07 September 2011

Saving Private Ryan ... and Parker and Johnson and ...

"The fire is moving this way. You have 30 minutes to evacuate." What does a genealogist grab to take with you as you run out the door? Probably the same things a non-genealogist grabs.

Let me quickly assure my friends we are not in this position, at least not yet and hopefully not ever. But many Texans have been these last weeks, more will be in the coming weeks. Some have lost their homes, some have lost their lives. My heart aches as I listen to news reporters interview the newly homeless and grieving. Some of these live less than ten miles from our house. They just live south of the place where the fire started and we live north. Wind direction and velocity have a major impact on the path of a fire.

I've often watched news footage of wild fires in far away desert locations like Arizona and California and West Texas, worrying about those who live near the fire. Now it's happening here in the heavy pine forests of East Texas. Now it hits harder as I watch the smoke drifts lingering above the trees a few miles away. And the smell of smoke seeps in even where the fire doesn't.

The extended drought has left the forests so dry it doesn't take much to start a fire. I saw a cigarette butt in the road near my mailbox a few days ago. How can anyone be so stupid as to toss a cigarette butt out of a car window anytime, much less in these dangerous, dry conditions?

Some people, without understanding this rural environment, make suggestions on how to stop the fire. I saw one blog comment telling people just to water their lawns so the grass was less likely to catch fire. This isn't the big city. This is an area where we don't really have lawns; we have the same stuff growing in the "yard" as what grows in the pasture on the other side of the fence. We don't have city water coming up the street in a pipe; in our back yards we have wells with pumps. Some of those wells have already gone dry due to the drought. Its hard to truck in enough water from Kroger and Walmart to keep several acres from going up in flames if the fire moves toward it. And if you do pump that much water out of the ground you may be causing another neighbor's well to go dry so they have no drinking water.

So I watch the leaves falling from the trees looking like it is months further into autumn than it is now. I watch my beautiful Southern Magnolia start to look more like a weeping willow. I look at my bedding plants and think I may be starting all over next spring - or the next spring where rain finally falls.

What do I grab to take with me in case we do have to evacuate quickly? Well, yesterday I staged boxes with the irreplaceable photographs (including Ryan, Parker, Johnson, and Richards men who served in twentieth century wars), my grandmother's wedding rings, the rhinestone watch my father gave my mother on the day I was born (the one that hasn't kept time for over fifty years and is missing stones, but still makes my eyes water when I see it), and a few of my husband's favorite trinkets (because he won't think of anything except life-saving essentials). He did pack his medicines. My laptop and one backup disk are packed in my briefcase ready to grab. My phone and charger are in my purse along with cash and credit cards. Two suitcases are conveniently located so they can be filled with clothes if there is enough time, otherwise we can shop for clothes later. The car's gas tank is full. We know where we will meet if we get separated during an evacuation. I walk through the house with a camera taking photographs of possessions for the insurance claim, if that becomes necessary. (I did this about six years ago, but possessions have changed since then. We need new photos.)

What gets left behind? Have you ever stood and stared at your belongings and asked yourself, "what can be replaced and what can't? What can be loaded up in one or two trips to the car?" Some of my favorite photos get left behind because family members have copies. I stare at the shelves of books I love. Even if I had enough boxes to pack them up, they'd take way too much time to load. They are replaceable, even the treasured copy of Professional Genealogy with signatures of both Elizabeth Shown Mills and Helen F. M. Leary. There's just no way to justify packing and moving the dishes given me by my grandmother or my mother-in-law or the Christmas decorations the kids have made over the years.

I've been careful about scanning most of my research for the last four or five years so that is on my backup disk. But the file cabinets have lots of older stuff not digitized yet. Why hasn't that moved higher up in my priority list before now, along with scanning all the old photos and snapshots? Its been on my to-do someday list for years. It just moved closer to the top of the list.

I'm torn between thinking I am worrying for nothing if we don't have to evacuate and thinking how sorry I will be if the fire comes this way. I convince myself that as long as Jim and I get out with our lives the rest doesn't really matter. I've been hearing that all week now from those who made it out and were able to talk to the journalists.

The genealogical takeaway from this: you probably know what you should do to preserve your research and artifacts. Make yourself do it now. When it's too late, it's too late.

© 2011, Debbie Parker Wayne, All Rights Reserved


  1. I think about this often, but haven't yet made progress in getting photos and documents scanned and stored offsite. We have three cats to get out of the house, so I'm not even sure I'd be able to grab anything. It's a scary prospect - guess I should put some items in a case next to the door....

  2. At least with the case packed and ready to go you have a chance to get it to the car. I'm thankful my boxes are still just sitting there and there haven't been any flames close by for a couple of days now. I hope all the firefighters are getting a chance to rest because they sure didn't earlier this week. And I hope progress is being made on the huge Bastrop fire. And good luck with the cats if it comes to that.