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What evacuees took when they escaped the fires, and what they left behind

What evacuees took when they escaped the fires, and what they left behind
We asked readers what they took when they evacuated. Among the responses: Pets, musical instruments, a late father's screwdriver and a bridesmaid dress. (Courtesy of readers)

Wildfires raging across the state have forced thousands of residents to evacuate.

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In some cases, people had to leave immediately. Others had time to decide what they couldn’t afford to lose and what they had to leave behind.

We asked: What did you take when you evacuated? Here’s what readers told us.

Responses have been lightly edited.

Just the essentials

Pets were frequently a high priority for people who evacuated. Reader Charles Johnson's two dogs.
Pets were frequently a high priority for people who evacuated. Reader Charles Johnson's two dogs. (Charles Johnson)

Experts have a list of recommendations of what to pack if you’re evacuated. Some readers didn’t have the time or desire to bring much else.

“We woke up to smoke in our home. We dressed quickly and took both of our cars. Nothing else.” — Susan Keehn, evacuated during the Tubbs fire in 2017.

“All my musical instruments, two Chihuahuas, three pairs of underwear and one towel. We had about 45 minutes to leave. My most precious possessions, followed by the bare necessities.” — Charles Johnson, evacuated during the Thomas fire in 2017.

“A backpack, cellphone and a credit card. I did gather up any cash I had in the house as well as my computer. That’s all you really need to continue with life.” — Dan O’Connell, evacuated during the Sand fire in 2016.

“Our four dogs — because the best things in life aren’t things — and whatever I could grab in two sprints to a small car: hard drives, laptop, handgun, toolbag, two guitars, photos on the wall, one art piece. With black smoke already filling the house, I was really only grabbing stuff that I could see and get my hands on.” — Steve Jones, evacuated during the Creek fire in 2017.

My wife and I took our four cats in our car. We had our cellphones and some clothes. Nothing else mattered.


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Reader Roger Provost's four cats.
Reader Roger Provost's four cats. (Roger Provost)

“I put my kids (both 16) and two dogs in the car. We had our phones. That was it. My husband was delayed two hours behind us after going back for his wedding ring and passports.” — Valerie Kumra, evacuated during the Tubbs fire in 2017.

“We only had 10 minutes to evacuate. I spent most of that time gathering our family dog and the two cats. We left with some cash and the shirts on our backs. We have four young children and all that mattered was the safety of my family and pets. Everything else can be replaced if needed.” — MK Fry, evacuated during the Carr fire in 2018

“My family only took our birth certificates, Social Security cards, baby books with pictures, our animals and our laptops. All material things can be replaced. We took what was most important to us.” — Stephanie Gonzales, evacuated during the Mendocino Complex fire in 2018

“My wife and I took our four cats in our car. We had our cellphones and some clothes. Nothing else mattered. Later, I was able to get back to the house and take my bike, the house plans and a family heirloom painting.” — Roger Provost, evacuated during the Nuns fire in 2017

Meaningful things

While most readers were able to grab a few essentials, some people also had time to pack additional items that had personal significance.

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“I was going to be a maid of honor in a wedding in a few weeks, so I had to throw my bridesmaid dress into the car. I can’t imagine the distress of ordering a new dress in two weeks! The last thing I thought of was the birthday presents I had stashed away for my little sisters, because if we lost everything, we would need some happy birthdays to boost morale.” — Vienna Barnett, evacuated during the Carr fire in July 2018

Vienna Barnett
A bridesmaid dress was one of the thing Vienna Barnett took with her. (Courtesy Vienna Barnett)
Wayne Pierce
Wayne Pierce took five copies of "The Story of Opal" with him.
Left: Reader Vienna Barnett in the bridesmaid dress she took when she evacuated. Right: Reader Wayne Pierce's books.

“I packed my kids’ field trip permission slips, kids’ orthodontist intake forms, calendar, makeup bag, kids’ toothbrushes and bananas. Mom stuff!” — Elly Diaz, evacuated during the Redwood Valley fire in 2017.

“We are writers, so our main concern was 25-30 tubs of writing which were stored in our garage — novels, poetry, film and TV scripts, from times before computers. Also the shooting scripts and binders from film sets of my husband, Neil’s, long career as a director. Our kids thought this was hysterical because they think everything is ‘in a cloud,’ and can’t imagine anything from before! We loaded both of our cars two times to the roofs, and drove it all to our rabbi’s house in Goleta. He graciously stored it for us.” — Lillian Israel, evacuated during the Thomas fire in 2017.

“I grabbed a bronze lamp that belonged to my grandmother, a box of family heirlooms and a couple of paintings.” — Sarah Stone, evacuated during the Sesnon fire in 2008.

Reader Lillian Israel's son helps tape up boxes she took when she evacuated during the Thomas fire in 2017.
Reader Lillian Israel's son helps tape up boxes she took when she evacuated during the Thomas fire in 2017. (Courtesy Lillian Israel)

“There were a few things I would have forgotten in my haste, had I not made a list after my brother’s home burned in a previous wildfire. I packed my late mom’s favorite sweatshirt, a screwdriver of my late father’s, books signed by my favorite authors and my diaries.” — Margaret Winter, evacuated during the Thomas fire in 2017.

“Five copies of the same 1920 bestseller, ‘The Story of Opal: The Journal of an Understanding Heart.’ ” — Wayne Pierce, evacuated during the Rim fire in 2008.

“Holiday gifts that had been wrapped.” — Seth Olitzky, evacuated during the Thomas fire in 2017

I packed my late mom's favorite sweatshirt, a screwdriver of my late father's, books signed by my favorite authors and my diaries.


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Margaret Winter
A screwdriver that belonged to a reader Margaret Winter's late father. (Courtesy Margaret Winter)
Florence Rink
Reader Florence Rink's cat.
Left: A screwdriver that belonged to reader Margaret Winter's late father. Right: Reader Florence Rink's cat. (Courtesy Margaret Winter / Courtesy Florence Rink)

“Photos of my mom and grandma who aren’t with us anymore that I don’t have in the cloud. Some of their jewelry (costume jewelry, but valuable to me), my mom’s ashes, my daughter’s baby ‘1st’ stuff, some out-of-print books that my mom read to me and I now read to my daughter.” — Nuar Hegrat, evacuated during the Mendocino Complex fire in 2018.

“I took my grandson’s precious books, and some of mine, and I brought a box filled with jewelry and photo cards.” — Nancy Lloyd, evacuated during the Freeway Complex fire in 2008.

“I took my camera and lenses, and my DJI drone, along with a number of bottles of Nevada precious opal.” — Glen Miller, evacuated during the Carr fire in 2018.

Left: Reader Charles Johnson's guitar. Right: Reader Sarah Stone's grandmother's bronze lamp.
Left: Reader Charles Johnson's guitar. Right: Reader Sarah Stone's grandmother's bronze lamp. (Courtesy Charles Johnson / Courtesy Sarah Stone)

What was left behind

We asked readers if there was anything they regretted not taking with them when they evacuated.

“I didn't take any underwear because we never thought we would not be able to come back to our house.” — Florence Rink, evacuated from the Tubbs fire in 2017.

“Pictures and letters from my deceased father.” — Anthony Silano, evacuated during the Tubbs fire in 2017.

“Once I realized I wouldn’t be going home soon, I wished I had more clothing. I didn’t feel any regret about other things I’d left behind, but once I was back home, I started noticing things I’d have missed if they’d been lost, like kids’ artwork.” — Margaret Winter.

“A change of clothes, a pillow, a blanket and toiletries. These items would have been for comfort during our evacuation.” — MK Fry.

“We had no notice. We woke up to smoke coming in through open windows. We left pictures, passports, our insurance policy, cash we had in the house. I thought about pictures and even went to the closet where they were kept on a high shelf, but I realized it would take several trips. We were breathing in putrid-smelling smoke, so I just left without them. I regret not taking what I could carry. I wish I had taken even a few clothes and toiletries because it is very weird to lose everything. Where do you start?” — Susan Keehn.

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“Weapons and precious metals.” — Karmel Rixen, evacuated during the River fire in 2018.

“When you are deciding what to save and what to potentially let go of forever, there doesn’t ever seem to be enough time. My car was filled, but if I’d had more room I would have taken more kids’ toys. I only packed two or three for each kid.” — Ashley Sumpter, evacuated during the Canyon fire in 2017.

“I regret not taking a fan.” — Patty, evacuated during the Mendocino Complex fire in 2018.

“Before the fire, I had been with my mother at the emergency room all night. We had to leave in under five minutes when I was alerted about 2 a.m. by a neighbor to evacuate. I was exhausted. We had to leave our cat — we couldn't find it or the cat carrier.” — Loreen Theveny, evacuated during the Tubbs fire in 2017.

“I regret not helping my elderly neighbors evacuate. Amongst the chaos and caring for my wife and child I felt terrible that I couldn’t help my neighbors.” — Kyle Power, evacuated during the Thomas fire in 2017.

“We evacuated with just 20 recently framed pics of the family. If I had to do it again, I would take ALL the pictures we had, digital, film, hard pictures, everything that had family memories.” — Mike Chené, evacuated during the Freeway Complex fire in 2008.

“I left behind the tax docs. If they burned, oh well.” — Judith Seitz, evacuated during the Old Fire in 2003.

Reader Glen Miller had to leave behind this display case with parts of his opal, gemstone and mineral collection.
Reader Glen Miller had to leave behind this display case with parts of his opal, gemstone and mineral collection. (Courtesy Glen Miller)
Miller's house survived the fire, but a friend wasn't so lucky. This is the friend's mineral collection after the fire burned down the house.
Miller's house survived the fire, but a friend wasn't so lucky. This is the friend's mineral collection after the fire burned down the house. (Courtesy Glen Miller)

Staying prepared

Some readers shared tips for how they got ready to evacuate. We wanted to share a few of them.

“We keep things organized and ready to go in a specific location — we have three bins of photos.” — Mark D.

“If you live in California, you have to be mentally prepared to lose it all. I packed only one suitcase of clothes — if the house burned, I told myself I would think of it as a shopping opportunity.” — Judith Seitz.

“I have one large plastic container ready at all times. Inside are both baby books, birth and death certificates, passports, two books I want to read, old tax returns and the kids' school art from elementary school.” — Cheryl Calvert, evacuated during the Old Topanga fire in 1993.

“I photographed the bookshelves and videotaped every room to have a record of lost items if we needed it.” — Dale Teich, evacuated during the County fire in 2018.

“We took all our ammunition for the safety of any first-responders who might be in the area if our house caught on fire. We now have a ‘Bug Out’ list based on what to take from each room conspicuously posted near our back door in case we have just a few minutes to flee.” — Gary Charlton, evacuated during the Creek fire in 2017.

“A neighbor pointed out: Don’t forget to take your dirty clothes hamper, those are most likely the clothes you really want.” — Chip Ossman, evacuated during the Altadena fire in 1993.

“My mind started racing when I was first told our home could really burn. I reached out on social media and posted about what was going on, and asked if as anyone had any advice or suggestions for packing. And they did. I I basically went down the comment thread like it was my packing list.” — Nuar Hegrat. (You can see what experts recommend bringing here.)

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