How to be prepared in case of fire

June was a difficult month for a good number of us at Unclutterer. Unfortunately, it came to a nasty close when one of our Chicago-based programmers lost his home in a fire. I am happy to report that he, his wife, and his pets all made it to safety without major injury. However, they’re still shaken and understandably upset about what happened.

We also know that some of our readers have been affected by the recent wild fires in California and are facing similar tragedies. To put it mildly, our hope is that July will be an easier month on all of us.

While working with our programmer to make sure that he has a place to stay and can start to get back toward a more normal life, we’ve had a number of conversations with him about what he and his wife did right beforehand and what they wish they would have done differently. Some of the things we’ve discussed have been mentioned before on our site, but some of them have gone without discussion. So, we wanted to create a master list of resources and activities to help you be prepared in case of a fire. Please feel welcome to supply additional advice in the comments. The more prepared all of us can be, the better.

  1. The most basic truth is that the fewer things you own, the fewer things you will need to replace in case of a fire. This is actually a good litmus test when deciding if you should keep an object — ask yourself, “Would I replace this if it were destroyed in a fire?” If the answer is no, it might be a good indication that you don’t need to be holding onto it now.
  2. Take a video inventory of everything in your home and store this video at an off-site location. You will be traumatized after a fire and forget a good portion of the things you owned. If you have a record of everything, then you don’t have to worry about forgetting what you had when reporting the losses to your insurance company. This video is also good in case of theft. Do not store this video anywhere in your home and do not store it in a safety deposit box, as you likely won’t grab either the video nor the key to your safety deposit box as you’re fleeing the fire.
  3. Be properly insured against loss from fire. After you film the video of all of your belongings, make a list of your things and review it with your insurance agent. Ask if you need a special technology rider to cover your computer equipment. Additionally, be sure to have a loss-of-use or displacement policy to cover your expenses for a hotel while you look for a new place or have your home repaired. If you’re a renter, all of these options are open to you as well.
  4. Create a list of important numbers and e-mail it to a personal, web-based e-mail account (like Gmail). In addition to the numbers of your insurance agent and claims department, you’ll also want to include numbers for nearby extended-stay hotels that will allow pets (if applicable) and your doctor to have prescriptions resent to the pharmacy.
  5. Be certain that all of your digital data is recently backed up and a copy of this information is kept off-site. See our post Reader question: Fireproof storage, part two on this topic for more detailed information.
  6. Have your most important papers in a fire-proof and water-proof home safe that is UL 350 rated. See our posts Reader question: What should I store in a fireproof box? and Reader question: Fireproof storage, part two on this topic for more detailed information.
  7. Seriously consider having your photographs and home videos digitally scanned and backed up at an off-site location. A friend of mine lost all of his pictures in Hurricane Katrina and says they are greatly missed. I know that I would be crushed. Our posts Clutter-free scrapbooking and How to digitally encode VHS home movies touch on this topic.

20 Comments for “How to be prepared in case of fire”

  1. posted by Sue on

    Even if someone is renting, they NEED renters’ insurance. One of my co-worker’s daughter was burned out of her apartment. I made some comment about her reporting her loss to her insurance, and he stated confidently that he told her she did not need insurance, she didn’t have that much stuff. Once she started the replacement process, he was stunned. Cosmetics, jewelry, electronics, furniture, clothes and more clothes, shoes, etc. He had promised to help her and he was out-of-pocket for thousands of dollars. (He also lost my confidence in his “wisdom”.)

  2. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Sue — I 100 percent agree with your advice about renters insurance. My apartment was broken into during my last year of college and having insurance saved me thousands of dollars (most of it was clothing, no joke, they stole my clothes).

  3. posted by Anne on

    having experienced a fire in our home, the top half (bedrooms and closets) charred beyond hope and the bottom half smoke damaged and almost total loss, this is a great subject to delve into!
    We lost a lot, but have our lives and we hold to that when you go to get something out of your room that doesn’t exist, wierd to go get a pair of earrings you wore for years out of a jewelry box you no longer have…very much a phantom feeling.

  4. posted by Alex Fayle on

    I had a small fire in my house once – caused some smoke damage on the second floor, but I was really fortunate. When my father was doing renovations he didn’t just stick up drywall and then paint it. He put a full layer of drywall compound over the whole thing. Given that the house was built in 1910, it gave the walls a more plastered look, plus it saved the house – the fireman told me that if it weren’t for that layer of drywall compound the drywall paper would have caught fire and I would have lost the house in minutes.

    The other thing that saved me was knowing *exactly* where the fire extinguisher was and how to use it.

    For several months after the fire, however, all I wanted to do was sell the place and everything in it. I’d felt violated and just wanted to be rid of it all. I’ve heard the same from people who’ve had fires that haven’t completely destroyed their homes.


    PS Great tips by the way, especially the backup stuff – I need to do that…

  5. posted by Celeste on

    My southern California friends deliberately keep a “go box” of baby books and important papers at the main exit, in case they have to evacuate due to fires. Obviously scanning pics and saving them offsite is great, but if you have a treasured memento with stuff like hospital bracelets and locks of hair, making an escape plan for it is good.

    I’m intrigued by the “blue box” that Suze Orman sells for keeping important documents ready to go in just this situation. It comes with a lot of forms that a person can fill out ahead of time just to be ready for a scenario like this, to make recovery easier.

    This is an excellent post and I think you should make a link to it as one of your core messages. Everyone can use this information even if they don’t want to pursue a minimalist lifestyle in the home.

  6. posted by Liz on

    A great way to backup pictures is using – you can upload pictures and mark them as private, meaning only you can see them. If you pay for the pro account, you can have as many uploads as you want and the file sizes of the images can be large as well meaning that if you wanted to reprint any of the images, they would still look good.

  7. posted by Shalin on

    These are great tips. As a minimizing excersise, I like #1 the most.

    Also – consider *prevention*… As a former volunteer firefighter I’m quite sure you can call up your fire department or insurance company and request a home inspection for fire prevention. These typically don’t take more than ~1hr and can be surprisingly informative.

    Very best wishes,

  8. posted by Jeri Dansky on

    Celeste, a couple people sell grab-and-go products.

    Suzan created hers when she herself had to evacuate because of a fire. See

    And here’s another option:

  9. posted by Jeri Dansky on

    Regarding home inventories (point 2 above): You can also use an online home inventory service. See

  10. posted by Shalin on

    So glad the family got out w/o major injury! It can be hard on anyone and I wish them a speedy recovery back to an enjoyable life. 🙂

    Warmest wishes,

  11. posted by Erin Doland on

    I want to add a bit of a negative vote for the “essential” boxes people are discussing. In cases of fire and other natural disasters, the last thing you should have to worry about is picking up an emergency box. Plus, a good portion of fires/disasters happen when people aren’t at home. Being prepared in ways that we discuss in the article above are effective for every circumstance, regardless of if you are home.

  12. posted by Beth on

    I get as many copies of essential papers as I can and store a set at my mother’s home. I have a duplicate birth certificate there as well as a listing of my bank accounts, insurance policy numbers, and home information.

    What about an idea of storing important things outside your “physical” house but on your property? I have a detached garage and a shed that would be ideal for storing an emergency box.

    Also, I once heard a great piece of advice when it came to pets. I have a cat and would obviously need to grab her and get her out. You aren’t going to have enough time to find a pet carrier so it was suggested you take a pillowcase and drop the kitty in there. I guess it would work for any type of small animal – they probably wouldn’t be happy but at least they would be safe and contained!

  13. posted by Mary Anne in Kentucky on

    Beth, I knew a cat years ago who was an office cat (he worked for an office with mice); he travelled home with a different person every weekend and they usually carried him in a pillowcase. He did a great laundry imitation on the bus, which didn’t allow cats.

    About the safe deposit key–why would you have to grab it? Mine is on my key ring which is in my pocket unless I’m in bed or in the shower, when it’s within arms reach.

  14. posted by Beverly D on

    I have all my important papers in a fireproof box. The key is on my keyring. That said, there is a great deal that I would have to replace that (of course) isn’t in the box, and I’ve been steadily working on a detailed inventory, with a Quicken program (backed up on a flash drive, kept in the box) with pictures. Still, I am the keeper of the family genealogy, and I have originals of old photos, deeds, birth and death certificates, and much more. I would be just sick if these were lost.

  15. posted by Korta on

    I handle my digital photo storage an easy way… I make disks of all the best pictures I have, and give them to my mother as a Christmas present each year. She gets the pictures for her computer, and I know that my fave pictures are safe…

  16. posted by ephi on

    Erin, this is great, thanks. Applicable to riot situation, too. 😀 My mum put a bag of clothes and bathing supplies under her bed all the time.

  17. posted by Emma on

    All great ideas – especially the first one!

    Also, I’d like to pass on my thoughts to your programmer and his family, I can’t imagine how difficult things must be for him now and going into the future.

  18. posted by K on

    Because of where we live we have a pretty intensive fire and evacuation plan in case of wild fires.

    I think it is good to think about it on levels. What would you grab if…

    … you had 5 minutes? (The kids, the dog & my purse)
    … you had 10 minutes? (above plus the portable hard drive, the laptop, the accordian folder by the desk and the plastic box of photo albums in the bottom of the upstairs hall closet… then turn on the outside sprinklers and leave.)
    … you had 2 hours? (above plus great grandpa’s rocker and some other larger items)

  19. posted by Taylor at Household Management 101 on

    There are lots of reasons to create a household inventory before disaster strikes. One that is often overlooked, however, is that insurance adjusters are trained to be skeptical of your claims. Having proof of what you owned, especially visual proof, can be very helpful in keeping an already traumatic situation from becoming more stressful because the insurance company wants to settle your claim for less than you think it is worth.

  20. posted by jocheryl on

    my daughter made the mistake of storing all her scrapbooking supply reciepts with her scrapbooking stuff, they were away from the house for long enough to give someone time to come in and literally pack up their entire house full of belongings…she had saved the reciepts originally to create a profit/loss statement because she wanted to start a scrapbook page business (she is disabled and bed ridden) anyway, when the scoundrels took her supplies, the reciepts went with them…bye bye to proof for the insurance company, we are having a heck of a time remembering everything she had and assessing a value/price to it…i’m on here looking for answers…anyone have any suggestions how to recreate a scrapbooking inventory list?

    take a tip from this mistake, don’t trust your neighbors to watch your house while you are away, and don’t store you reciepts for items WITH those items…

    and remember how many valuables you actually have, i would take a picture of EVERY special christmas ornament…EVERY ONE…i gave my daughter several special expensive ornaments each year to commemorate the events of that you so that when she had her own home, she would start with a full christmas tree (not like mine was with three ornaments on it!) they were all pink too…plus my folks carved and painted a wooden one for her each year…you might not think to document that type of thing, but in retrospect, i would let the theifs keep almost everything else, if they would just give back the christmas ornaments…it is so heartbreaking, so heartbreaking…

    oh, another suggestion, no matter what your sentimental items stand for, don’t get too attached to them…otherwise it hurts too much when they are gone…

    i am questioning the wisdom of our christmas ritual of reviewing the years gone by using the ornaments each christmas when we get them out…now christmas will always remind us that all our reminders are gone…i feel like they might just as well stolen this mother’s heart…they did still my pink mercury glass heart!

    i would almost rather have had the stuff go away too than to know someone else will be using our things…my only hope is that when they are passed down through their generations, they will represent something pure and sweet to those who inherit them, not, hey, these are the ornaments mom got for free from her stupid neighbors.

    oh well, i better get off my sympathy cruise…

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