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Originally published October 26, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 26, 2007 at 2:03 AM

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If fire threatened your home, what would you grab?

As Californians have shown in recent days, evacuees aren't always practical as they scramble to decide what's worth saving.

Los Angeles Times

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 up before fleeing home speak 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 interesting," said Astin, a researcher and professor emeritus at the University of California, Los Angeles. "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 in the neighborhoods threatened by fires this week, evacuees also were 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. 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 dog and cat into her Porsche.

Hours later, at her brother's house, 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 an old 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 that people not only devise an evacuation plan but also draw up a list of indispensable belongings to take in the event of a disaster: medications, identification, vital documents and valuables. At one evacuation center, some of the Santa Clarita Valley residents forced to leave their homes had thought to take birth certificates and ATM cards.

Those with extra minutes and extra space in their cars took advantage of both.

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.

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; Zachary 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."

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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 American 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 merely 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 coincidentally plotted an escape plan two weeks ago. They had an evacuation packing list prepared.

"We were well aware of the risk of fire with these high winds, dry conditions and combustible brush," Crowder said.

"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 packed 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."

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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