Preparing for the Worst

I guess you might call me a low-key prepper. I don’t have a bunker filled with MREs or any guns and ammo. I never buried oars and an inflatable raft in Fort Tryon Park so that I could row across the Hudson if needed (like a friend of ours once did). However, I do have several hundred pounds of wheat and beans packed in nitrogen and mylar in my basement. (And I do use it.) And I like to have emergency plans in place.

After 9/11 and the Northeast Blackout of 2003, I made Patrick a special backpack to keep in his Manhattan office in case he once again had to evacuate and walk somewhere safe. It contained cash, snacks, drinks, spare socks, etc. This, of course, insured he never had to use it. Totally fine; knowing he had it let me rest easy.

In a similar story, several years ago, Patrick and I went away to Wales for ten days to hike and pony trek and visit castles. Beforehand, I bought fancy Norwegian rain slickers for us since we’d been told to expect a fair amount of rain. Not a drop fell our entire visit. People later told us it was the sunniest stretch of weather they’d had in years. I never considered it a waste, though. We ended up using those jackets for years.

In the Swiss canton of Vaud, where Patrick’s mother and her forebears are from, there’s an expression that often characterize the Swiss outlook: déçu en bien, which literally means “disappointed in good.” You could translate it “pleasantly surprised,” but that doesn’t quite capture the connotation of working so hard to deal with a bad outcome that you’re a little let down when all actually goes well. Patrick and I call this “the power of negative thinking,” and it’s one of our family’s superpowers.

We’re calling on that power quite a bit right about now. A wildfire has been burning not far from our house for several days. We received an evacuation warning earlier this week, and our cars have been packed since then. Just when we were starting to relax a bit, we got the news that the fire is now less than a mile away in an adjoining canyon, and we may well have to leave home for an unknown length of time very soon.

Here’s what we’ve done to get ready. Last Monday, I went through our entire house and took photos of literally everything—every drawer and cupboard, however messy; every bookshelf and closet; every appliance and musical instrument. We have homeowners’ insurance, of course. But on the advice of someone who survived last year’s deadly Northern California fires, I now have photos in the cloud not only to prove what we own, but also to jog our memories in case we have to start listing every potato peeler, box of pasta, and video game in order for them to be replaced.

Doing that, I also figured out what was NOT replaceable. This list includes original artworks; a few books (either antiques or my own work that’s out of print); some of the kids’ special stuffed animals and other mementos; and decades’ worth of printed photos. All this was packed in Patrick’s trunk last week, but he has since moved it into a storage pod on family friends’ property to avoid either breakage or theft.

We normally keep our passports, medical records, and titles of ownership, etc., in a fire safe in our bedroom. However, that’s just in case the house burns down while we’re away. Imagine having to dig through two stories’

worth of ash and rubble to unlock a half-melted plastic cube to get to your valuables. I’ve now emptied the safe into a bag that we’ll keep with us wherever we go.

Each of us has a backpack stuffed with three days’ worth of clothes and toiletries. The kids’ schoolbooks and our laptops are in additional bags, and all the dog’s food and accessories are in a sealed plastic bucket. Yet another bag has all of our medications and supplements—and a fair amount of essential, sanity-saving chocolate. Each night, all of this has either been in my car trunk or on the kitchen island, where we can grab it on our way to the cars.

Here’s what the fire department recommended we do if we do have to leave:

Leave a few house lights on, so the house can be seen in the dark and smoke.

Turn the gas and air conditioning off.

Leave the doors and windows unlocked.

Stretch out garden hoses away from spigots so they can be seen and used to wet down the house. (But keep the water turned off.)

Fill any buckets you have with water and set them around the outside of the house.

If you have one, leave a ladder leaning against the house so firefighters can easily get to your roof.

Move anything flammable away from the house and its eaves, including patio furniture and barbecues.

If you have one and if there’s time, put anything that won’t be damaged in the pool. This could be pots and pans, vases and bowls, or maybe trophies?

I don’t know. I was imagining stacking my grandmother’s china in kitchen garbage bags, carefully lowering them into the water, and crossing my fingers…but I don’t know if it would be worth it.

So all that’s done. Now we’re sitting in our house, grateful for our air conditioning and filters (and that the power hasn’t been cut), and listening to the helicopters flying overhead to drop water and fire retardant on the flames. And praying—lots of that.

And if after all this, we come back in a few days to find the house still standing? I guarantee you: I will not be disappointed.