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.

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.

3. Grab-and-Go Box. Keep a grab-and-go box with your essentials ready to go at a moment’s notice.

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.

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!