“Fire Drill,” Nov. 12, 2019

Try to imagine for a moment the following horrific situation: It’s 2 a.m. You and your loved ones are sleeping soundly. Suddenly you’re awakened by sirens. And then, someone is pounding on your door.

Frightened and confused, you rush to open the door and stare into a face you’ll never forget — a sheriff’s deputy or firefighter who has come to save your life. He tells you that a wildfire is burning out of control on the ridge behind your home.

“You and your family need to get out of here,” he says. “Now!”

As he turns to go warn others, you call after him.

“Wait! How long do we have?”

“Maybe 15 minutes! Go!”

For a moment, you stand there smelling smoke and watching your neighbors frantically tossing bags in their cars.

And then … what do you do?

I’ve never had to flee from my home, and I pray I never will. But my husband and I live in an area that’s considered a high risk for wildfires.

It’s called California.

I wish you could see it.

It’s a glorious place of hills and mountains and spectacular coastlines. We love it. We’d like it even better without the threat of wildfires. But most people live with something catastrophic — hurricanes or tornadoes or blizzards or droughts or flooding or earthquakes.

Sometimes, all the above.

The best that we can do is to be as prepared as possible.

That’s what my husband and I finally decided. We had put it off for too long. So this week, we began working on a plan for “emergency preparedness.”

If you had 15 minutes to leave your home, knowing you might never see it again, what would you want to take?

We started with legal papers that we stored in a fire-proof bag: our marriage certificate, wills, trusts, social security cards and proofs of insurance for home, health and auto.

We each packed a duffel bag with three changes of clothes; a week’s supply of medications; a spare toothbrush and toiletries; and a pair of comfortable shoes. Plus a sweater, and my purse, which I always take with me, along with my phone, keys, credit and debit cards, driver’s license, passport and cash.

Then what?

I wanted to pack photos. Of our children when they were small. Of us when we were young. Of our family and our grandkids growing older.

Fortunately, most of those photos are copied on our phones or on the “cloud” we subscribe to. But to be sure, I’ve been snapping photos on my phone of old irreplaceable photos — of my parents and grandparents and children and friends — images I never want to lose.

I also made photos of paintings my youngest painted; gifts from my daughter; and stories written by my oldest.

My husband and I have a “joy box” filled with drawings and notes from our grandkids. We’d definitely want to take that. And we would both grab our laptops and their backups.

Fifteen minutes isn’t much time to gather all the keepsakes we cherish from a lifetime. That’s why it’s a good idea to start gathering in advance.

As much as this week has told me about what to take, it’s also told me a lot about what I’d have to leave behind: The table where my kids did homework; the butter mold that belonged to my grandmother; the painting of Yosemite given to us by my husband’s parents; and so many other irreplaceable treasures.

All of those things would be hard to lose. But when it’s time to go, we can only take what we can.

I want to believe that if only my family and my neighbors and I were spared, that would be enough. And I’d be so thankful.

What will you take with you?


  1. Jan Mendenhall says

    I’m an elementary school counselor, and we just had Red Cross volunteers talk with the kids about the Pillowcase Project and being prepared for tornadoes and house fires. I’d been checking recently with my parents on updates of folks they know affected by the California wildfires, and my best friend was displaced because of the Oct. 20 tornado in Dallas. Sharon: Your column was spot on! Thanks.

  2. Cynthia Macdonald says

    Cynthia says, Good for you Sharon for being prepared. We were evacuated last year fot the Carr fire. We had more than 15 minutes but we have been prepared for years. Every fire season I would bring out the list of things to grab . It would sit by the tv in the kitchen. In the garage we have 6 tots two are marked take first. These have our trust, medical records, little league baseball mitt, genealogy research and records, my fathers ashes. In the other 4 were pictures and miscellaneous items that are important. Along with these items we grabbed my binder of recipes I call my bible for cooking, fiddle, dulcimer and of course computer. We have two small suitcases with clothes etc. we had all packed up in the truck and car within 15 minutes. Not to mention the dog her bed and food. Sure there are family heirlooms we had to leave behind, luckily our house survived and we were able to come home after 2 1/2 weeks. My neighbors weren’t so lucky.

  3. Sharon,
    Throw that butter mold in the car on the way if it ever happens. But seriously. I work in a fiekd where I have the opportunity to talk to people about protecting their belongings & as a genealogist I always tell them to get the priceless photos copied – even if the originals are lost, they can be printed & the images saved. I am blessed to have 5 generations of photos handed down through my father’s family to me and those are the most valuable of all.

  4. Kate Sciacca says

    Wow. Much to consider here 🙂. This actually happened in our neighborhood about four years before we moved in – so it likely won’t happen again as everything burned behind our place… there’s no “kindling” left… ☹️

    But still… what would I take? Of course all the usual things… all those important docs are in a box in the safe – so those would be easy. Credit and debit cards and insurance info are in the purse —no problems there…. it’s a big purse 😉. I have a drawer full of thank you notes and pictures from the grandkids… I’d grab them. An original “Tony Sciacca” painting hangs over our bed… have to grab that. My 40 year old bible with all the pages marked up – and the crucifix given to us as a wedding gift definitely has to be kept. And the box of Christmas ornaments that the kids made in grammar school. And the baseballs…. all of them… they’re in the China hutch… home runs, game balls, first hit, grand slams, a few signed balls – I’d grab them fast. The china can be replaced…. Yep, that’s about it – thanks for getting me to consider what matters… and what doesn’t 😉

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