Thursday, July 17, 2014

Oak Creek evacuation

Back in May we headed west with camping gear on board. We’d reserved a prime campsite along Oak Creek, just a little north of Sedona, AZ in a glorious forest of towering ponderosa pines. Here we are making oatmeal in the chilly morning air.

By midday the temps warmed pleasantly. The kids cooled off their feet in a sparkling brook mid-hike and we thought about letting them swim.

It really got toasty when we drove down to Sedona for more hiking. But the beautiful red rocks made it worthwhile!

Our favorite spot was the magical creek that ran just behind our campsite.  Down a little hill you entered the kids’ secret realm. The creek was filled with interesting bugs, darting minnows, and stocked with interesting rocks and sticks. The perfect lush oasis for our desert-dwellers to explore.

On the afternoon of our second full day of camping, we started off merrily on a hike that was lauded in the guidebooks as a must-do for the region. We didn’t know that this hike would prove the turning point for our trip. Here we are heading into the trail; I love this photo because you see Luke, ever the gentleman, carrying my backpack for me proudly.

Here we are rushing back on the same trail a few hours later, with a very different mood.

A couple miles into our leisurely hike we started smelling smoke but assumed it was from local campfires. Then 20 minutes later thicker smoke rolled in and sirens began to blare from the direction of the road. We turned back toward the trailhead and as ash started to fall we walked faster. Within a mile of the trailhead came the final warning – we passed a grim search and rescue team who told us to get to our car and drive north immediately. A forest fire had started just 4 miles away and was spreading fast.

The road south was closed but our campground was just off the road a mile north. As we pulled into our site we were the only people in an entire campground of abandoned tents and RVs. We threw our tent and gear into the car amidst the eerie emptiness, uneasily broken by the sounds of emergency vehicles careening south on the adjacent road. I pleaded with Erik to abandon our gear and speed away. But he assured me it would just take a few minutes and we finished our take-down and loaded the car in record time. When we jumped back in our seats, ready to rush off, Eleanor stopped us. “Wait!! Do we have Luke?!?” Even though the kids were both sitting in the second row, they had zero visibility of each other due to all the gear chaotically jammed around them. We had left them in their car seats while we packed and the tenseness of the moment had kept both kids quiet. Sweet Eleanor wanted to make sure that her best friend and beloved brother wasn’t being left behind! Luke assured her that he was present and we headed north to Flagstaff, passing speeding fire trucks and earth movers all the way.

We’d been planning to camp for two more nights but couldn’t find any campgrounds that weren’t already closed or very smoky. The rapidly growing fire eventually consumed 22,000 acres of forest. So after a night at a Flagstaff hotel, we drove down to Phoenix for a more city-style vacation. We enjoyed the Phoenix Zoo, a trip to Ikea (where we bought the perfect sink for our kitchen renovation), and lots of time in the pool at our fancy hotel.

It was still a fun trip but a little less peaceful than the quiet camping retreat we’d envisioned, with hotel-hopping and plan-making at the last-minute. Plus we were all a little shaken up by the drama and tragedy of the Slide Fire. The kids kept asking if their caterpillar friend that kept visiting our campsite would be okay and if our campground would still be there. It was sobering to think of how quickly the fire could decimate such a beautiful forest, and how close we’d been to its devastating power. But thankfully, according to the final reports our campground escaped the flames and no people were injured in the fire. Maybe one day we’ll go back and visit that friendly caterpillar and its sweet creekside home again. Only next time we’ll be sure to avoid fire season!

{More pics here.}

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