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The California fires were at my door. I had 20 minutes to pack. Here’s what I took.

The elementary school thought experiment became my reality.

The Thomas Fire approaches homes in Montecito, California, on December 12, 2017.
David McNew/Getty Images

When I was a child, one of my teachers gave us a writing assignment called “The Box.” We were supposed to write down five things, and only five, that we would take with us from a burning house. I don’t remember what I wrote down, but I do recall it was hard. Pets and family were exempt, and I just couldn’t think of five material objects that warranted a place on such a precious list. What could be important enough?

Late on the night of Monday, December 4, as fires raged near us in Southern California, I found myself asking the same question.

I was at my parents’ house in Ventura, a picturesque beach town. The power had gone out around 9:30 pm, due to the fire, and I retreated to my bedroom to read by candlelight. An hour later, I heard concerned voices coming from the first floor. I went downstairs to find my parents huddled over a map with a neighbor.

They were tracking the path of a fire that had started earlier that evening near Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, over 25 miles away from us, called the Thomas Fire. It was moving faster than expected due to the powerful Santa Ana winds. We looked worriedly at one another. Our neighbor went back across the street, promising to stay awake and monitor the situation.

Not 20 minutes later, he was banging on the door of the house next to ours. The ominous glow over the hills behind our homes was growing.

It was time to pack.

The box becomes the backpack

As I pulled my travel backpack out of my closet, my mind flashed back to that writing assignment. I made a mental list of sentimental items to take, like the precious letters from friends I’ve saved over the course of my life. I closed my eyes and took several deep breaths. I knew that I couldn’t afford to lose time to a panic attack. My pulse slowed. I opened my eyes and got to work.

I made a beeline for my dozens of journals, which I’ve kept fastidiously ever since I was a child, and packed all of them. Next were several scrapbooks of letters, cards, and notes that I’ve collected from friends and family over my lifetime. I added a few pieces of art made by my friends. I put on as much jewelry as my fingers and wrists could hold, none of it particularly valuable but all of it precious. Almost every piece belonged to one of my late grandmothers.

In went my toothbrush, my daily anti-anxiety medication, and charging cords. A change of clothes, stick of deodorant, underwear, and socks.

My backpack not even half-full, I stopped and looked at my shelves and opened drawers. I didn’t want to take anything else. I grabbed my tattered copy of Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke, the book that saved my life when I was first struggling with depression, but that was it for books. I didn’t care about clothes. Tchotchkes and keepsakes faded into insignificance. Everything was replaceable.

I’d moved cross-country from Washington, DC, back to California only a few weeks earlier — with two full suitcases and a backpack. I was struck that I could still have so much stuff. An inordinate amount of stuff. None of it mattered anymore. I grabbed my backpack and left.

Build a kit

There is no shortage of advice about what to take with you in an evacuation, ranging from the practical (prescription medication, a change of clothes) to the sentimental (keepsakes like photo albums). The Department of Homeland Security recommends keeping an emergency supply kit on hand at all times, one that includes water and non-perishable food, first aid materials, flashlights, and copies of documents like Social Security cards or birth certificates. Due to California’s predilection for earthquakes and wildfires, my parents have always kept these documents in a fireproof box in our house. That box was the first thing to go into the cars.

Next were supplies for our two cats and two dogs, which we’ve kept lined up along with their carrying crates ever since my mother’s recent “disaster preparedness” phase. After watching coverage of the catastrophic hurricane season this year and thinking about the growing effects of climate change, she insisted that everything the animals would need be organized in one place. The cats howled and clawed at our bare arms as we corralled them into crates. The dogs were wild-eyed, and made panicked sounds as we clipped them into their portable bed in our Subaru.

Finally, we threw our first aid kits into the car and moved on to valuables and sentimental items. Framed photos. Rare maps. Several bags filled with what must have been fifty of my father’s journals (like me, he writes daily) and his collection of fountain pens. A box of letters written by my great-grandmother.

I interviewed several others who had to pack up during the Thomas Fire not knowing if or when they’d see their homes again. All of our houses, out of sheer luck, survived. At the time of writing, the Thomas Fire has claimed nearly 800 structures, at least 427 of which were in Ventura. It’s the largest wildfire in the county’s history and currently the fourth largest in California history.

“I should have taken more. … I just didn’t know what else to do.”

My next-door neighbor Rosemary Vigorita was fast asleep when we saw the fire creep dangerously close to the road just above our house in the hills. It looked to be less than half a mile away. Rosemary collected passports, her wallet, and her computer. She put on her grandmother’s diamond earrings, which she was still wearing when I interviewed her three days later, and scooped up two framed photos of her parents as she dashed out of the house. She had a few minutes to go back and throw clothes and a book into her bag.

Then Rosemary ran across the street to pull our elderly neighbor out of her house. She lives with a caregiver and was still asleep as flames licked the ridge less than half a mile from our street.

“Those walls held my stuff, but they also somehow held my experiences.”

Sarah Shirley is from Santa Clarita, California, and grew up camping in Ventura with her family. Now a renter in downtown Ventura, her apartment is just five blocks from a downtown apartment complex that the fire destroyed. A friend drove her home on the night of the fire to pack, so she had time to think about what to take with her.

The first thing she packed, following recommendations, was identification documents. Then she took her gohonzon, which is a Japanese term for an “object of devotion” in Nichiren Buddhism. Sarah’s gohonzon is a mandala on a scroll, inscribed with writings by the Buddhist monk Nichiren Daishonin in the 13th century. A practicing Buddhist, Sarah chants to her gohonzon every morning.

Like everyone else, Sarah packed the basics last: functional, comfortable clothes and the electronics she needed to work from home and stay in touch with family and friends. She didn’t get emotional until her friend told her it was time to go. “Those walls held my stuff, but they also somehow held my experiences,” she said, “and I had to figure out how to take those with me.”

What can you take?

As I write this, over half of my city is still without clean drinking water. Entire neighborhoods have burned to the ground, and many families I know have lost everything. Some whose homes have been destroyed didn’t have the time to pack like we did, and are now doing their best to recover and rebuild.

Though each of us packed different items, we all experienced a universal moment of clarity in the midst of disaster: You can’t take the most important things with you. The loss of prized possessions, like our irreplaceable photos and files and writings, would have certainly been devastating. But we are alive.

Sarah Doyel is a freelance writer, activist, and health justice advocate making the connection between wellness and social change. She blogs as the Feminist Vegan. Support the verified GoFundMe campaigns for the victims of the Southern California fires here. Donate to the Thomas Fire Fund here.

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