I now have occasion every deadly dry August to ask myself this question: When the call comes — when the wildfire sparks in these California hills I call home and the evacuation order is handed down — what is The Most Important Thing to save? I have compiled spreadsheets with tabs listing what to take if there’s different amounts of warning…20 minutes, two hours, a day. My life has, in this way, been reduced to a ranking of material objects, which is both disheartening and freeing. This exercise in emergency planning lends new meaning to the phrase “with just the clothes on my back.”
The nuts-and-bolts immediate essentials include — in addition to myself, my partner, and our two cats, bodily — my mobile phone, my personal and work laptops, our house deed and mortgage papers, my prescription medications, our identity documents and bank cards. These are all items that, should they burn, would be costly and time-consuming to replace. The next grab consists of the Go Bag: a suitcase packed with functional yet comfortable and presentable clothing, plus toiletries that encompass both basics and some more esoteric choices (since I learned during last year’s exile that a little lipstick goes a long way toward making me feel human). With longer lead times, the sentimental and irreplaceable sneak in; there’s my grandmother’s precious jewelry, my aunt’s coveted Le Crueset Dutch oven, my current journal, a small silken drawstring bag that contains several talismans such as a pair of carnelian stones for creativity, a small lavender-and-sage sachet for soothing, a sliver of a mother-of-pearl abalone shell awarded to me for being brave enough to read fresh writing to a group of strangers. These seem distilled to be vital elements for surviving displacement. Finally, the incidentals get loaded into the cars — my satin-sheathed pillow, an assortment of dishware and cutlery, a cocktail shaker and a smattering of spirits, some embroidery projects — anything really, to make taking up residence in an extended stay hotel room for an indeterminate and stressful period easier to negotiate.
But perhaps the most interesting things are what I consciously choose to leave behind: I do not take photo albums or scrapbooks because I carry my memories with me. I do not take books because I hold their knowledge in my head. I do not take art or souvenirs because they seem static, as if they represent mere moments in time and taste. There is a relentless forward motion to fire; it can be cleansing. Just as forests show new growth shortly after the last ember smolders, I can rise from the flames, scarred yet reborn, stronger somehow for having lost and left behind.