and we got out safely. Our house and street were spared, but the fireline came close. I didn’t have confirmation until early the next morning that our house was safe.
On that day, 60 mph wind gusts fueled the fire that burned more than 500 acres, destroying 5 homes, heavily damaging 3, and causing minor damage to 21 homes. I cannot emphasize how violent the wind was— it was disturbing and apocalyptic and the feeling from that day stays with me.
The investigation is still ongoing and is focused on power line data. One theory is that power lines above sagebrush-covered hillsides in the area may have ignited the fire.
I wrote this article because I was caught off guard. I realized upon reflection that I was not prepared. I’ve done quite a bit of research and I want to share my findings with you and your family.
My goal is to make a clear, achievable plan that will prepare my family in case we ever have a close call with a wildfire (or any other disaster) again. There is some peace of mind that comes with being prepared.
Tip #1: Stay Informed
Washoe County and other counties in Nevada have a local emergency notification system. Officials will use phone calls, emails, and texts to a specific area with a prepared message during an emergency. For example, if an area is asked to evacuate.
Go online and create an account to sign up for it.
Follow these Twitter accounts
During the Pinehaven Fire, I was getting the best information from Twitter. Here are the top three accounts you will find timely updates from.
I know. This is a big one. This will take time. As a homeowner for 6 years, I wasn’t aware I was supposed to do this. I asked my insurance agent to explain the ins and outs of a Home Inventory Checklist.
The goal is to have a permanent record of the contents of your home and its estimated value. Specifically— a list of product brands with models and serial numbers.
Take photos and videos in addition to filling out your checklist.
Better yet, use a home inventory app. It can help you organize your belongings and calculate the total value of your assets. This can be a game-changer if you’re ever in a situation where you need to replace your personal property after a loss.
To give you an idea of what you should be documenting, here is a partial list:
items in all rooms (books, furniture, lamps, rugs, etc.)
china, crystal, silverware, dishes, utensils
glassware, pots and pans
washing machine and dryer
luggage, power tools, lawnmower, etc.
Note: Taking inventory is for homeowners and renters alike.
If you have items that are extra valuable (think— original artwork, jewelry, musical instruments) chat with your insurance agent and make sure you don’t need additional coverage in case of loss.
Keep your Inventory in a safe place
Create a digital inventory and keep it in a cloud-based service. Additionally, you can keep copies of your inventory on a flash drive in your safe and in your go bag.
Invest in a Fireproof Document Bag and Secure Fireproof Safe
Experts suggest using a fireproof document bag that can go inside a secure fireproof safe. It’s a bit expensive but worth it. If you are ever in a situation where you are away from your home during a natural disaster, or you have 5 minutes to evacuate, you will know that your most precious original documents and small valuables will be safe and you don’t have to try to gather them.
To give you an idea of what you should go inside the safe, here is a partial list:
At a glance:
current insurance policies and agent contact info.
passports and original birth certificates
original social security cards
copies of drivers licenses, debit and credit cards
account numbers and passwords to bank accounts
passwords to all online accounts
jewelry and valuable coins
doctors and vets names and numbers
prescription numbers, pharmacy contact info.
backup keys to home and cars
copies of legal documents like wills
flash drive with home inventory
Tip #3: Pack Emergency Go Bags
Experts suggest packing up easy to carry bags that will enable your family and pets to have essentials for a couple of days. You should be able to grab and go— so they should be located in the garage near your car or coat rack/ closet nearest to the door.
There are a lot of go bags and survival kits available these days. You can purchase from Amazon based on the number of people in your family. Or you can DIY and customize the bag to meet your family’s needs.
phone numbers you’d need (and not remember) in an emergency
names and numbers of at least 3 neighbors
copies of financials (bank accounts, debit, and credit cards) (include passwords)
copies of identification (passport, driver’s license)
copies of insurance information (policy numbers and agent)
copies of prescriptions (name, number, and pharmacy)
Have at the ready:
soft travel carrier with handle for each pet
Grab if you can:
Keep these items in your car (at all times!):
extra clothing for baby/ toddler, diapers, undies, socks
extra pair of shoes for toddler/ child
extra clothing for adults in your household
extra dog lease
travel cat box, a small bag of cat litter
If you need assistance during an evacuation, call 1-800-REDCROSS (1-800-73327677).
Note: If you have family members with special needs, or, if you live in a rural area this list may not be detailed enough. Plan wisely knowing your unique situation.
Tip #4: Prepare your Family
The first step in preparing your family is to meet with everyone in the household and explain the dangers of wildfires (and emergencies in general). Ensure every person in the family has emergency contact numbers for family members, work, and school.
Next, select a safe meeting point in case you are separated from other family members and your cell phone calls aren’t going through.
Third, choose an out-of-town contact that everyone in the family knows, because often you’re able to make a long-distance call [but not a local call] when there is a disaster.
School Emergency Protocols
Make sure you are familiar with the procedures and protocols your child’s school will go through during an evacuation or crisis.
Washoe County School District has an Active Emergency Information Page located on their website that posts accurate and verified information during an emergency. This is an additional way to keep up to date with what’s happening.
Pet Emergency Plan
Never leave your pet behind. I think this goes without saying.
Animal welfare agencies (for example, Humane Society of the United States, ASPCA) and The Red Cross believe that if it’s not safe for you and your family, it’s not safe for your pet.
If you are home at the time of evacuation, your go bag and your car will have supplies at the ready. You simply need to grab your pets and put them in carriers. Or, (like me during the Pinehaven Fire), grab them loose in a chaotic rush and throw them in the car. Remember— I had mentioned I wasn’t prepared.
Here’s a problem though. What if you aren’t home during a wildfire and your pets are inside your home? How do you plan for that?
Experts suggest that you make a plan. Assign a designated caretaker for your pets. This is a person who is local. This is someone you trust and who knows your pets. This person will have a key to your home and be able to act on your behalf if you are away during an evacuation order. You might want to have a backup designated caretaker (like a nextdoor neighbor).
Other ways to prepare include making sure your pets have identification (collar with your cell phone number) and are microchipped. Remember to keep your microchip registration up to date.
Purchase pet alert window stickers for your windows (visible to first responders) as a last resort. If your pets are trapped, this may be the only chance to alert emergency personnel to your pets inside. It definitely can’t hurt.
Note: If you have livestock or horses, refer to the resource page on the American Veterinary Medical Association website. It’s a place to start.
Where to Go
If you ever find yourself in a situation where you are evacuated, I hope you have extended family that is local you can stay with on short notice. Not everyone has that luxury of course.
It’s good to think about this question— where would your family go? Where would your pets go?
The Red Cross will always be a source of assistance to fire evacuees in the city of Reno. They have hundreds of staff and volunteers that can help you in an emergency. You should never feel alone.
During the Pinehaven Fire, The Red Cross opened a center at Caughlin Ranch Elementary School.
Wildfires in Reno will unfortunately always be a threat.
As I said, I wrote this article because I was caught off guard. It took me a few days to process the sequence of events and realize I could have done much better had I been prepared. Luckily it turned out okay for us.
If you get out with your family and pets unharmed, that is everything. You have something to be thankful for. If your house is spared you are even luckier! But let’s face it, we can all do better to plan and prepare for known threats.
Our Fearless 1st Responders
As in any natural disaster, there are heroes and lessons learned. The fire department and police were extremely helpful that day to get over 1000 households out of danger quickly. They worked overnight in difficult conditions to protect our homes.
I can tell you I drive by miles of burned hillsides and a roofless home in my neighborhood. It is clear that the fire came up to the literal property edge on hundreds of homes. Think about how many families’ homes were saved.
We are indebted to our first responders.
Time to Plan Ahead!
I hope this article inspires you to make a clear and achievable plan for your family. I can tell you this fire came too close for comfort. I have a chance to prepare and I think you should, to.
Does your family have an Emergency Plan? Likely, I didn’t cover every possible tip and I’d love to hear from you. Sharing information and best practices is so helpful for our Nevada Moms community!
Maureen Lowe is a Bay Area native that relocated to the high desert mountains of Southwest Reno with her family in 2017. Mama to her active pup and toddler boy, Maureen is a textile designer and graduate of CCA San Francisco. With a lifelong love of nature and the arts, Maureen has made it a mission to explore Reno’s scenic trails and cultural offerings to find kid and dog-friendly outings that work in all seasons.