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California Resident Discusses Her Wildfire Evacuation Experiences


Millions of acres are burning in Washington state, Oregon and California. Homes, businesses and in some cases whole towns have been lost and, of course, lives. Wildfires can grow and spread so quickly, people who live in areas that are prone to fires often keep bags packed with disaster supplies and important papers ready in case they have to evacuate at a moment's notice.

Tania Volhontseff is a retired teacher who lives in Windsor, Calif. That's about 60 miles north of San Francisco. She joins us now. Thanks very much for being with us.

TANIA VOLHONTSEFF: You're welcome.

SIMON: How many times have you had to evacuate?

VOLHONTSEFF: (Laughter) I think it's four now.

SIMON: Oh, mercy. Are there any fires close to Windsor as you speak with us now?

VOLHONTSEFF: There was one close. I looked up the map a few days ago because we got a warning. I packed a little bit, but we did not have to evacuate. So that was good.

SIMON: I understand, Ms. Volhontseff, that you lost your home in 2017. Is that correct?

VOLHONTSEFF: That was the Tubbs fire, yes. I have a detached garage. And we're talking about midnight or a little after midnight. And so the power had gone out. I knew how to open the door of the garage manually. But because it was dark and I had two cars, I would have had to climb on top of a car to release the handle. And I thought it would be foolish to slip off and maybe hurt myself. So I decided to wait for a little bit and see what would happen. But at that point, I had called the fire department and said, are we evacuating? And she said, no. And I looked outside, seemed like nothing was happening.

Probably about 45 minutes later, I opened the front door, and I saw the vinyl siding on my house rolling off from heat. And I thought, you know what? This is not a good time to be in here. As I was stepping out the door, I could hear windows cracking. And within seconds, the house was filled with black smoke.

SIMON: And then you also had to evacuate the neighborhood in Windsor, Calif., that you were living in while you were rebuilding your home from the Tubbs fire.

VOLHONTSEFF: That's correct. That was a year ago.

SIMON: What's it like to live this way?

VOLHONTSEFF: (Laughter) Well, it's up and down. I tend to be quite a calm person. And I was calm during the Tubbs fire. I now have a list of everything that I have to take. So that makes me feel a little bit more stable. And once I put things in the car, I feel like, OK, I'm ready to go at any minute.

SIMON: With respect, you're not 25 years old, right?

VOLHONTSEFF: No, no, I'm not. I'm a very active 81-year-old.

SIMON: Would it be fair to surmise that this is not how you imagined spending your early 80s, moving from place to place?

VOLHONTSEFF: No, no. I was hoping to still continue dancing on Fridays with the seniors and having some, you know, calm - a calm life and teaching one or two classes at the junior college here. No, I did not envision this sort of life, where the last three years I have been dealing with insurance companies. And I have files which are always the first to go in the car if we have to evacuate. No, I did not envision that.

SIMON: Do you ever consider moving to, I don't know, Rhode Island or Ohio?

VOLHONTSEFF: (Laughter) Well, the home that I had, we remodeled about 10 years ago. And it's a lovely - it was a lovely home. And I hope that, well, I'm going to have a lovely home again. I would like to stay in my home. The only thing that crosses my mind is, what's to prevent another fire to go through there, you know? But we have so many fires in California now. I think I'll wait for a while and see how things go. And if it gets too scary at some point, I may decide to move somewhere where I think it might be calmer. But right now, I'm going to move into my new home, hopefully in a couple of months.

SIMON: Tania Volhontseff, thank you for being with us.

VOLHONTSEFF: You have a lovely day, and stay safe.

(SOUNDBITE OF YUTAKA HIRASAKA'S "AFTERWARDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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