If you don’t live in an area prone to natural disasters, you may think it could never happen to you—but unfortunately, that’s not the case. A few years ago, a fire sparked on a tiny trail on the foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains in Anaheim, California. It moved fast, and through news reports, we watched it snake its way toward our sleepy, suburban neighborhood. By evening, there were mandatory evacuations about half a mile away from us.
It took me and my husband two hours to get home from work because of the road closures, and once there, we needed to evacuate, too. (Luckily, my two kids were with my mother, away from the fire.) I rushed around grabbing valuables and clothing. But then I froze. I had no idea what I was supposed to pack. Sentimental photos? Artwork? I looked around my home and wondered what I could afford to lose. A neighbor reminded me to pack our important papers, and I remembered to wear the antique jewelry my grandmother left me. But I was so panicked that all I ended up with were suitcases full of ill-fitting clothes, passports, and paintings. (To my credit, I did not forget to pack the cat.)
Of the many folks hit hard by fires in California over the past few years, we ended up very lucky. This particular blaze grew to about 5,000 acres, but half a day after the fire started, the winds died down and firefighters were able to contain it away from our homes.
According to FEMA, evacuations are pretty common in the United States. Aside from natural disasters such as fires, earthquakes, and hurricanes, people are often told to leave their homes due to transportation and industrial accidents. Our canyon fire pushed me to become more prepared should a disaster strike again.
Here’s how to prepare an evacuation “go bag” that you can quickly grab in case you ever need to evacuate.
Choose a bag
Each member of the family should have his or her own. Start with a backpack or a nylon camper’s laundry bag with a drawstring.
Take photos of all your rooms and valuables
Store these photos on a cloud server, and back them up on a flash drive.
Scan and save all your important documents
You could also save them onto a cloud server if you have an encryption service you trust, of save them on a flash drive.
Include the flash drives with your photos and important documents in your bag. These documents should include:
The deed to your house
Your will and/or trust
Proof of insurance
Social security cards
A list of personal contacts with their addresses and phone numbers
Your kids’ immunization records
Your pets’ paperwork for vaccinations and medical history
Add essential supplies to help you get by for a few days
This includes water (one gallon per person per day), non-perishable food, a first-aid kit, a flashlight, batteries, clothes, diapers and pet supplies. Ready.gov has a full emergency kit checklist that you can download.
Create an evacuation to-do list
Note the items you will want to pack during an emergency: your “go bag,” pets, and a list of valuables (jewelry, paintings, photos) you can’t live without. Also list your action items, such as turning off utilities and locking up your house. When you need to evacuate, break out the evacuation to-do list, check off each item, and get the hell out.
Beyond the “go bag,” here are other important ways to prepare yourself for an emergency disaster:
Take a first aid and CPR class. Look up your local American Red Cross chapters for information.
Buy—and learn to use—a fire extinguisher.
Buy a fire- and waterproof safe. I looked them up after a fire and realized they’re not as cost-prohibitive as you think. They can cost anywhere from $25 to $1,000.
Learn now how to safely shut off all utility services—electricity, water, and gas—in your home. (FEMA has tips for shutting off utilities.) Many fires are exacerbated by natural gas explosions after disasters. Share your knowledge with all the people in your household.
Make sure your pets are microchipped.
In situations like natural disasters, when everything feels like it’s beyond your control, it can help to at least have a few bags packed and ready to go.
This story was originally published in 2017 and was updated on February 1, 2021 to meet Lifehacker style guidelines.