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Sunday November 23, 2003


Plan ahead for the next fire danger

By Harriet Schechter

What would you take if you had only 10 minutes to evacuate your home?

Recently this nightmare scenario came true for thousands of San Diego County residents.

Those who returned to find their homes destroyed in the region's devastating wildfires will tell you that the things they miss most are the personal items with a connection to the past: irreplaceable heirlooms, treasured photos, family histories, scrapbooks, diaries.

This "priceless" stuff often has value only to us; it's the meaningful memorabilia that defines who we are.

What can be done now to protect these most precious possessions should a disaster loom in the future?

Here are some steps to take that will help you be ready for an emergency evacuation and likely make your day-to-day life less stressful as well.

Know what you want to keep.

If you have a huge backlog of "sentimental stuff" cards and letters, children's artwork and school papers, yearbooks, photos, travel souvenirs, family videos and home movies your first priority is to decide which things you'd miss if they went up in smoke.

Don't wait. Right now, make a list of every item you can think of that you'd truly regret losing.

The trick is to compile your initial list from memory without actually looking through your stuff, because the first things that come to mind are probably the ones you'd most likely miss. (Remember: If it doesn't end up on your list, it probably won't be missed.)

Title your list "What to Save in an Emergency," or whatever you prefer. Also, next to each listed item, note where it's kept, so it could be located quickly if you had to evacuate.

Try to be as specific as possible, especially with regard to photos; specify whether you're referring to photos located in albums, hanging on walls, displayed on shelves, stored in containers, and so forth.

Anyone with a habit of indiscriminately saving almost anything of sentimental value will probably have trouble focusing on individual items. If this describes you, perhaps the time has come to pare down your masses of memorabilia to a more manageable level.

Here are a couple of tips:

First, limit the things to keep to only stuff that evokes positive (happy) or poignant (sweetly sad) feelings. Don't hold onto anything that makes you feel upset, confused, stressed, bitter, angry or bad.

Second, feel free to let go of any object you don't really like, even if it's valuable or was gasp! a gift. Those are real clutter culprits, and in most cases, you're probably better off selling or donating them.

Once you've written your list, rearrange it so that items are in order of importance to you, since in an emergency you might not have time to retrieve everything. (And even if there were enough time, you'd probably be limited to whatever fits in your vehicle.)

Computerizing the list will be make this process easier. Just be sure to print a hard copy and keep it someplace where you won't forget it, such as the inside of a frequently accessed kitchen cupboard.

Duplicate and distribute.

Nowadays we're lucky: It's fairly simple and inexpensive to make duplicates of many precious pieces of personal nostalgia. Paper documents, photos, videos, disks, CDs all these and more are easily reproducible. Even if you already have copies, unless you make certain that the backups are in safe places, a disaster could wipe out your most cherished mementoes.

One way to back up your memories is to distribute copies to out-of-town family and friends. (This, by the way, should be a reciprocal process. Volunteer to keep copies of their special photos and videos in case of a disaster in their area.) It's helpful to label all such items, including your originals, with dates, names and other identifying info.

Have safe places.

Two of the safest places for keeping precious or important items actually have "safe" names: safe-deposit boxes (often incorrectly called safety-deposit boxes), and fire-resistant safes.

Safe-deposit boxes are most useful for storing things that are heat-sensitive such as photo negatives, film (old home movies) and magnetic media (including audiotapes, videotapes and computer disks) as well as items that can melt such as CDs, DVDs and jewelry.

Aside from the box rental fee, the only downside is that you have limited access. So it's best not to store anything in a safe deposit box that you'd want to handle frequently.

Fire-resistant safes often are used for storing legal and financial records, but they're also ideal for sentimental things like treasured correspondence (postcards, valentines and letters), diaries, photos, memorial items (keepsakes relating to departed loved ones), yearbooks and small childhood treasures. These safes come in a variety of sizes, shapes, fire-resistance levels and moisture-resistance levels.

For example, a file safe is a small, relatively inexpensive, box-shaped safe designed to hold about a dozen hanging files filled with documents. (Sentry's File Safe is available for less than $50 at places like Target;

However, these safes are not designed for storing meltable or heat-sensitive items. (Various forms of media are extremely sensitive to heat, and computer media will burn at a lower temperature than paper will.) Other fire-safe options are available for keeping things like that out of harm's way. They range in price from less than $100 to about $2,000.

If you prefer not to use a safe-deposit box for heat-sensitive items, these high-end safes are good alternatives. (Visit and for info on specific products.)

Prepare for a quick getaway.

Of course, the sentimental things you enjoy having around shouldn't be hidden in safes. Personal artwork, heirloom clothing, the family Bible, lovingly made handiwork such as antique quilts, doilies and samplers that have been passed down through generations of family these and more are meant to be displayed, handled, used, read, looked at and appreciated.

That's why it's important to set aside several empty storage containers that you could access quickly in an emergency and fill with priceless memorabilia. A simple solution: Collapsible file-storage boxes (often called banker's boxes), that store flat, are easy to assemble and cost about $2 each in packages of four or more. Unassembled, they take up very little space and can be slipped under a bed or along the inside wall of a hall closet.

Note: If you've never used them, it's a good idea to assemble one just for practice.

Be sure to post a copy of your emergency save list on or near the boxes.

You can't protect everything you love from every potential hazard. But you can take good care of each thing while you've got it, and cherish it while you can.

Unfortunately, keeping too much stuff makes it hard to enjoy and appreciate the very objects that are most precious to you.

Why not make a commitment to edit your mementoes so you retain only what's important? Keep the best and let go of the rest.

By trying to limit your sentimental stuff to just what you can take with you in an emergency, you'll have more time and space to enjoy your treasures and your life.

Harriet Schechter has helped thousands of people let go of clutter since 1986, when she founded The Miracle Worker Organizing Service in San Diego. Now a Santa Barbara resident, she also is the author of three books, including "Let Go of Clutter" (McGraw-Hill). Her online advice column is at

Copyright 2003 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.





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