#038 – Saving Memories from Wildfire – Literally – with Nicole Miller-Cline

What do you do when you have to evacuate your home quickly — specifically, with choosing your preservation pieces (think photos, mementos, etc.), grabbing the essentials (undies, toothbrushes), and keeping the kids calm?

This was a very real scene for a recent Preservation Project participant and photographer, Nicole Miller-Cline. She was two weeks into the program when Camp Fire, a California wildfire, blazed through her hometown and gave her only about 90 minutes’ notice to grab her things + get her family to safety.

Credit: CBS Sacramento

Nicole was generous to share her story with us and tell us what she learned, so that we can have a better plan for ourselves. Listen to the full conversation here:

We begin with Nicole giving us the background on how she’s been a documentarian so far — doing a 365, printing her favorites, not really doing much with the rest — which led her to The Preservation Project to begin with.

She describes her family’s Sunday Dinners and her TPP focus, which you can read about here (or listen in above). Then, Nicole walks us through her morning of the fire in Paradise, California on November 8, 2018.

[13:00] Nicole:

So many things came together that morning; God was watching over me I feel.

I was supposed to fly out for work that morning, so I’d gotten my kids up extra early. Normally, they wouldn’t have been up and dressed that early, but I wanted to drop them off as soon as the school opened to play at 7:30 a.m.

So, when we walked out of the grocery store and I was putting my 2 year old into the car, I looked up and saw this small plume of smoke over the grocery store. I thought, “Hmm, that must be in the canyon.” We live close to the canyon, but it was small plume of smoke where it almost looked like someone was burning leaves.

Start of the Paradise California 2018 Wildfire

I took a picture of it (above) at 7:07 a.m. and texted it to my husband who was at work 20 minutes away. I asked him, “Hey, can you look on Facebook or listen to the scanner to see if you hear anything, because I have to drop the kids off in 20 minutes?”

At 7:11 a.m., my next picture (below) was when I pulled into our driveway and it already filled half the sky in my picture with smoke.

I called my dad at that point, because he works for Cal-Fire. He wasn’t at work that day, but I asked him to call the station. So, he called them, then called me back and said it was just supposed to be a 10 acre thing about 5 miles away (30 minutes if driving around the canyon). So, I hung up and was looking at it, because it was so big.

Protect your photos and memories from fire

My neighbor walked out to his car and he had his back to the canyon, so I was like, “Jason, do you see that behind you?” I was telling him I might drop the kids at my parents instead of school and that I needed leave soon for my work trip. He’s a police officer. He called his station and, then, told me not to go on my work trip.

So, I FaceTimed my boss and clients. I wasted 15 minutes FaceTiming people, because I didn’t want them to think I was pretending or something. Then, I looked outside and saw my neighbors packing their car and thought, “I should probably start packing.”

I asked my 8 year old, “Hey, if we have to leave for a few days, grab some things you’d want to bring with you.” We’ve had to evacuate for fires before and it’s never been a big thing. It gets out in a couple days, you go back home and it’s fine.

My husband called me and said he was listening to the scanner. They said they’re going to start evacuating our area, so he was coming home.

So then, I started throwing things in the car.

I grabbed my:

  • camera bag
  • laptop
  • hard drives

and just threw them in the car.

My daughter helped me grab all the pictures off of the walls.

My teenage son was at high school, so I texted him, “What do you want from your room?” His dad passed away 3 years ago, so he wanted his Dad’s things: pictures of his dad, his dad’s skateboard, etc.

I scooped up handfuls of dirty laundry from the floor, because I figured that’s stuff we wear.

My husband made it home, somehow, in 12 minutes. I don’t even want to know how fast he was driving! My dad drove over too. They sprayed the roof of our house and around the house with water.

We put the kids in the car, and our dog, then we left.

We were going to my parent’s house which is in the center of town, 2 miles away, and while we were driving there was a field on fire right by the road. When I took a picture of that, it was 8:29(ish).

So, that was less than 90 minutes from the first time I saw the tiny plume of smoke.

We got to my parent’s house and went inside. I let my dog out in the backyard, called my mom’s neighbor to try to tell them about the fire. They didn’t answer, so I was going to walk over next door to their house and, then, I walked back out and the whole sky was pitch black.

You could hear the fire – it sounded like a train was coming.

It was so loud.

So, I just ran back inside, grabbed my 2 year old, had my 8 year old grab the dog, and my husband and I, we ran back outside and put the kids in his car, which had the DVD player. We thought that would keep them calm. I took the dog in my car.

Then, I called my parents after we pulled out of the driveway and said, “I just left your house. Leave right now!”

It just happened so quick, I thought,

“I have to get my kids out of here. I can’t even stop to tell my parents — who are inside the same house as me — that we were leaving. That’s how fast I had to get out of there.

My mom was right behind us.

It still took us about an hour to get out of town and it was pitch black and dark, but we didn’t experience driving through the flames like so many people did. My dad left 15 minutes behind us and he had scorch marks on his truck. It took him 3 hours to get out.

There’s only 4 roads that lead out of town. There’s a mountain and canyons on both sides, so you can’t go off the road. You’d fall down a mountain.

You have to go on the road.

__________

Marie back here. Talk about scary, right?! Can you imagine trying to think through the important, sentimental stuff and the essentials while parenting + being fully aware of your surroundings for safety?

The rest of our conversation was about how long the fire lasted and what their “home” situation is today. Listen to the full story for more on that.

I had one more set of questions for Nicole:

When you knew you had to leave and were trying to think of WHAT to take, was that a clear path?

Or, looking back, is there anything you’d do different to prepare better?

[25:07] Nicole: I think it would have been good if, before, we’d walked through the house and made a checklist or had a little box, by the door, that was easy to grab with a couple essentials – like toothbrushes, extra underwear, that kind of thing.

If there had been a checklist of things that are important to us, that would’ve been really helpful, because I felt like I was running around like a chicken with my head cut off.

I was trying to keep my 2 year old and 8 year old from freaking out entirely, while trying to get everything out of the house.

I was just making educated guesses on what my husband would want. A lot of things were things I randomly saw and I was like, “I think I should grab that.” My MIL passed away 5 years ago and I did grab a handwritten recipe card.

Reflection Prompt:

After hearing this story, how can you better prepare all that you’ve been documenting (and beyond) for an emergency?

We challenge you to do one thing this week, like make a simple checklist, to help protect what matters to you. If you make a list, share it on IG and tag us! @wcsnicole and @fearlessandframed.

More goodness:

Document one, tiny story in your life and leverage it to nourish your soul, your relationships, & even your business in 7 days:

Start here.

How to Document Your Life Stories in Pictures, Words, and More

Here’s a little tease of our agenda inside the challenge:

  • Day 1: Uncover a Tiny Story
  • Day 2: See the foundation
  • Day 3: Make one picture (or lots!)
  • Day 4: Tell the story
  • Day 5: Share it well
  • Day 6: Give through story
  • Day 7: Stay awake

Start here.


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Protecting Memories from Natural Disaster / California Wildfire 2018 with Nicole Miller-Cline

Author: MarieMasse
I help client documentary photographers fine-tune their workflow + marketing game, so their work is filled with sessions that represent their voice + client values while earning a living. I shoot undirected, off-beat stories that aren’t preserved often enough (like the story of couples before starting a fam or becoming empty-nesters – a dream project of mine), so my clients’ old box of photos is a meaningful, visual diary of their life + legacy to leave behind.

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