What would YOU save in a fire? The forest fire smoke hanging over our heads here in southeastern British Columbia is a constant reminder that the worst could happen, although everyone is vulnerable to house fires. Here’s a handy guide to help you plan in advance.
PREPARE FOR THE WORST
We are painfully aware that we might only have time to save ourselves — like those poor people in the town of Lytton, British Columbia, whose town suddenly burned down in June 2021.
Although the wildfires are still 25 kilometres away from us, if lightning strikes in the forest that surrounds our home, we might have to run for our lives.
However, I’m assuming optimistically that we would first be placed on Evacuation Alert — meaning that we would have time to pack and prepare before being issued with an Evacuation Order. Currently tens of thousands of people in our province are on Evacuation Alert.
In 2016, the residents of Fort McMurray, Alberta had a couple of days on Evacuation Alert. When the Evacuation Order came, 88,000 people were safely evacuated. That fire burned 2,400 buildings in total, making it the costliest disaster in Canadian history. See some horrifying scenes here: Fort Mac fire.
REVIEW YOUR INSURANCE
Being very cautious, we have the maximum possible coverage: the replacement value of our house, multiplied by 210 percent to include contents. Since it is unlikely that we would replace our large family home, not to mention a whack of possessions that we no longer need, the insurance company would allow us to downsize and keep the difference in cash.
The insurance company does not require proof, but for our own information we took photos of each room including the contents of every closet. The replacement value of all this stuff is staggering (you don’t think about such random items as cosmetics, spices, and Christmas decorations until you do a serious assessment). It would be an enormous job lasting many months just to purchase the things we want to replace!
Every policy is different! Whether you are required to build the same house or are allowed to upsize or downsize; whether every item must be replaced or whether there’s a cash payout; who pays for the cleanup, outbuildings and landscaping — all these conditions and more are outlined in your policy. Read it carefully and ask your agent if you have questions.
TALK TO YOUR SPOUSE
My friend Lee lost her house in Kelowna, British Columbia when it burned to the ground in 2003, along with 239 other homes. Started by a lightning strike, the Okanagan Mountain Park Fire was unstoppable. At the time, Lee’s husband was out of town, so she made ALL the decisions about what to save.
Later she told me: “It’s a blessing he wasn’t here. All up and down the street, families were arguing about what to take. In one case, the wife was putting things in one car door and the husband was throwing them out the other door onto the driveway!”
To avoid conflict, my husband and I have discussed in great detail what we want to save in a fire. We printed the list and taped it to the bulletin board so that we can pack as quickly as possible, without forgetting anything!
TALK TO YOUR KIDS
When my friend lost her house, the children were told to take a cardboard box to their bedrooms and fill it with whatever they wanted to save in a fire. There was nothing of real value in their bedrooms, but they kept their favourite things. If they are old enough to appreciate the danger, your children can think in advance about what is important to them. Having their special toys will make the loss of their home less traumatic.
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THINGS WE WILL SAVE IN A FIRE
1. Credit Cards, Chequebook, Cash
Not only is there intrinsic value in cash, but you might need every last dollar until you can get to a bank machine. We also have a change jar and a cookie tin filled with collectable coins.
2. Photo Albums, Slides, Home Movies
If there is one thing that can never be replaced, it is these priceless mementos. This is also the bulkiest item — four plastic tubs and four cardboard cartons. I have already packed these, ready to grab and go. If there is time, I will pull the framed family photos from the walls. This photo shows just some of my albums.
3. Important Papers
We keep a folder in our filing cabinet that contains passports, citizenship papers, birth, marriage and death certificates, and vaccination records. Yes, we could get everything replaced, but what an extraordinary hassle.
Along with important papers, I have a box filled with genealogical records — something I might forget to save in a fire unless it was on my list. Everything could be reconstructed with the help of family members, but not without many hours of laborious research.
I have four Apple devices and all of my information including digital photos is backed up and stored on the cloud. I also have an external hard drive attached to my desktop computer that backs up every hour. I will save in a fire my iPhone, iPad, Macbook laptop, external hard drive, and chargers. My husband has a similar set of devices, his data also backed up multiple times.
Most important: don’t forget a record of your passwords!
A thief would be very disappointed with the contents of my jewellery box, because my only valuable pieces are the rings I wear every day. I do have some sentimental items and keepsake costume jewellery in this old wooden chest (originally purchased from Asmussen’s Jewellers in North Battleford, Saskatchewan and given to me for Christmas in 1967 by my first boyfriend!)
We may never need house keys again if the house no longer exists! However, we will need keys to our pickup truck and our car, since we will drive both vehicles away from the fire. We will also take the safety deposit box keys and mail keys.
Original paintings can never be replaced, so I will take those if we have time. I’m very fond of this prairie scene by artist Richard Cole.
And I love this commissioned painting of my three daughters by artist Angela Morgan.
As well, there are a number of sentimental pieces that I would save in a fire: a needlework sampler made by my mother, an old print that hung in my grandfather’s house, this pretty sunflower painting made by one of my daughters.
8. Clothing and Toiletries
Your number one clothing item to save in a fire: sturdy shoes! Keep them by the back door, ready for action. (Think about running across a burning lawn in bare feet!)
If you have time, fill a suitcase (or two or three) with enough clothes to last for weeks: pants, shirts, sweaters, underwear, socks and shoes, outerwear. Lee packed summer clothes, but said she wishes she had included winter gear. I would also save a few precious items of clothing impossible to replace — a sweater hand-knit by my mother; my wedding dress.
No matter where you are headed, whether to a family member or a hotel, you will need toiletries including toothbrush, pajamas, robe, and change of clothing. I keep an overnight bag packed for a quick getaway.
9. Medications, medical aids
I don’t take regular medications, but many people do. In my overnight bag, I will toss in Tylenol and sleeping pills — because if I lose everything I own, I will need plenty of pain relief!
Medical aids include hearing aids, glasses, sunglasses and contact lenses. You might even need to have your eyes retested. I keep my prescription in my wallet, just in case something happens to my glasses.
I will pack two pairs of custom orthotics that I need to wear all the time. Other devices to save in a fire might include items such as knee braces, syringes, sleep apnea machines, or even oxygen tanks.
10. Pets and pet food
We no longer have pets, which is one less thing to worry about. For pet owners, their dog or cat is the number one thing they would save in a fire. When our daughter’s apartment building burned down, she almost lost her life trying to catch her cat — happily, she found him and both escaped without a scratch, although everything else she owned was destroyed.
Keep vehicles filled with gas. There may not be enough time to fill the tank before you leave town — or there might not be a gas station left! I’m notorious for running the tank down to empty, but I have turned over a new leaf. We now keep our truck and car filled at all times.
How much can you fit into one or two vehicles? After your family members and pets are inside, how much room will you have left? Everything I listed above will fit into our truck and car.
What’s the best escape route? We have access to two roads into our town, each one leading north and south, which gives us four options depending on the fire’s location.
Where will you go first? It’s probable that hotels in the vicinity will be filled with fleeing people. If you don’t want to sleep on a gym floor somewhere, your best bet is family or friends.
Where will you go next? You can’t stay with friends forever, so decide where you want to spend the next year and make sure that’s a viable option. When the fire started to threaten Kelowna, my friend Lee immediately booked a rented house, and was able to move there within days.
Who will build your new home? Chances are yours won’t be the only house that burns in your area. My friend Lee was so clever that she hired someone to rebuild her new house while the ashes of her old house were still smouldering! Every builder in Kelowna was swamped with requests, but she was first in line.
FINAL WORDS OF WISDOM
Finally, my friend had this to say: “Losing your home is a terrible experience, but not the end of the world. The people who had the most difficult adjustment were those already struggling with serious illnesses or other problems. People who were very attached to their possessions also had a hard time. We just felt fortunate to have escaped with our lives.”
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HAPPY 98TH BIRTHDAY, YVONNE!
Yvonne Valleau Wildman, who turned 98 years old on August 1, 2021, trained as a photographer with the Royal Canadian Air Force and spent her wartime career at the air training base in Vulcan, Alberta before leading an active life as a farmer at Kindersley, Saskatchewan. Thank you for your service to our country, Yvonne!
Read her story here: Yvonne Wildman.
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WHAT I’M READING NOW
Defending Jacob was our book club choice, and wow, it was a good one! A courtroom drama/thriller/mystery rolled into one, I could not put it down!
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Friends, we are eager for the fires to burn out and the smoke to dissipate. My heart goes out to all those people who have lost their homes already. I sincerely hope the rest of you are enjoying a perfect summer.