Preparing for an Emergency Evacuation from a Homestead

Reader Contribution by Kat Ludlam and Willow Creek Farm
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The eerie glow from an approaching wildfire forced the author to evacuate from her Colorado farm.

As I write this, we are evacuated from our homestead. Two days ago, due to the fires raging through northern Colorado, we removed 64 animals and eight humans from our little mountain farm in less than two hours. The smoke was so thick that it was dark as night in the middle of the afternoon. It felt like we were in an apocalyptic movie. It was stressful, and heartbreaking. No amount of planning can take away the strong emotions of having to flee from your home. But as I look back on the evacuation, I am struck at how smoothly it actually went as our family worked together to quickly accomplish everything we had planned ahead.

We are not strangers to evacuation. Back in 2013, when flood waters ripped through Northern Colorado, we evacuated our homestead, which at the time, included 72 animals and six humans. We had to take the animals out on foot over a half mile to waiting trailers and trucks on the other side of a complete break in the access road created by the flood waters. Our homestead was not completely back together again for three months, though the humans and some animals were able to return sooner.

There is a high likelihood that at some point, every homestead will face the potential of needing to evacuate. It is important to have a solid written plan ready so you can increase the chance of saving as much as possible from the disaster. Writing out a proper plan and making sure everyone in the home understands the plan and their part in it before the event actually occurs will save you time and stress.

Step 1: Prioritize

Your plan needs to be written out in priority order, with highest priorities written first. For example, humans, then animals, then belongings.

Depending on the size of your homestead and how many animals you have, you might need to prioritize the animals based on ease of getting them out and chance of survival if left behind. For example, during the flood, the animal housing wasn’t in any obvious danger — it was a matter of no utilities and no access road.

If we had to leave some animals behind, it would make sense to leave the chickens in the safety of their coop and exterior pen with plenty of food and water in hopes that we could get back in before they ran out of food and water. The same would not have been possible with the cattle. Granted, with the fire coming through, that type of plan is not really an option.  But still, putting the animals in some sort of order of priority is helpful.

Road damage from 2013 flooding.

Step 2: Transportation

List out exactly how each human and animal will be leaving the homestead. For example, the cattle will be in the trailer, sheep in the back of the truck with a topper, chickens in crates in the second section of the trailer. Bob will drive the truck and trailer; Jane will drive the van with the children and the indoor pets.

Be sure to be specific about which crates for which animals and include all the different animals in the list. Also, list where the crates are stored if applicable so there isn’t any running around wondering where the crate is. And list any feed you are able to fit and where it will go. Bringing at least some feed, if you have time to load it, will help with the transition for the animals once you are out.

It is very important that you have the necessary vehicles to transport all your animals in one load. If you don’t, you are risking having to leave some behind if the evacuation is fast and you can’t do more than one load out or you are hoping and waiting for someone to bring a trailer to you to help you.

Step 4: Destination

Plan out where you would take your livestock and your family if you had to evacuate. Call potential places (farms of friends and family) and discuss options to be sure they are on board with helping you.

You might need more than one place — very rarely can one farm absorb all the animals from another farm. List out which animals would go where, and the phone numbers and addresses of the places they would go. Having those written on the plan will make it a lot easier when you are rushed.

Road Washed Out From Flooding 

Step 3: Belongings

It can be hard to truly assess your belongings and what is most important to you, especially in the heat of the moment. Writing it all out, in prioritized order, ahead of time, will ensure you have a better outcome if you are evacuated.

The cards and items in purses and wallets, as well as important paperwork such as birth certificates, titles, etc., are time-consuming and expensive to try to replace later, so they should be close to the top of the list. Medications should also be near the top. Computers or hard drives with your saved documents and photos are another thing that is important and hard to replace. If you store on the cloud, you won’t need to worry about this. After those items, think “what is irreplaceable?”  Photos (that aren’t save on the cloud or internet), artwork, jewelry, etc.

Each person has different things that are important to them, so you need to make your specific list and put it in priority order and have each family member do the same. If you have time (see scenarios below), it is nice to pack some clothes and bathroom items so you won’t have to buy those while you are away from your home. Also, think about comfort items. It is very stressful to be evacuated from your home and having something that brings you comfort can help you cope.

Step 4: Scenarios

It is helpful to write out a couple of different plans. You need to have an “Imminent Danger – Leave Fast” plan, which you can accomplish in 30 minutes or less, and a “Have More Time” plan that could be completed in a few hours, or even days if you plan to leave ahead of mandatory orders. They will be very different plans.

If you must leave immediately, you need to just focus on getting out humans and as many animals as possible as fast as possible. Whereas if you have hours or days, you can get animal feed and human belongings as well. Make the plans in priority order, as I said above, so you can get the most important things loaded first in case your time is cut short for some reason.

Step 5: Review and Keep It Safe

Review the plans with everyone involved to be sure everyone knows what is expected of them and everyone else. Then store the plan somewhere where it won’t get moved around or lost but is easy to quickly access. Make sure everyone in the home knows where the evacuation plan is located.

Step 6: Be Flexible

A written plan is great and an important tool in a disaster. But you can never plan for every single scenario and how it will play out. Like I said above, during the flood, we had to evacuate animals on foot, because the access road was gone and thus, we couldn’t use our own vehicles. With our current wildfire evacuation, the plan of where each animal was going changed several times over the hours that we were distributing them to their new places.

Make your plan, and then be prepared to bend it and change it as needed when the time comes to face the disaster. You will still be glad you had it to help guide you even if you have to change it somewhat as you go.

By writing out your homestead evacuation plan ahead of time and in detail, you will avoid making mistakes and forgetting things when your feet are held to the fire and your mind goes blank from the stress of it all. It will increase the chance that you can save not only the humans on your property, but each of your precious animals and, hopefully, important belongings, too.

As for us, the unknown continues to be the theme of 2020. We are grateful to be safe and we have had such an outpouring of love and generosity from friends and strangers alike. It is definitely hard to face the possible loss of our home, farm, and business to the wildfires. As we anxiously wait to go back home — and hope there will be a home to go to — we are focusing on the many blessings that we have despite it all. You can follow our journey at our blog, Willow Creek Farm.

Kat Ludlam is a high-altitude homesteader and owner of Willow Creek Farm in the Colorado Rockies, where she breeds landrace sheep, chickens, and crops accustomed to elevation. Check out Kat’s custom fiber-processing business, Willow Creek Fiber Mill, and read all of Kat’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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