Things I learned from losing my home in a fire

The Woolsey Fire burns a home in Malibu, Calif., Friday, Nov. 9, 2018. A Southern (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

 

I live in Northern California, where the Kincade Fire is raging across parts of beautiful Sonoma county, just 80 miles north of me. It has been burning out of control for more than a week.

So much of what I do as a professional organizer is about helping people make room in their lives and their homes for what truly matters most to them.  There is no more vivid way to drive home this notion then when you suddenly lose everything in a wildfire. 

This is what happened to my friend Patricia Judge, exactly a year ago, during the Woolsey Fire in Southern California. 

This month, I invited Patricia to share her story. There is plenty being written about “emergency preparedness” right now but by sharing Patricia’s story, I hope you will take a moment to consider what she learned – and continues to feel – from her first hand experience.

After you read it I hope you will take at least one action today to protect your memories, your assets and your life should you ever need to leave your home in a hurry due to a natural or man-made disaster.


“Knock! Knock! Knock!   Mandatory Evacuation!  The fire is on its way!  Leave now!”

This is what I heard at my door while I was sleeping early in the morning last November. It was the sheriff.

“How much time do I have?” I asked the Sheriff.

“Get dressed and get out of here now.” he told me.  “The fire is on its way!”

I knew there was a fire, but it seemed so far away from me, and I realized at that moment I was not prepared.

As I put on my pants and shoes, grabbed some jewelry from my dresser, I couldn’t believe what was happening.  As the Sheriff knocked on my neighbors doors to leave I don’t think any of my neighbors actually thought the fire was on its way either.

My neighborhood was gone in 30 to 45 minutes.  Actually, my neighbor didn’t make it out because the road was no longer accessible.  He did not die, but he did lose everything he was putting into his trailer as the Sheriff was telling us to leave.  I recall the trailer’s chassis was still there in the rubble when I eventually returned to see what was once our neighborhood.

I had lived in Southern California where there had been fires and admit to having a flippant attitude about them. 

I always thought the chances of our house being burned down was low.  What I discovered was it can and it did happen.

What I learned from losing my home in the Woolsey Fire was this.

Be Prepared!

What does that mean?  Know what you want to take in advance even before a fire. 

In the moment it is happening you will not be thinking straight.  Write it down and know where it all is so you can put it in your car.

Don’t get caught in a false sense of safety.  Anyone can lose their home in an instant.

If you own your home, make sure you are adequately insured. Make sure your agent has copy of your policy. It’s one less thing you have to remember to grab. 

If you rent, get renters insurance!  It is not that expensive and insure your home for more than you think you will need. 

I was surprised to realize that even with my “minimal” lifestyle, how much it cost to replace, what I had lost. 

I lost pretty much everything and even a year later I am replacing things I lost and realizing that this expense will go on for years to come.

Make an “Emergency Binder”  that has all the paperwork you will want if you have to evacuate and keep it accessible.

Back up your computer’s documents onto hard drives or the cloud at least every month. 

Keep the hard drives with your “Emergency binder.” 

If you have photos you want to rescue make sure you can carry them are and easy for you to access.

Clothing – know what you want to take.

It was a total afterthought and I realized I lost so many shoes, purses, and clothing that were very valuable and some irreplaceable. Replacing them is expensive.

Art/keepsakes – take what you cherish the most.

I spent my life collecting my art and although I can still see and feel each piece it is no longer with me.

I no longer own the Kaftan my close friend Ilene made for me.  That is actually one of the pieces I really regret losing, although, even as I write this I can feel it and her love embracing me.

On the day of the Woolsey fire, I went to my sister’s house which seemed far away from the fire. When her home was being evacuated she kept saying, “I feel silly taking my sweaters.”  I told her, “You are standing here with someone who has lost everything.  Take any and everything you want.  We have two cars and can load them up to the brim.  The only thing you will have done is waste your time.  Wasting your time is a gift!

Some final thoughts:

If you are told an evacuation order is coming your way, pack your cars while you still can.

If you are given a “mandatory evacuation,” leave as early as possible.

Before fire season even hits, pull anything flammable away from the exterior walls of your house. Some of my neighbors’ homes burned because the debris and dry plants they had outside their home caught on fire.

Fires move quickly, more quickly than you realize. It took less than an hour from the time I left my house to lose all my cherished things.

Incinerated to the ground and gone.

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