What would you grab if your house was on fire?

It’s a question I’m forced to answer every summer. Since I live in the middle of a forest off the grid in rural British Columbia, I’m pretty much on alert with every puff of smoke drifting through the trees.

But forest fires aren’t the only flames to fear — there are other natural disasters that spark, and man made fires that burn too. Carl is all to familiar with the latter — his family home was lost in 1999 due to a wood stove and chimney fire. I don’t think he’s ever recovered from losing all his childhood photos.

camp fire

Anyone living in my hometown in the late 70s would remember the massive man-made distaster known as the 1979 Mississauga Train Derailment. Basically, a 106-car Canadian Pacific freight train carrying caustic chemicals toppled and exploded. Over 200,000 people were evacuated, and I was one of them. I recall my dad stuffing my five-year-old feet into a scratchy pair of his wool socks, and then stuffing me into the car with my sleeping sister. We drove all night to flee the mess. I don’t think my folks took much more than us kids, and some scratchy socks.

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Needless to say, I’m pretty aware of fire risk, and I often wonder: What would I grab if my house was about to burn down?

Answering this question is an interesting exercise in minimalist living, and highlights the things we need and cherish over the stuff we store and collect.

forest fire

To make this exercise interesting, let’s consider two possible scenarios: First, you have five minutes to grab something and go. Second, you have 24 hours notice to plan and prepare.

I’ll share my list, but I’m more interested in what you would save from the fiery flames.

Scenario One: You have FIVE minutes notice.

People (and fur people) first, then things are my priority. After knowing my daughter, husband, and doggie are safe, I’d grab these hard-to-replace items and run:

  • Wallet
  • Passport
  • Cell phone
  • Computer back-up drive
  • Car keys

I’d also grab my shoes and a coat. You need shoes to run, right?

Scenario Two: You have 24 hours to prepare.

The more time you have, the more stuff you can pack and rescue, so you’d need to avoid greed and pack just what you need! Time to prioritize, people!

  • Everything above.
  • My Home inventory.
  • Home insurance policy.
  • Irreplaceable items: photo albums, keepsakes.
  • Primary documents: ID, birth certificate, key financial data. Yep, all the stuff you should keep in your safe deposit box. Note: Carl lost his wallet in his family house fire — it took the better part of a year to replace all the pieces.
  • Secondary documents: financial statements, other records.
  • Keys to everything, including my safe deposit box.
  • Clothing on my essential clothing list packed neatly in a carry-on suitcase.
  • Items often uninsured in a policy: camera gear, jewelry, maybe a bike.

I’d likely pack a little food and water in case the whole area was set ablaze, and thank my lucky stars to have more than a moment’s notice to evacuate.

Tactics for keeping important stuff safe.

I asked Carl to share his happy approach to a doomsday scenario. Being a practical guy, here’s what he suggests:

1. Go digital. Backup all digital data and keep an off-site or cloud copy. Keep a list of all passwords somewhere secure.

2. Safe deposit. For under a $100 a year get smart by renting a safe deposit box at your favorite financial institution. Store important documents in this box, and keep copies at home. Carl suggests keeping digital copies of all personal data, burning copies to two DVDs or USB Flash Drives, and storing the lot in your safe box as well. Also, make sure you have access to your emergency fund — you may need to access those funds to recover from the event.

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3. Grab-and-Go Box. Keep a grab-and-go box with your essentials ready to go at a moment’s notice. The Motley Fool explains how to ‘construct your command central’ in this tutorial.

4. Offsite storage? If you live in a high risk area, store some of your lesser-used-treasures elsewhere. A friend of ours keeps a box of photos at work during fire season.

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5. Keep a home inventory. Perfect for proving to an insurer that you owned everything on your claim. A home inventory can also jog your memory by helping you remember lesser-seen stuff. After a fire or disaster it can be VERY hard to remember everything in your closet or DVD collection.

Carl says, “After the fire, it took us a week to just piece together an incomplete list. While the stuff we remembered added up to more than the amount we were covered for, today we still remember some smaller items, but usually after looking for them for a week.”

Ask the readers: What would you grab and save before your house burned to the ground? Be honest!

Love,
Kerry

Your two cents:

  1. guinness416 September 3rd, 2012

    I have actually thought about this extensively, being an insane stress case. In practice my lead time would probably be 30 seconds or less living in an urban wood frame house but I reckon the list would be: dogs, dog leashes, car keys, iphone/charger. And jeans or something to cover up my embarrassing sleepwear which would no doubt reduce the firemen to giggles impairing their ability to do their jobs. This post reminds me that putting together a “go bag” has been on my to do list for about seven years.

  2. Ashley September 3rd, 2012

    I’ve actually had to grab things and evacuate immediately when my apartment complex was on fire! I grabbed my dog (and her collar and leash), laptop, purse, wallet, cell phone, a pair of glasses, and of course made sure my roommate and her dogs were safely out of the apartment. It’s crazy to actually be in that kind of situation. I’d never wish it on anyone.

  3. sarah london September 3rd, 2012

    I’d grab my family first, everything else is replaceable one way or another

  4. Canadian Couch Potato September 3rd, 2012

    Grab the Fluevogs and leave everything else.

  5. Kerry September 3rd, 2012

    @Canadian Couch Potato — I keep my Fluevogs stored off site in a safe deposit box. :|

  6. Charlotte September 3rd, 2012

    With 5 minutes, I would grab my husband, phone/wallet/keys, my laptop and a plastic file box where we keep all our paper documents. I suppose data and my husband are the only impossible-to-replace things. With the 24 hours the list would include costly or sentimental items like jewelry, our best clothes, my wedding dress, a couple old books, and a silverware set my husband has been lugging around since childhood.
    I don’t have many items I am attached to anymore, after losing some childhood things during moves and an apartment fire in university. Since then I have learned to hold memories as separate from stuff.

  7. Taraz September 3rd, 2012

    Get a fire safe. There’s less to grab that way, and less chance of missing something if a fire happens while you’re not at home. I also keep a bit of cash in my car for emergencies or in case I forget my wallet.

  8. Victoria September 3rd, 2012

    I was around for the train derailment too! I was only a year old though, so apparently all I took was a Matchbox car that entertained me for days til we could move back home. Now of course I’d need so much more!

  9. Olivia September 4th, 2012

    A friend lost all in a flash flood last year. Her husband was at home and was able to grab the cat but that’s all. She was at work.

  10. Kim Duke September 4th, 2012

    Lightning struck my home at 2 am many years ago. The spare bedroom was on fire, barrels of smoke were rolling toward me.

    The one thing you grab? (aside from family and pets)

    Nothing.

    You run for your life.

    P.S. Thankfully the fire was stopped by the 25 firemen who showed up!

  11. ShipCarpenter305 September 4th, 2012

    Miami, FL – Wow! I just had an apartment fire 2 weeks ago. My apartment filled up with thick heavy acrid electrical smoke in less than a minute. Just like Kim Duke says, by the time I figured it out, it was time to get the hell out! My smoke detector & fire alarm screamed ONLY 4 times then shut off! WTH!?! It sings for hours when I burn my toast!! Funny thing is, I’m an ex-firefighter with 2 kitties so I keep 2 fully assembled pet carriers under the dining table JUST IN CASE. Everybody thought I was over-reacting and I smugly thought I was too. But… 2 snarling kitties bowling balled to the back of the carriers, slam the cage door shut, and Boy-o, I was outta there. Can’t be too paranoid. All my “valuables” I wrote off in second flat. From past experience I can tell you people risk their lives and died retrieving wedding albums & family bibles. No smoke detectors or dead batteries is a cliche. I’ve recovered a few bodies all dead from smoke inhalation, never fire so don’t be a dummy. For me, a happy ending, but stinky smoke-smell apartment and belongings. Small, small price.

  12. Jody September 5th, 2012

    Our computer back up is in a fire safe. So most pictures would be saved. I have been wanting to do a home inventory for years. Might be worth going through a room a month putting one together – and purging our “stuff” at the same time!

  13. D September 5th, 2012

    I guess I don’t really have much to grab. I mean I can go to my bank and access some money. My only copy of my will is in my desk draw maybe I should give it to my executor? I guess I own nothing that really matters.

  14. Ferdinand September 5th, 2012

    Good Topic, actually what i would primarily secure is my family, after they’re all out and safe. If its still possible then i would go back get the dog out of safety. No worries about my files, its all in a safe, and my digital files? well i would love to assume they’re all safe online

    I had a great time reading your article, you really are clever to come up with this one. I would advice everyone to Use A Safe Deposit Box coz it’s a cost-effective way to keep valuables private and safe

  15. miscellanem September 6th, 2012

    After meeting many people who had to evacuate the Slave Lake fire last year, I’ve thought about it too. Just my wallet (need credit card to buy replacables!) and car keys in 5 minutes. In all honesty, if I had 24 hours, I would try to empty the house!

  16. Kim M September 6th, 2012

    After reading this is really got me thinking of how I could prepare for an emergency….and realize that I need to back up all my computer files, and get some things in order…
    The Canadian government has a emergency prepardness site you can check out…www.getprepared.gc.ca/.

    Also, one of the best things you can do to be prepared is to have up to date first aid training, and an evacuation procedure for your children in case they need to get out. Having a plan in place is a great way to help deal when the unexpected happens.

    Great post, Kerry!

  17. norman September 8th, 2012

    We experienced this in 2003 when over 200 houses were lost in our neighbourhood. I think you covered everything except ART. It doesn’t have to be ‘collectible’ but it still will likely be unreplaceable (and with sentimental value).

    With 24 hour forewarning. Grab your camera/video and take pictures of everything in the house. It made it way easier when we had to inventory our losses. How board games do you own? Dishes, tools, books? A video says it all. Even a video of the house and landscape. Let the kids pack 1 box of toys/keepsakes. Even at a young age they need to learn to make choices.

  18. Wallace H September 8th, 2012

    No kids, no pets so pictures! Luckily many are on a back up drive, or in the cloud. You did make me think that it’s time to scan and upload pictures like my mom and dad’s wedding pictures and ones from early childhood. In a real pinch I agree with the fireman – save yourself. You will live to figure the rest of it out.

  19. Sandy L September 8th, 2012

    5 minutes: people, pets, purse, lock box

    1 hour: all of the above, plus, photos, scrapbooks, laptops,external storage drives, important hand-me-downs.

  20. Kikka September 8th, 2012

    Your list is pretty much what I would grab. I live in a tiny apartment, no pets or other people. But I would also grab my puppy plushie. His name is Sunny and was my companion through most of my childhood years. I keep items with memories rather than albums, so losing him would mean losing my childhood memories.

  21. Tess C September 8th, 2012

    If it’s a house fire– GRAB THE BREATHING CREATURES AND GET OUT!!! If pets are hiding– leave them and get the humans out. Sad as that may be, it’s better than you and/or your family dying over a dog that’s hiding under a bed.

    I’ve been in a burning building when fire broke out in the ceiling of a business. There is NO time to gather up “irreplaceables.” It’s not the fire that kills you, it’s the smoke– and the smoke can be deadly within literally two minutes or less, once the fire is large enough to be noticed or set off a consumer-type fire alarm.

    In my case, we’d just started eating when the TV overhead in the corner went out. Huh. Then we smelled burning wiring. “TV must have shorted out– I should tell the manager.” Then a wisp of smoke. “Uh, is the TV on *fire?*

    Then a heavier one–”That’s not the TV. Let’s yell fire and get out!” All of this took no more time to happen than it would take to say.

    Before we more than got out of our seats, from the 8 ft ceiling down to just above head level was filled with thick, acrid smoke and people started leaving through the emergency exits as the manager yelled warning.

    It all happened in less than three minutes. Within another minute, the smoke was so intense that no once could have breathed inside. Flames had already broken through the roof.

    That experience, seeing how fast that fire went from ‘is something burning?’ to “incompatible with life” cured me from ever thinking I would have time to grab *anything* but a family member and think I could escape with my life.

  22. ShipCarpenter305 September 8th, 2012

    Understandably, some folks here have never experienced this tragedy based on their comments. I personally have never experienced sickness and war, but fire I know. Except for “Forest fires/24 hour notice”, there is no “5 minutes”!! Your house is rapidly filling with thick smoke, you can’t see the fire, you can’t see, the stench, your eyes water, your lungs are coughing, hard to breathe, your mind is racing, really, really racing, is this really happening, where are the kids, where are the kids, where are the kids, Go Go Go, save yourselves. That’s the first 3 seconds! Forget your purse, your art, your files. See the people on the news at the fire scene sucking O2 wearing just their nightgown standing in shock (or hysterical) outside in the night cold? Tragedy, sorrow, loss. Yeah, it’s real, but they’re alive. Strangely, the City, community, churches, friends, family will all step up to help. Fire usually brings out the best in people. Just ask a fireman.

  23. Claudia September 8th, 2012

    Scenario 1: People and pets. My purse, my laptop and my emergency kit. (I live on the west coast and have an earthquake kit that includes a spare pair of glasses, my passport, first aid supplies, food, etc.)

    Scenario 2: In the last couple of years, I’ve pared down my possessions to the point that almost everything will fit into a pickup truck so I’d easily be able to take everything if I had 24 hours to pack!

  24. ashrh01 September 8th, 2012

    Unfortunately I was in a house fire as a child so its something I’m pretty paranoid about. Honestly I wouldn’t try to grab anything except my cats. Recently when my apartment fire alarm went off in the middle of the night I managed to grab both cats (one in a carrier, one under my arm) and my car keys. I ran out the door and got into my car.
    Stuff is replaceable. I have even scanned all of my childhood photos, important docs, etc and they are all backed up on a cloud storage system.
    If I had 24 hours I would probably save my grandmother’s ring, but I certainly wouldn’t try to get that in an emergency.

  25. Ruth September 8th, 2012

    I have a small fireproof “safe” that has all our important documents in it. I would also suggest having a small suitcase packed. Since we don’t have kids at home now, I keep my meds in a plastic zip-lock bag in the bedside table. My cell phone and 10.1″ computer and chargers are also ready to go at a moments notice too.

  26. Christine September 8th, 2012

    I had a fire in my home about 2 months ago… Totally my fault but avoidable in so many ways. I left hot oil on the stove unattended while I went out to grab my toddler from the deck(there was a heat alert) . I grabbed her when the oil went up in flames and I for whatever reason thought it was a gas stove and that we’ll be blown to smithereens if I didn’t get the hell out. Hugh mistake: didn’t buy a fire extinguisher even after a month of moving in. Anyway, my neighbor extinguished the fire after he heard me screaming for help. I love that man so much! The stove was a goner and the cupboards have been scorched but nothing major.

  27. Christine Weadick September 8th, 2012

    My daughter and grandson had to get out of their apartment a few months ago because the idiots above her thought it would be funny to pull the fire alarm. Given where the stairs are to her apt she heard them come down the stairs and open the fire door. She didn’t have time to ask herself WTF are they doing when the fire alarm went off. She grabbed her little guy and her purse and high tailed it out. Everyone with kids was in the parking lot. The dummys that pulled the alarm…. stayed in their apt with the window open and laughing at everyone in the parking lot. They have since been evicted and sent the bill for the false alarm. Plus years ago I worked in a small store that was a pick up location for photo-finishing. We had the local firemen come around checking the buildings to see what they would be dealing with in the event of a fire, they started to give me what-for because there was no fire extinguiser, I looked at them like they were crazy and informed them that if there was a fire here I’d be out the nearest door so fast it would take me a block just to slow down. Fighting the fire is their job not mine…I’m out of here.

  28. Sherry September 8th, 2012

    I live in West Vancouver and it’s not if but when the earthquake will wipe us off the continent. I packed a small wheeled suitcase years ago that I update the water and seasonal clothes every 6 months. It is in my car because where ever I am – my car is – at work, home or house sitting which I do a lot of. It has all my essential paperwork, usb stick, some food and water and other niceties like TP, toothbrush, bandaids, wind-up radio, etc.
    This will work for me if there is a house fire or other natural disaster happening. I also have a cloth baqg with my photo album and clothes and shoes at home as I sleep in the nude and would hate to have to leave home without them.
    Excellent article and I hope everyone who reads it does some planning – just in case!

  29. KT September 8th, 2012

    I’ll never forget reading an article about 20 years ago that suggested hanging all of your clothes on the closet rod with the hooks pointed toward the back. Reason? “In case of fire, it will be easy to grab those hangers/clothes off the rod.” Can you imagine????!!! In case of fire, with an alarm, one only has time to get themselves out! Without an alarm, that doesn’t even happen.

    I have never experienced fire, but I do educate myself by reading and paying attention to stories on TV.

  30. Tom September 8th, 2012

    A few years ago, I purchased an emergency back pack from the Canadian Red Cross. It contains a colapsible water container, wind-up flashlight/radio/alarm, glow stick/whistle/multi-function knife, a small first-aid kit, a 50-hour candle with a box of water-proof matches,2 dust masks, 1 pair of work gloves, emergency rescue blanket, S.O.S.sign, 2 biohazard waste bags,20 water purification tablets, emergency plastic sheeting, a small role of duct tape (the best thing in the world for emergencies), and an Emergency Preparedness Guide.
    Got this at http://www.redcross.ca
    Don’t remember the price, but it was under $100.00. Small price to pay for all this!!
    I keep this on-the-ready at all times (you never know).
    By the way, great post!!
    I have been with you for a number of years, but this is the 1st time I have submitted a reply. Will be checking out your 15 pages.

    Tom

  31. D September 9th, 2012

    Come on if your house is burning just get “everyone” OUT.

  32. Karen September 9th, 2012

    Just now listening to police scanner during Peachland fire that broke out this afternoon. Within half an hour of evacuations there were people on quads, motorbikes and vehicles going in through the bush and backroads. One area has been evacuated for just under two hours and there has already been a home found with the door wide open, two motor bikes booking it out of there when the cruiser showed up. So, once you have packed up what you need to take – lock your doors and windows. It’s one thing to lose your possessions to a fire or similar disaster, it’s another to come back to your house still standing, but looted.

  33. Flora September 10th, 2012

    I would be non-functional without the data on my computer and would rather not have to worry about picking up a hard drive or laptop. So I use a relatively cheap cloud backup service (Carbonite) that automatically backs up my data many times a day.

    If you can’t afford Carbonite, SugarSynch will autobackup a certain amount of data for free.

    If you run out of free storage at SugarSynch, you can manually back up data to Google Docs, Skydrive or other services. These provide free storage for quite a lot of data. The last time I checked, Skydrive gave the most.

    I use gmail for email because automatically stores email sent or received.

    There are a few items that seem to have been overlooked:

    Passwords

    Telephone numbers/email addresses for key people (Gmail will automatically record email addresses of anyone you email, and you can keyboard in more information such as cell number. You can also add people you’ve never emailed.)

    Tax returns and supporting documents.

    Important appointments.

    Health information.

    If these are on your computer, they will be copied to cloud storage along with everything else.

    Also your “grab and go” bag should contain enough prescription meds to hold you over until you can get to a pharmacy.

  34. Finance Fox September 11th, 2012

    My Family first, then the paper files. that would be all.

  35. Janine September 11th, 2012

    Read this article, immediately started doing a home inventory. Thanks for the tips!

  36. Daisy@Everything Finance September 11th, 2012

    I have a family member whose house burnt down to the ground. It’s scary but in the moment, all that is important is that all living things are saved. Other than that – heirlooms and my passport!

  37. Theressa September 20th, 2012

    It would be a scary moment for any one caught in a raging fire. My house is situated among the woods and I am very much vulnerable to fires. I have set the alarm in place so I can at least have my loved ones safe. What best to be done in case of fire as per me is grab your kids and loved ones and make a quickest possible exit. Other valuable would include car keys, Passport, other important documents. A planned house will always help in case of such fires and assist in grabbing all that’s important in such a situation.

  38. Riscario Insider September 22nd, 2012

    Scary! In the get-out-fast scenario, the priorities are:
    1. Family, ideally dressed (don’t have any pets)
    2. Wallet
    3. Car keys
    4. Smartphone (if at hand)
    Key files are stored online. Passwords are in the smartphone.

    PS Having a full tank of gas is a good idea.

  39. Ashley September 25th, 2012

    Children first, then partner, then pets if there is time.

    Everything else is replaceable and isn’t worth the risk. All of our family photos are now digital. If we had 24 hours notice I’d probably grab all the family heirlooms and anything that has a high value to weight/space ratio.

  40. Coin Sleuth September 26th, 2012

    My pets, wallet, keys, laptop, file box and cell phone. If I had time I’d get my mountain bike out of there too. All photos are scanned and stored on the laptop (and backed up on the cloud).

  41. Daisy@Everything Finance September 27th, 2012

    My mom lives in a similar situation (in BC) and we’ve been in that situation. There was nothing that my parents COULD grab, except the living things (animals, each other). That’s all that really matters, in the grand scheme of things.

  42. Jenny September 29th, 2012

    This is a tough question but one we should all face before it actually happens. I would definitely grab my family and beloved bunny. I would also grab my purse with all ID in it, laptop for work and cell phone for emergency calls. Everything else would need to be replaced.

  43. Lesley October 11th, 2012

    No question – photo albums put together over fifty years.

  44. Lynn October 21st, 2012

    I have been in a fire, with no notice. The answer is nothing. You grab family and run. I see most post are of pictures. Because of the fire, I scan or download every picture we have old and new into picasa, its free and you can make web albums. They are password protected so only family can see them. I have more than 20 scrapbooks. And even my sister over seas can look at them anytime.

  45. Carl October 22nd, 2012

    @Lynn – Please don’t use Picasa as the only backup of your photos. If anything ever happens, you’ll be terribly disappointed. Unless you carefully adjust several settings, Picasa only syncs a smaller, lower quality version of your photo to the web. Great for viewing online, not so great for printing out or doing anything else with.

    Also, if you accidentally delete a photo in desktop Picasa or make any changes to it, the photo will be removed or modified in the web version as well. Not the type of surprise you want to discover after a disaster.

    For photos and data you really care about, a minimum of two full backups in separate locations is the best way to keep them safe.

  46. Risa W October 27th, 2012

    This is an interesting topic and one that people really should think about and plan for it. In August 2011, my disgruntled neighbor set her apartment on fire at a morning hour when most people are at work. Thankfully, I didn’t lose anything but I was luckier it wasn’t in the middle of the night when I fear I would’ve been too groggy to even think straight. Knowing how close I was to losing everything I had spent years accumulating makes me realize it’s out of my control and the likelihood of it happening again is real. So, I keep my practical things – keys, wallet, phone, messenger bag, coat (in winter) near the door to avoid having to think too hard in case I need to grab & go.

  47. fishy November 21st, 2012

    I actually have a storage box with sentimental items, passport and some photos and a survival backpack (it has first aid, knife, flint, compass and a small bag of rice). In case of emergency, I would probably grab these 2 items and then my purse and car keys.

    I also try to keep my hiking shoes next to my backpack. You always need to protect your feet. My gear is still a bit incomplete but I feel more prepared than before.

    Great website by the way! I was suppose to sleep hours ago but I love reading your articles!

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