LOS ANGELES -- The decisions are made in a scary, smoky instant. A wildfire is blazing toward the front door: What to take to safety? What to leave behind? One woman in Malibu grabbed her old wedding ring and divorce papers. A Santa Clarita man showed up at an evacuation center with four suitcases but little memory of what he and his wife threw into them. "Probably not what we need," he said, clutching his pillow. An Escondido woman, her head cloudy with panic, rescued her $1,000 Christian Louboutin shoes.
Practical or sentimental, irreplaceable or as inconsequential as a carton of orange juice, the belongings that fire evacuees packed before fleeing speaks to the daunting task of distilling a life into a backpack, a suitcase or the trunk of a car.
In the chaos of disaster, logic doesn't always reign. Los Angeles psychologist Helen Lena Astin said there's no predicting what people see as essential in times of crisis. She remembers a friend doubling back to his house during a 1978 fire to retrieve his tuxedo. He later explained that it was difficult to find a tuxedo that fit him well.
"That's crazy, but it's in- teresting," said Astin, a re- searcher and professor emeritus at UCLA. "Of all the things to worry about. But people make snap decisions, not always about what is practical, but what's valuable to them at the time."
Some people save photographs, but visit any of the neighborhoods threatened by fires this week and one would find evacuees loaded down with high school yearbooks, college dissertations, tax returns, concert tickets, skateboards.
After a night of watching the flames creep closer to her driveway, Alyson Dutch was told Monday morning to leave her home in Malibu's Las Flores Canyon. All she remembered was flinging open her wardrobe closet, stuffing a pair of cowboy boots and a down jacket into a bag, tossing her computer and insurance papers into a box, then corralling her yellow Lab, Sullivan, and her cat, Duck, into her Porsche.
Hours later, at her brother's house in Agoura Hills, she reached into her pocket and was surprised to find a feline-shaped piece of jade that she kept by her nightstand. In the frenzy to pack, she apparently had thought to grab a jewelry box that holds a childhood rosary, charms her mother gave her and a postcard from her late father. "I cherish these things," she said. "If the rest burns, it's all replaceable."
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection recommends people not only devise an evacuation plan, but draw up a list of indispensable belongings to take in the event of a fire: medications, identification, vital documents and valuables. At the Saugus High School evacuation center, some of the Santa Clarita Valley residents forced to leave their homes had thought to take birth certificates and cash machine cards.
Had to return for the cats
Under a glowing sky, Dawn Elder packed her mother's ashes but inadvertently left home without the family's three cats. "We had to run back and get them and bring them to a friend," said Elder, a mother of two who didn't think the shelter would allow pets. (It turns out some do, as long as the animals are in crates, but officials recommend leaving them in the home with food, water and your contact information.)
Ken Zachary and Dallas Blair had stashed food and supplies in case of an earthquake but were unprepared for fire. When sheriff's officials told them to evacuate, they debated what to take. Blair focused on clothes; Zach-ary hunted for paperwork they might need later. "We wound up with four suitcases," he said, "and we still don't know exactly what's in them."
Police told John and Cruz Gingiloski to leave their Rancho Santa Fe house Monday, and in the 20-minute dash to pack, Cruz left her jewelry and the contents of the couple's vault and grabbed her scarves. "I don't know why I thought I needed them," she said. "It's 90 degrees outside, but for some reason I wanted them, too."
She also packed a box of cards from her grandchildren, a cross that had belonged to her mother and the U.S. flag that had been draped on her father's coffin.
Therapist Gary Bell of San Bernardino-based Counseling Team International, which provides support services to police and fire departments, remembers one man who tried to push his great-grandfather's piano out of a house during a blaze. The man wasn't saving the piano, Bell said. He was rescuing a reminder of family.
"The keepsake that leads them to the memory of a loved one is the thing that will go with them," Bell said.
Malibu resident Rory Crowder and wife Shannon Rubicam volunteer for a neighborhood arson-watch program and co- incidentally plotted an escape plan two weeks ago and had an evacuation packing list pre- pared.
"We were well aware of the risk of fire with these high winds, dry conditions and combustible brush," said Crowder.
"I'm grateful we thought about it when it was just hypothetical, and our brain cells weren't oozing out of our ears in a panic," Rubicam said.
They packed lightly, leaving the commercially valuable art on the wall. Instead, they took photographs their daughter had taken, the 1890s artwork of Rubicam's grandmother and paintings formerly owned by Crowder's late father.
Left behind: boxes of family photographs that were too large to fit into the cars.
"I remembered someone saying that they would rather have the things that someone did than pictures of that person," Rubicam said. "What we have with us now are pieces of the person in action, which means more to us."