As I sit here in my suburban home less than a mile from the nearest fully staffed municipal fire station, no grasslands or forests for miles around, I feel pretty safe and reasonably certain that wildland fire is not on the list of things I need to worry about taking my home from me. But if an evacuation order came, “you have 30 minutes to leave the area,” what would I take with me if I knew that everything I left behind would be gone forever when I returned?
The first things into the car, no question about it, would be the dogs, along with their collars and tags, leashes, harnesses, kibble bin and food dishes. I’d have my purse, of course, and cell phone. My laptop. My camera bag. All the charging cords, too, if I’m smart.
I’d take as many bottles of drinking water as I could fit in the car from my stash in the garage. Maybe throw in the emergency travel kit with the jumper cables and flares, just in case. I’d definitely put a gas can in there, too.
And this is where it gets tricky. Let’s say I still have 10 minutes before the authorities make me go and I still have the back of an SUV to fill. What would I grab? I hope I would have the presence of mind to take:
- My largest duffle bag, filled with clothing
- A sleeping bag and tent
- A battery-powered Coleman lantern and all the batteries in my stash (I do try to be prepared)
- The fold-up dog crate with a couple of extra blankets and a stack of old towels
If I still had time and room, I might grab one dearly beloved piece of original art off the wall, wrap it in my favorite quilt, and walk away.
What I realize from doing this little thought exercise is that nearly everything I own is in the service of my house and the life I lead within this house. Without a house, who needs furniture, appliances, decor, books, knick-knacks? It’s all just stuff that enhances one’s home life, but has little or no value outside of that home. And if it all vaporized tomorrow, as long as I have my dogs and a few necessities to keep us comfortable, I’ll be fine. The books, the photographs, the mementos from all through the years … just stuff. It’s stuff that I love and take good care of and would be sorry to lose, certainly, but none of it is so precious to me that I would risk my own life to save it.
When I was a newspaper reporter in Northern California at the very beginning of my career, I was sent out early one morning to the scene of a still-smoldering house fire in which a man had died. He got his two young kids out of the house to safety, then turned around and went back into the fire to try to save the things that he cared about more than his own life. When firefighters were finally able to recover his charred body, it was lying on top of his hunting rifles.
I’ve never forgotten the lesson I learned that day, watching a brand-new widow sobbing on her knees at the edge of the rubble. She had lost her husband and the father of her children for the sake of two guns.
She had been working the late-night shift at a local restaurant when the sirens sounded, and a neighbor drove her home just as her blazing house collapsed off its foundation and fell down the hillside behind. It had, witnesses said, taken less than 30 minutes from the time the fire started for the house to vanish into a pile of ash from which nothing could be salvaged.
Nothing we own is irreplaceable. Only people (and pets) are.