What to pack? What to do with the pets? Where to go? Those were just some of the questions Travis and Karen Poling had to consider in the moments after learning that their house on North West H Street was in the evacuation zone when an industrial fire broke out Tuesday, April 11.

Karen was at work in Winchester, but Travis said he was working from home that day when he started hearing fire trucks go by. Their dog, Luke, perked up at the activity and soon after, an emergency alert came through on his phone. The nature of the problem wasn’t shared but the instructions were clear: people within a half mile of the fire should evacuate.

He grabbed his laptop and a few snack bars, said goodbye to the cats and loaded the dog into their car. The Polings texted with each other and mostly made plans for a temporary disruption. He’d wait it out at a nearby park, she’d finish up at work, and then they’d go home together.

But after Travis saw the extent of the smoke and Karen started hearing reports from coworkers about the nature of the fire, they understood that they may not be going home soon after all. He was reminded of the recent train derailment and subsequent toxic fire in East Palestine, Ohio. “We realized we probably should find something else for housing that night,” Karen said.

Both needed prescription medicine from their house that they hadn’t originally been able to pack. When they returned to the neighborhood, police officers patrolling on foot said they could make a quick visit, which was enough for Karen to pack a few extra things. She noticed a team proactively hosing down the roof of a nearby house to help prevent the fire from spreading. “The fire department locally and other departments did an excellent job,” Karen said. “They contained the fire and kept everyone safe, there was no loss of life, no serious injuries. They did a stellar job.” 

The Polings` dog Luke makes himself comfortable at the motel where they’re staying in Centerville. Supplied

The couple and their dog began staying at a hotel in Centerville near the interstate Tuesday. They visited their house, wearing masks, once a day to check on their cats. They said it had been an “adjustment,” and perhaps hardest on their dog who was nervous and sensitive to the traffic sounds outside their hotel room. “I’m tired of being here. I want to go home,” Karen said at the time.

The Polings have followed Mayor Dave Snow’s Twitter feed as well as news media reports to understand what’s happening with the fire response. They were looking for information about assistance for evacuees and didn’t really see anything until Thursday. Travis said he called 211, a social services resource line for Indiana residents, to research what help might be available. “The woman who answered was really helpful, but the most she was able to find was a list of food pantries. She was still trying to figure it out while talking to us,” he said.

The family said they would trust the lifting of the evacuation order as a sign that it’s safe to go home. Travis said he’d also like to have transparency about the environmental impact of the fire. “If they find something, they should tell us what the effects might be. We need open communication about that,” he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 19 2023 print edition of the Western Wayne News.

Chris Hardie is the owner and publisher of the Western Wayne News.