Business Musings: On Fire

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The sunsets and sunrises have been spectacularly beautiful here in Las Vegas for the past three weeks or so—when we’ve had sunsets and sunrises. The smoke from the California wildfires has been incredibly thick, putting a haze on everything. But it gives us blood-red sunrises and sunsets, and occasionally some lovely clouds that will reflect pink and purple.

Our air quality has ranged from annoying (just enough to bother the eyes and make you cough) to hazardous. On Labor Day, the smoke was so thick that we couldn’t see across the street—and that was before we had 30-40 mile per hour winds, which added dust to the mix. I’d never seen air quality rankings that bad.

But here, we welcomed the wind, because it was coming from the north, which meant that the wind was going to scour the smoke out of the Vegas Valley, and bring with it the first relief we’ve had from record high heat in more than two months.

However, that wind hit Oregon at the same time, and did something weird. It brought incredibly low humidity and winds out of the east that hit the Oregon Coast.

Over the weekend, as I communicated with my friends still in Oregon, I mentioned the heat, but not the smoke, because I knew they were dealing with the same problem. Although I figured that our business on the coast was fine. Lincoln City is protected by mountains on one side, with wetlands and a lake and a river to the east, and the ocean to the west. The wind is generally off the ocean, damp and cold.

Allyson Longueira, WMG’s publisher and CEO, told me on Friday that she was worried about the low humidity because it was a tourist weekend, and tourists don’t pay attention to things like red flag warnings about fire danger. So she expected some dumb tourist to set fire to some homes on the beach.

She didn’t expect the entire city to come within hours of burning down.

That’s what happened last week. The winds shifted and brought sparks down the mountains into communities just east of Lincoln City (part of Lincoln County). It quickly became impossible to contain the fire, and the firebreaks—the wetlands, the lake, the river—looked like they were going to fail.

I had been texting with Allyson on Wednesday morning about the fact that the power had come back on (it had been going in and out) when she sent me this text: Just got word we’re under a level 2 evac order. I’ve got to go figure this out…I’ll update when I can.

Followed by we’re evacuating five minutes later.

WMG’s staff lives close to the office. Allyson and Gwyneth Gibby live next door to each other. Josh Frase lives less than a mile away. Suddenly the entire staff was fleeing the city, along with all of our friends. Dean and I worked the phones—waking up some of the writers and telling them to check their evacuation orders—and making sure that other friends had ways to escape the city.

There was only one open road—all of the others were blocked by fire. People got in their cars and headed south, often with no destination in mind because—well, I don’t suppose you all know this—but the major cities inland were all under evacuation orders and severe fire threat as well.

Plus there’s this pandemic thing, which makes doing anything extremely difficult.

Allyson tells her side of the story exceptionally well in this week’s Publisher’s Blog on WMG’s website. She includes pictures. She managed to get herself, her husband, their three cats, and their dog all on the road within an hour of that “we’re evacuating” text. A friend got them a hotel farther south than I would have expected (smart) and they were safely ensconced within two hours.

Other friends were in a never-ending evacuation line—8 hours to go a distance that usually takes one hour—and a handful of friends hunkered in place because they had other health issues that made evacuation with COVID around even more dangerous than toughing out the bad air and possible loss of their homes.

By Friday, the fire no longer threatened Lincoln City, although two communities—Panther Creek and Otis—are mostly gone. Other communities in that area have suffered severe damage. We have no idea how many people died in those fires. These are tough and hardy Westerners, many of whom would never leave their homes and would stay to fight fire with water.

But they suffered through a firestorm, which actually melted cars quickly, and so we (and Oregon’s governor) expect to find bodies in the ruins. A lot of bodies.

As I write this, the fire is still burning in those communities, but the fire is contained. The devastation continues throughout Oregon—other fires, other communities—and in California, and in Washington State. Because I’ve lived in the West for over 30 years, I know a lot of people who are or were (last week) under evacuation orders. I know many who have lost their homes or who think they’ve lost their homes.

Right now, though, everyone is accounted for.

But holy crap, what a damn week.

Even though we’re in Las Vegas, we nearly lost a good chunk of our business. Dean and I have been through crises before, so we’re good at planning (as I’ve said throughout 2020), and when we stopped working the phones, we sketched out possible scenarios.

Worst case was that our old home town burned, in full or in part. The human devastation would’ve been awful. Our entire staff escaped, so they would have survived, but they would have lost everything. Most of our business—files and important things—are in the cloud, so no worries there. But no one—and I mean no one—would have been thinking about work for weeks, maybe months.

Dean and I would have had to triage, and we were preparing for that. We did what everyone else in Lincoln County was doing: we were watching, waiting, hoping that the firefighters would prevail. Only they couldn’t fight the fires at first—the situation was too dire. They had to wait for the winds to die down or move in another direction.

When Allyson contacted me on Wednesday, I looked up the weather forecast, and didn’t tell her what it said. Because according to the Lincoln City hourly, the winds weren’t supposed to change for 48 hours at least. Which meant the city was probably gone.

The winds shifted less than 20 hours later—just enough to prevent the fires from going deep into the city. It was a welcome reprieve. As I write this, they’re getting rain for the first time in a while.

Last Wednesday, we went from the minor inconveniences of power going out—which, I hate to say it, is normal on the Oregon Coast—and having to stay inside because of air quality (which sucks)—to possibly watching a lot of people we love lose everything, including (for some) their lives.

Then we had the added burden of what to do with the business, should everything burn. We decided not to make any decisions until we got past the watching and waiting stage, because fire is so unpredictable.

For example, a man we’d done business with up there lost his home, but not the building that housed his business or his RV (right next to his home), so he’ll be living in the RV until the house is rebuilt. Other friends had houses survive, while the houses across the street did not.

We knew that these sorts of fire “miracles” might have happened—had the fire made it into the city proper—so we couldn’t make any decisions until we knew what exactly happened.

It’s unsettling, but survivable, for us. For people all over the West, who have no idea if friends or family or house or business are surviving these flames, it’s damn near unbearable.

As business owners, you need to prepare for worst case—even the unimaginable. A fire burning down a coastal town in a rain forest is damn near unimaginable, or was before 2020.

But still.

On a personal level, you should have a go-bag, no matter what, and enough pet carriers for your animals. You need a list of the items that you can’t survive without. One friend, who had recently had life-saving surgery, hadn’t had a new list with all the medications on it, so stayed in place, hoping that the fire wouldn’t reach them. Those go-bags should be updated whenever things change for you.

And here’s another thing: always, always, always have enough gas in your car. Some friends weren’t able to evacuate because they didn’t have enough gas in their vehicle to sit in lines that lasted for hours.

Make sure you have emergency money tucked away, not just credit cards, but cash. If the electricity is down, you might not be able to use credit anywhere. (That’s a coast lesson. ATMs and credit card machines don’t always work in power outage.)

Make sure you’re insured against everything, including the unimaginable. Insurance for your home and your car and your life. If something happens to you, you’ll want your family to have enough money to survive without your income.

And then there’s your business. It needs to be insured too. We do most of our work remotely, so backing up on the cloud is important. But Dean and I (and the staff) use thumb drives too, just to be cautious. We have paper backups for important things, in case we can’t access the cloud. (That would be a different kind of emergency.)

Since I’m writing this for writers and publishers and artists, not brick-and-mortar retailers (who have other problems), make sure you can operate your business remotely for weeks should some kind of crisis happen. Have laptops. Have multiple back-ups. Make sure you can keep track of your passwords and your log-ins.

Make sure other people can too.

A lot of families in the West right now are dealing with a lost or missing loved one. Those loved ones had jobs. Some of those loved ones had businesses. All of those loved ones had specialized knowledge that is irreplaceable—and some of that knowledge is probably password-related.

When our friend Bill died in 2011, he did not keep track of his passwords. As a result, we—who inherited his estate—have been unable to access one online financial account. We don’t have the password nor do we know the answers to those security questions that companies ask. The financial organization won’t accept his death certificate or our copy of the will as proof that we have the estate, and we know there’s not enough money in the account to make hiring a lawyer worthwhile.

Bill was a friend, not a spouse or an essential member of the family. We can survive without that money. But a friend of mine lost her husband suddenly, and all of his passwords died with him. She had the same problem with financial accounts online, and that froze up her money for months.

Imagine if that happened at your business. Could it survive without you? Or without one of the key people?

In our case, we were suddenly—and surprisingly—faced with the loss of all of our key people (except me and Dean) in one ugly event. Hours after the evacuation orders, we knew the staff was going to survive. (While that sounds dramatic, it’s not. For a while all  of the roads out of Lincoln City were blocked, fortunately not when the evacuation orders hit.) But we didn’t know what kind of emotional condition they would be in. If they lost everything, it would take all of their time and attention for weeks. And if they lost family and friends, which nearly happened, they would have been dealing with that as well.

We are lucky. Our Lincoln City people made it through the crisis. Now, we’re watching remotely as friends not affiliated with our business are going through the harrowing western fires. All we can do is keep our fingers crossed and send money to various relief organizations.

I’m aware of how lucky we are as I watch these beautiful sunrises and sunsets. The air quality here is okay, not hazardous any longer. But we’re under an alert that will last through the end of the week. If you look at the satellite pictures, you know that you can see this smoke from orbit. It’s awful.

All of that smoke, all of these lovely sunsets and sunrises, come at the expense of people’s lives and livelihoods. We’re dealing with this crisis on this coast. As I write this, the Gulf Coast is facing another hurricane—on top of one that hit a month ago. People are still suffering from that.

And the derecho in Iowa, which received so little coverage out here that I contacted a friend, not realizing she had been in the middle of it. Her house survived; friends’ houses did not.

There’s the pandemic, and the horrific loss of life here. There’s the slow-rolling economic disaster. There’s a lot going on. I heard one psychologist on TV this morning say that there’s so much happening we can’t process it all.

Which makes sense to me. It explains why the song that’s been playing on repeat in the jukebox in my head is Dan & Shay’s “I Should Probably Go To Bed.” Not the whole song. Just two lines in the chorus, the title line and the line about putting down the phone. Yeah.

This last week was a bit overwhelming, in an overwhelming year. I know that most of you are dealing with a lot of crap too.

So I’ll tell you what I’m telling coastal friends. Be kind to yourself. Be gentle. You’re going through something unprecedented. Something difficult.

Eventually, we will get through this. We just don’t know when, although we’re getting an inkling, which is the blog I displaced for this one. That blog (which is already on my Patreon page) will appear next week, unless some other crisis or news story moves it again.

It’s okay to take the advice that my subconscious has been sending all week: Sometimes resting and tuning out the world is okay. Sometimes, it’s healthy.

Now, I’m going to watch the sun set. I find this Earth quite amazing. Even in the midst of devastation, it offers up beauty.

And there’s a lesson in that. Only I’m too tired to figure out what, exactly, that lesson is supposed to be.


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“Business Musings: On Fire,” copyright © 2020 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / TNCPhotography.

14 thoughts on “Business Musings: On Fire

  1. Thank you for your reportage, and for the link to WMG’s blog. I was relieved to hear from Allyson. The destruction is epic. It struck me that just like in Australia, there was only one road up and down the coast.
    Perhaps it’s selfish of me but as I read the news of RBG’s passing (may she rest in power,) and of the fires and their causes, I wonder how the displacement of so many people will affect the vote turnout and the vote count? It’s critical to take care of individual families, but… how about the infrastructures that make our political system possible? This year has been a perfect storm of unfortunate events in too many ways.

  2. Before I went in for surgery 18 months ago, along with my will and advance directive, I left a password list. But I’m going to look into LastPass. That’s a much better solution!

    And yes, go bag packed and easily accessible in case of emergency. And a short list of things to grab if there’s time.

    When we seemed at risk for fire—the evac line kept moving toward us—each night before bed, I also unplugged my back up hard drive and put it, my passport, and some cash and a few small family mementos in a backpack. Plus, two charged up battery packs. And my writing tools plugged in near the backpack.

    Thankfully, we did not need the preparations this time.

    I want to mention a few other things, having lived most of my life in earthquake country:

    With these fires, we weren’t sure if we’d be put on water boil notice because of toxins in the watershed. When a county near us was, I brought out and filled a few water bags. Water storage bags are great things to stock. They pack flat and take up almost zero storage space when empty.

    We keep them stored in a tote marked H2O. This run, however, I discovered a flaw in the system: our portable water filter is somewhere with the camping gear, rather than with the water storage. Need to rectify that.

    Also: store extra food you’d eat anyway. For me, that’s soups, tuna, and smoked trout. For other family members, that’s Tasty Bite (vegetarian precooked Indian food in shelf stable pouches. Trader Joe’s also has their own version). Great for disaster prep, but you’ll slowly eat and replace as you go. This is much more effective than storing a bunch of cans that will just expire, which my family did, once upon a time.

    As for the rest?

    I’m heartened to see all the ways people continue to take care of each other. And that’s what we need—all the time, but especially right now. Economic collapse and all the rest aren’t going away any time soon. Sharing resources is the way to go.

    And I’m grateful for the rain that finally came.

  3. I live in Australia where we’re used to bushfires, but the fires that devastated our eastern seaboard last summer [our summer, your winter] were, as every talking head said at the time, ‘unprecedented’. Yet here we are, and your side of the globe is suffering from the same, unprecedented firestorms as well. Our technology is no match for weather conditions this extreme. :/

    My deepest sympathy for your friends and staff. I’m glad they made it through okay, and I hope that all the missing people make it through as well. Stay strong. This year has to end eventually.

  4. The Holiday Farm fire came within fifty miles of our house. Friends were under evacuation orders. Our sky has been filled with smoke every day for the past two weeks. For a while it was so thick that you couldn’t see across the street.

    We were so unsure of what would happen that we packed bags in case we got an evacuation order too. The air outside is so toxic with smoke that we can’t open our windows or go outside for more than a few minutes.

    Some of our small local towns have been wiped off the map by this fire, and it’s only one of many in our state alone.

    I still managed to get some words written, but not many.

  5. I got hit by Laura, though I’m far enough inland we were only without power four and a half days, and I was able to use my AT&T cell phone as a hot spot to get work done until the internet came back. Hurricanes are a major reason we stay with AT&T, because they always work after the storm. Other carriers have connection and data issues for weeks after because they don’t take care of their towers the way AT&T does.

    I had a lot of family and friends impacted by Laura, and it was the worst hit my inland area has ever had. The emotional toll has been rough and I’m actually glad I’m in edits right now. Completely new words would be very difficult right now.

    Today, I’m checking in with the Hurricane Hunters regularly because they’re in a disturbance that drifted along the coast and rained on Louisiana a little bit over the weekend. That was supposed to head inland into Mexico and do a whole lot of nothing. Now it’s about to be Wilfred and it’s probably headed back up this way to make landfall as at least a strong tropical storm but more likely a hurricane because 2020. I’ll be restocking some of our hurricane supplies this weekend, instead of doing the big editing binge I had planned. I also want to go see my grandparents again, but now I have to wait for Wilfred to make up his mind where he’s going and when.

    The only bright side is with this one, we’ll have a lot more warning than we did with Laura. Laura exploded into the worst hit Louisiana has ever had, and there was no time to prepare because it happened so fast. Yes, worse than Katrina. Worse than Rita. Worse than Rita and Katrina combined, in fact, when it comes to agricultural impact. We were relying on the half destroyed rice harvest to get some of our groceries back to normal. Louisiana eats rice like the rest of the country eats potatoes.

    Life is weird in Louisiana and I’m just rolling with it. My area has been a consistent virus hot spot for six months, my dad is a doctor on the front lines, my mom is high risk, and I’m the designated shopper. Deadlines are not my friend this year and I made the decision back in March not to set any. The next book will come out when it comes out. Taking care of my family is more important.

  6. I am very glad everyone is okay, first and foremost.

    Going to put on my computer nerd hat for a moment and say: I recommend LastPass for critical family or business passwords. You can get group versions that let others in your group request emergency access. Once the timeout you set expires, they get access. This lets you set rules like “if I don’t approve or reject this request in X days I’m dead or incapacitated, give my partner access to my accounts.”

    There are competing tools, feel free to pick a different one.

    This feature’s a key part of my biz’s estate strategy.

    1. I’m glad to hear everyone a WMG and your other Lincoln City friends got through the worst of it well enough. This is one hell of a year. I’d rather have read about it in history books than have to live through it, to be perfectly honest. But here we are. Thanks for the very practical reminders about passwords etc… Just filled up my gas tank this week.

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