Ex-FEMA chief had 'go bag' for Colo. wildfire evacuation

Related Column: Ready to Go?

By Judy Villa
Rocky Mountain News

BOULDER, Colo. — Michael D. Brown learned at least one thing during his six years as head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency: Never get caught without a "go bag."

So when Brown was told to evacuate his home north of Boulder on Wednesday, he was ready. The "go bag" was, indeed, already packed, with medicine, cash and an extra cell phone charger.

Brown and his wife spent the night at a friend's apartment in Longmont and returned home Thursday. He talked to the Rocky about the experience of being on the other side of an evacuation:

"I had been down at KOA doing some work and came back I guess about 1 o'clock. I had been here about an hour, working in my home office, which faces the west, and the winds were just amazing, probably 85, 95 miles an hour. Suddenly the dogs went nuts. And I looked up, and on my driveway was a Boulder County sheriff with his lights flashing. So I walked out to find out what was going on, and he said, 'There's a mandatory evacuation. There's a fire a couple miles away.' I said, 'Thank you very much.' We grabbed our 'go bag.' I got the three dogs and got in the car and left. I was out of the house in probably 10 minutes at the most. I just went around, locked everything up, turned the lights off and we've got a little bag and I grabbed the bag and the dogs. My wife was up at a meeting at school and I just got right out.

"It was interesting because I've seen these fires up close, and I didn't want to wait around and see how close it was or anything like that. I literally got out of the neighborhood and got down to the highway where I could see it. And it was amazing because there was a woman next to me that had pulled over to look, too. And her car was just jam-packed full of stuff. And I thought, I'm so glad that the lesson I've learned is, you know, our documents are all digitized and backed up and our photographs are backed up and digitized. So all we have to do is just take our medicine and the bag and stuff and it's all ready to go and just leave.

"I guess I had two reactions. One is I've seen these fires and I've seen these firefighters. In Colorado, we've had firefighters killed in these wildfires. And we've had firefighters killed in Montana and all over the country. I know what they're like. These men and women are Type-A personalities that will do anything they can to save us or save a home. And I don't want to be the one responsible for them getting hurt. So it's like, OK, I'm out of here."

"And I think the other thing, too, is . . . I remember one fire in particular in California where (President) Bush and I had been at where there were multimillion-dollar homes and everything was gone but the swimming pool. But I mean literally everything. Nothing but a foundation and a chimney. And just on the other side of the ridge was nothing but mobile homes and they were gone. And when you see people in those situations, and particularly for six years, you realize that the house is unimportant. What's important is just get the animals and the family out and the heck with the rest of it.

"It's odd when I think about it. I mean I knew there was a chance the house literally could burn down. But it's like yeah, I get that. I get that and we're all safe. . . . There are a lot worse things that can happen in life."

Copyright 2009 Denver Publishing Company

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