Recently, we got caught up in the Woolsey Fire in Los Angeles County, which was one of the largest local wildfires in history.
It resulted in massive evacuations across wide areas of the San Fernando Valley, along with Malibu and areas of neighboring Ventura County.
While many homes were ultimately spared from the carnage, many structures were still lost. And tons of homeowners were displaced for a week or longer.
Here’s what we learned from the mandatory evacuation.
We Grabbed All the Wrong Things
- Because we weren’t prepared
- Many important items were left behind
- But we only realized this after the fact
- So preparation is key to ensure nothing irreplaceable is lost
Most folks probably don’t think about having to evacuate at a moment’s notice, or even a day’s notice.
While we did have several hours to gather our things and leave, it still felt a bit frantic. What do you take, what do you leave behind? We can see the flames. How much time do we have!
How much work do you want to put in here? Is it really that serious? We’ll probably just have to bring it all back. And where will we put it all in the meantime?
After some deliberation, we chose a lot of everyday items, such as clothing we regularly wore, some foodstuff, pet food, baby items, toiletries, and other basics.
Most of the pictures we left because these days they’re all digital and you can just reprint if and when necessary.
Computers were grabbed, as were most smaller electronics like laptops, iPads, etc. However, large TVs were left behind, attached to the walls.
All the furniture was also left behind, obviously. You can’t really cram a couch or large chair into a car that’s already full of other more necessary items.
There were also the important documents, like passports, tax records, etc. and perhaps keepsakes or random jewelry that wasn’t already being worn.
Other than that, the rest was pretty much left behind, to potentially burn if the fire made its way toward the housing tract.
What We Forgot
- It’s very easy to forget important items
- Because we don’t think about them on a daily basis
- Nor do we use/need them for everyday tasks
- But these are often the irreplaceable things we’ll miss
While it seemed like we grabbed the bulk of our belongings, we missed a lot of important stuff, at least sentimentally.
For example, the Christmas decorations were left in the house, including old ornaments from when we were kids.
Same went for random childhood memorabilia, which while worth probably nothing to anyone else, meant a lot to us, despite being in a box 365 days a year.
When it came down to it, we grabbed the everyday obvious stuff, which while very practical and helpful, may have been the wrong move had the fire destroyed the rest of our belongings.
Sure, everyday stuff is still important to get through the days and weeks ahead, but the irreplaceable stuff is, well, irreplaceable.
The clothes and food and other basic stuff is generally very replaceable.
What Could Have Helped
- Had we taken inventory in advance
- We would have a checklist at our disposal to quickly evacuate
- Knowing nothing important was going to be left behind
- It would make the process faster and any insurance claims easier as well
If we had taken inventory and been adequately prepared, this would have been a much more organized process.
Simply jotting down all the important stuff we own and keeping that list somewhere readily accessible would have been a difference maker.
We could have then pulled up the list and said okay, this is what we should bring. Let’s make sure we have all these items.
Then we wouldn’t have felt as if something was forgotten, or worse, actually left behind.
The one thing we did right was take photos and shoot video of the entire interior of the house to prove we owned all the stuff we owned in the event of an insurance claim.
This is something any homeowner or renter should do, regardless of whether they’re being evacuated or not.
It’s a lot easier to file a claim if you have video evidence that you owned X or Y item. It’s also much easier to remember what you owned.
You can overlook stuff, so having video is handy. It’s also nice to have it if you want to redecorate or recall all the little things you want to replace. Or simply for nostalgia sake.
Fortunately, it’s very easy to shoot video of all your contents in minutes with a smartphone. So there’s really no excuse not to do it.
You can also take photos of each room as well if you want to catalog stuff that way.
Where Will You Go
- Hotels book up very quickly during mass evacuations
- So don’t wait to reserve a room
- Or make a plan to stay with a family member or friend
- In the event something catastrophic takes place
Another thing to consider is where you’ll go in the event of an evacuation. Assuming it’s a mass one, booking a hotel early is key.
Don’t hold out and wait until the last minute – if you do, you might be driving a long way to find availability.
During this fire, we heard of people having to drive to Long Beach and beyond in order to find suitable accommodations.
Along those same lines, don’t mess around if you’re told to evacuate. While these orders often start as voluntary ones, they can quickly turn into mandatory directives.
And even so, you should be assessing the situation yourself instead of relying on someone else to tell you what to do.
We looked out the window every few minutes, spoke to neighbors, drove around, etc. to see what was going on with the fire, and really made the decision to leave before it became obligatory.
Another annoying thing you need to be aware of is looting. This was apparently an issue during the Woolsey Fire, which while awful, is just life.
Again, having the photos and video evidence can be helpful, as can removing any of the important, low-hanging fruit you don’t want stolen.
That inventory list should come in handy again here, leaving little for criminals to take if you do happen to get hit.
What to Do When You Return
- Assess any and all damage
- Shoot video, take photographs
- Determine if filing a claim makes sense
- But understand the implications in doing so
Lastly, you’ve got to have a plan when you return to your property.
As you did before you left, you can shoot video and take photographs of everything to document any potential or real damage.
This should make the claims process easier if you’ve got readily available evidence to provide to the insurance company.
At the same time, you won’t want to file claims willy-nilly.
While it might seem like the obvious move to call your insurer and complain about smoke damage or some other potentially dubious damage, you have to consider the long-term implications.
The claim may result in a much higher insurance premium at renewal and beyond, not to mention the deductible you’ll have to pay now.
It could wind up being a lot costlier to file a claim, so it may make sense to put in some time to determine if it’s worth it.
Read more: Contents insurance