What precious things would you grab in a house fire?

Guest post by Mayday
Fake house facades on fire. Photo by: Joseph KrawiecCC BY 2.0

What precious things would you grab in a house fire?

It’s a “what if” question that gets bandied around often. I’ve heard, and given, many different answers over the years. My dog. My cat. Photo albums. A jewelry box. Signed books. Family heirlooms.

It’s all bullshit. You don’t have the time to run through the house, collecting all your possessions. You grab what you see on the way out the door.

May 2011, I “grabbed” two purses, two laptops, the house phone, and my hysterical mother.

Lightning had hit a tree across the street; the tree’s roots were wrapped around a water pipe, which created a perfect conductor for the electrical current. The neighbor whose yard the tree was in lost their fridge when the water/ice dispenser shorted out.

Our hot water heater caught fire.

In the end, while it could have been a lot worse, we still lost a lot. The fire ran rampant through the attic. We lost years’ worth of heirlooms. My mother’s wedding bouquet. Christmas ornaments that my brother and I made in kindergarten. Baby clothes. Pictures. Paintings. Books. Furniture my great-grandparents had owned.

When major traumatic events happen, people always react differently. My father became short-tempered and mean. My mother became prone to sudden crying fits when she thought about certain things. My brother, thankfully, had moved out and missed a lot of this.

I shut down. Completely. Utterly. Shut down. I missed only one day of work because I literally had no clothing to wear. I locked myself up so tightly that I eventually started wishing I had been asleep when the fire had started, that I hadn’t woken up…

That was the sign that it was time to talk to a doctor to get some help, and it was when my parents realized that I wasn’t being a zombie just to hurt them.

We lived in a hotel for a month before we found a house to rent. Three months after we’d moved into the rental house, I went to the UK by myself for two weeks. I’d planned a trip and everything was long pre-paid before the fire.

It’s a very humbling experience to have literally everything you own in a camping backpack. And, for me, it was… freeing. I could do whatever I wanted. I could go wherever I wished. I didn’t need permission, or accountability, or anything past what I had with me.

In a way, the fire was a good thing for me…

I moved to California — I took the chance. I had confidence. I had everything I truly needed. I had nothing to keep me in Louisiana. Six weeks after I moved, I met my fiance. After being unemployed for nine months, I went back to school. I’ve gained so many friends and my family is expanding more and more each year.

Recently, on a drive to work I saw smoke rising over the mountains. I was suddenly terrified again. Even if you logically know that you can’t run through and save things, your mind still flashes to what’s important, what you want to protect.

Luckily the fire was far enough away that we didn’t need to worry. Besides, this is what fireproof boxes and renter’s insurance are for. But it was a good reminder.

So, what do you think you’d try to save in a house fire?

Comments on What precious things would you grab in a house fire?

  1. Thank you for writing this. I’ve had 2 house fires over the course of my life, and I can relate to how you feel. The first one was when I was 13. It completely rocked my parents marriage, as my mom found out our house wasn’t even under her name in the aftermath. I remember acting out sexually because I felt no one at home loved me. It was a terrifying time.

    Everyone always thinks about what they’d grab, but you’re so right- it’s bullshit. The only thing I looked for both times was my glasses. Didn’t find them both times, mostly because I would only take 1-3 seconds to look before running for my life. Also, I had I grab my mom, who kept running back into the burning house. My dad went back for our pet parakeets during the first fire. One of them died a week later, sadly. During the second fire, I thought about out cats but could not find them in the aftermath. They had fled to safety in the outdoors and returned home a day later when things had calmed down.

    It really struck me when you talked about seeing another fire. I completely relate. Whenever I see smoke rising from a building, my heart stops. A few months ago, I smelled smoke coming from a faulty light fixture at work, and nearly ran out of the building screaming. I’m a preschool teacher, so that sort of behavior isn’t encouraged.

    In short, friends, don’t grab things. Grab your loved ones. Cry. Try to understand each other and get ready to heal.

    • I arrived back to my apartment after the fire has been put out thanks to calls from both the landlord and a roommate, I grabbed my laptop and my djembe from my sodden smokey room when the firemen let me in. Both were unharmed. It’s a surreal memory, my cat was already safely in my roommate’s car so I guess those were the next two most precious and accessible items to grab.

      Just a few days ago I saw a burst of light from a neighbors yard and knew it was fire – I was ready to call 911 but looked to find it was a bonfire that had flared and was being taken down a notch with a hose.

      The main takeaway is that we now have homeowner’s insurance, with both my husband and I on the documents. And a fire box for our important documents like birth certificates and social security cards.

      • I’ve just started reading Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman and according to the book, there’s a reason you both have these reactions. He called it “neural hijacking” when the emotional part of your brain takes complete control from the logical. I’m not sure I understand it yet, and apparently the science is still pretty new, but it’s neat to read. It’s in the first 20 pages or so if you wanted to check it out….

        When I was a kid we were evacuated from our neighborhood because of a fire, and I did have time to safely grab a few things. Photo Negatives, my Journal, my school bag and my dog all got in my car and we drove out of there. My parents grabbed the lock box, the computers (we had a home office then) and drove out. I did not grab a change of cloths, my toothbrush, or anything at all practical. Just the things I felt I couldn’t replace (and in the case of my book-bag – the thing I thought I would get in trouble for loosing).

    • I was startled by your topic today, both laughed and cried. Three years ago we lost everything we owned in the Caughlin Wildfire in Reno, Nv. We spent the few moments we had trying to save our rabbits, we saved 2 and lost 7. We saved our 2 dogs and ourselves but nothing else. I know the terror never goes away. We ran around the neighborhood looking for where the fire was anytime we smelled smoke. My husband and I are now divorced after 29 years of marriage. I am sorry for you loss and happy you have found happiness.

  2. Thank you for this. I have been lucky to never have experienced this, but I can only imagine how horrible it would be. It’s pretty humbling to realize that we don’t even have a fire box for important documents. I guess you don’t really think about these things in a realistic sense until it actually happens to you. I’ll be looking into getting a fire box asap!

  3. The only things I’ve ever thought about saving are anybody who’s in the house with me and my cats. In fact, I’m more worried about the cats than the people because the people aren’t going to hide or try to fight me. I’ve heard you’re supposed to stuff them in pillow cases but what if I can’t find them in time? Especially since my first job is to get my family out?

    I wouldn’t spare even a thought for a laptop because I have a *lot* of computing devices ( I’m a programmer ) and their important content is backed up at remote sites. I take that shit seriously ( again: programmer ). At the start of my career, the facility I worked in received a bomb threat and I had the unique experience of standing around outside, contemplating the complete destruction of 3 years of work and all our nightly backups with it. Even though it was a false alarm, it had a profound affect on me.

    • I worry about my cats too when I think about this! It is so hard to wrangle them into the cat carriers for a trip to the vet–I can imagine it would be a thousand times harder when everyone is panicking. The pillow cases idea is a good one that I hadn’t heard before, though I guess that means 1) finding pillow cases or awkwardly getting them off your pillows and 2) probably retrieving the cats from under the bed or on top of the fridge. Ugh ugh ugh.

      • Pillow cases, boxes, washing baskets with pillows stuffed on top, down your shirt or wrapped up in your skirt, bundled up in a blanket that is thrown on top of them are all ways I have received cats needing urgent attention for one reason or another at our vet surgery. None are really crash hot ideas for normal daily transport for puss cats but needs must in these circumstances. The poor man with the cat trapped in his jumper was a bit of a mess when he released the cat, but he did get it to treatment in time for it to be effective!

  4. I’ve never been in a fire but one of our neighbors had a fire recently. It effected the entire block…I now have 2 fire safes. I’m am also an avid scrapbooker and wonder how to protect them? Stuffing safes full of albums seems impractical…

    • I’m a big fan of taking photos of things like that. Of course, it will never be the same as holding the actual item in your hands, but at least you’ll have a visual reminder of what it looked like.

      My Mum actually started me on this, as she had tons of artwork from her childhood / teenage / university days and, while it was nice to look at from time to time, it was really just taking up too much space. Over the course of a weekend, we set out each piece in a well-lit, plain background and took lots of photos – not just one photo of the whole item, close-ups of particular details, pictures of the back / hidden areas etc.

      Now she can flick through a digital album of them when she fancies it, but also has her attic space back!

  5. I’m sorry you had such a traumatic experience, and I’m glad that you’ve recovered.

    I’m sure my first thought in an emergency would be getting my family and cats out. Or, if I couldn’t find the cats, grabbing my toddler and opening the side and front doors so that they could flee when they had the chance. But if the unlikely situation arose where I was alone because the toddler was at grandma’s and my husband was at the vet with both cats, I’d probably try to grab my laptop since it’s close to the front door and has lots of irreplaceable photos on it (I should really get on backing those up).

    But I’m sure I’d instead panic and try to proceed with normal “leaving the house” procedures (coat, shoes, etc) before my brain kicked in to remind me that it’s time to GO.

  6. I’m sorry that you went through that and that anyone ever does, it’s horrific, so traumatic. So far I’ve been lucky to only have one in a building where I was living, which was contained without the people on the level where I was having to leave the building, and while I was waiting for instructions from the fire service I grabbed identifying documents including my passport and put them in a bag with my bank card, got properly dressed and ready to leave and that was about it. I couldn’t think straight to get more, from what I remember. It’s a hazy memory though, I was probably too full of adrenaline to be taking much in.

  7. My dog and husband are the only two things I would make sure I got out of the house. I’ve got everything critical backed up online so I could at least get new copies of important documents.

  8. When the fire alarm went off in the middle of the night when I was in college in my dorms I didn’t grab *anything*, not a jacket (it was nearly winter in Alaska) or my glasses(!), or even my laptop (though it was sitting 10 inches from my face). It turned out to (mostly) be a false alarm (some kid waayyy overcooked pizza rolls in his microwave).

    A few years later I was on vacation with family when my husband (then-fiance) called to tell me there had been a fire in our building and that he’d grabbed our laptops and my iPad. And while I was grateful to him (and our unit was fine; the fire was on the other side of the building), I felt .. I don’t know? Peevish? because the thing I would have grabbed would have been my Minnie Mouse doll that my parents gave me as a toddler and which I carried around constantly until third grade (and even then still slept with her through middle school). She was for a long time my only companion and a comfort object, so the thought of not having her around (even though now she just sits on a shady shelf in our spare room) makes me so anxious.

    We have a fireproof box now for all the important documents and very, very good renter’s insurance to replace everything else.

  9. My family members live in mountains where they have been evacuated a few times. They usually have fair warning but wait till the last minute. Fires have previously gotten to, but not yet burned their house. What do they take? Dogs (sometimes the neighbors dogs too), their dog’s ashes, the big tv (if there’s room) and some clothes. Papers? Nope. Irreplaceable pics of dead mom? Nope. Dead dog’s ashes encased in metal urn? Yup.

    Myself, I’ve got a go bag, but I will probably forget it since in any emergency I will be hunting down cats.

    • Your folks taking their dog’s ashes cracks me up. They’re already ash! I (admittedly inexperienced in the way of house fires) assume that if anything survived a fire, it would be a metal container full of something that had already been burned. Maybe the urn should be upgraded to a fireproof urn.

  10. I had a dorm fire the day before my 2nd semester of junior year of college. I was in the dorm when it caught fire and from the snow-covered road outside I watched it burn to the ground with all of my things inside. All I grabbed was my big winter parka and my shoes. I didn’t know it was a real fire when I climbed down out of my loft and I knew enough from watching fires on TV that only the stupid people go back inside for things.

    I had thought many times over my life about how awful it would be to have a fire with my things in it…and when it actually happened to me…my reaction was so different from how I thought it would be.

    I lost all my journals from my entire life, all my musical instruments, every gift and letter that my mother had given me in the last 5 years of her life and my stuffed koala that I slept with every night…among countless other things…..and it seems so unbearable especially since the fire happened on what would have been my mother’s 55th birthday…three months after she died…on Friday the 13th. It was a “where’s the cancer and the bus that’s coming to run me over” kind of year, for sure.

    But three bewildering days after that fire, I looked over at my roommate and said, “Dude…all our shit burnt up.” and we began laughing hysterically and uncontrollably for quite a long time…and after that…we just had to keep laughing. Cause it was funny….so absolutely absurd of a situation that it had to be funny.

    As a writer and poet I had always relied on my writing to define who I was and once my journals were toast…I realized that I really had no idea who I actually was at that moment and had just been holding on to who I thought I’d been all along and I got to start all over. It was the most freeing and transformative time, the most productive and prolific time of self-discovery I’ve ever had in my life.

    I also learned, the hard way, I guess, that all your stuff…is just that, stuff. After the fire I still had my life to keep me warm and someone to make me laugh…the things that really matter. We become so attached to our things that we forget that the best part about those things are the memories they are attached to and no amount of fire or flames could ever burn that away. I have a totally different kind of relationship to material things now…they’re nice…I don’t take them for granted but if they get lost or broken or stolen…so be it.

    We really only need 5 things to survive in this world–food & water, clothing, shelter, something that drives you–a passion or a dream, and at least one person who loves you in any type of capacity and that’s it. Anything else is just icing on the freakin’ cake. And I am thankful for that icing every single day that I survive.

    • “As a writer and poet…” – Damn does that come through! Your comment is beautifully written and made me tear up a bit. Thank you for sharing your perspective.

    • Your comment helped my fear. I’m a writer, and I’m terrified of losing my laptop with my two novels and planning and research on it. I need to back stuff up really. Really really. But doing that every day after writing? I don’t know… I have to find a way to do this.
      But hearing you say in the end, it was okay… that helps 🙂

  11. I believe I’d grab my cat, assuming I could find/catch him (one of the reasons I have my box-spring and mattress directly on the floor, so he can’t hide under it, and always keep his carrier in an easily accessible spot), and the menorah my great-great-grandfather brought over from Russia in the late 1800’s.

  12. Thank you so much for sharing your perspectives! I live alone with no pets in a major flash flood zone, and have thought often about the “what to grab” scenario. My biggest concern has always been about safety. (If I’m escaping a flash flood, I’m probably going to the roof and it’s not like I can take much with me while I climb up there and wait to see if the building floats away.) And because things — even those with sentimental value — are just things. I’ve learned to appreciate my things more but also hold onto them more loosely, because whether it’s a flood, fire, theft, or just getting old and falling apart, eventually I won’t have them any more. So for now I’m just their guardian.

    For funsies, though: if everyone was safe and I *did* have the chance, for practicality I’d grab clothes and for memories I’d grab my race medals and bibs. Because I hate shopping for clothes — finding stuff that fits right and looks good. So even though my clothes are boring jeans and tshirts, I like them. And my race memorabilia reminds me that I’m stronger than whatever challenge is before me. 🙂

    • I also live in an area prone to flash floods. I thought our apartment was pretty safe though until this summer when in the span of about 5 minutes the outside goes from , huh those are some big puddles, to not being able to open the front door without letting in a wall of water and handing my 6 month old baby out the window to a neighbor. In the couple of minutes I did have I was running around getting what I could onto the bed and tables. Computers, husband’s bag of textbooks, other random things. The cat had to fend for herself until I had the baby safe and had a clear enough head to check the water level and that she could get out okay.
      All in all we were lucky. We lost some things but nothing too precious and due to the quick actions and bailing out of some neighbors the water came to about 3-4 ” in our apartment.
      Some days it seems like everything we own has mud splattered on it somewhere but it could have been much worse

  13. I think about this sometimes and always have trouble coming up with things. I’m not very good about backing up all my digital stuff, so I would want my laptop. Important documents would be good, of course. Everything else… there are a few things I would cry if I lost, like childhood keepsakes, my wedding and engagement rings which sit on the dresser at night, but I think I would be ok after a little while. I keep many things thinking I might need or want them later, but thinking through what I have in this apartment – it’s pretty much all replaceable. On the other hand, if my parents’ house went, I would lose things I care more deeply about. Including the house itself.

    On another note – thinking about the “what if” scenario of having a fire has always kept me from sleeping naked, which I might do otherwise. I don’t want to have to scramble for clothes!

  14. Thankfully, I’ve never been in this situation of having to run out of the house immediately because of fire…in that scenario the only thing I would save is my cat. That said, I live in northern Cali in forest fire country, and this year one of the fires got close enough that I started mentally preparing what to grab if necessary. Basically it amounts to outdoor gear, circus performance gear, and electronics. All replaceable stuff, but would cost thousands. This post has made me realize I should get renter’s insurance ASAP (which I should have had anyway!) because if I didn’t have the luxury of time to pack stuff up, I would be out of luck if it all burnt down. Thanks!

  15. Changed my name, since another Lauren appeared around here in recent times. I live in Queensland, Australia. We have been hit by two, very large cyclones in recent times, though you have sometimes a few days warning for cyclones they are so big there is not really any point in taking anything when you are told to leave your home. We bring everything that is a potential missile inside, or tie it up, sometimes we will put the tarp inside over a bunch of stuff piled up, in case the roof comes off. But honestly, all we take with us is spare clothes, food, water and laptop or book to keep us entertained while you wait it out. Stuff is just stuff.

  16. Thank you for writing, and I’m glad you have recovered well! We had a house fire when I was a teenager – and like some of you, the only thing I had time to “save” was my hysterical mother who was desperate to go into the burning house for photos. We were lucky, most of what we lost was junk in the basement.

    I agree, when it’s a house fire, you get out (with your people and your pets), and forget the rest!

    After being on the edge of evacuation zones for mountain fires (and the huge Colorado flood of 2013), I’ve gotten in the habit of storing my passport, wallet, and backup hard drive in the same spot for easy access, and would probably manage to grab them on the way out in an emergency. We have cloud backups of all photos. When we know in advance that a possible evacuation is coming, we dump camping essentials in the car and keep a small cardboard box near the door with a few small objects that are important connections to people who have passed, and a carry on bag with whatever we might need to make life in a temporary shelter a little easier.

  17. My childhood home burned about 6 months ago, due to some faulty fireworks. I still have nightmares about it.
    I can tell you that I did not think of “things”. I thought, “get the pets out, now”.
    We lost a lot of stuff in the fire, some of which I miss, others not so much. The house belonged to my great-grandmother before we moved in, so we had quite a lot of her (irreplaceable) stuff still, which mostly burned.
    I’ve been talking about writing a book about this, since there’s not a lot of information about dealing with insurance companies and such. Also, I’ve gotten really good at getting smoke out of things 🙂

  18. When our neighbors house caught fire while I was at home, and my boyfriend away at work, I grabbed our birth certificates/SS cards/passports and laptop, tossed them on our bed with my stuffed animals, then bundled them all up in the bedspread and hurried to a corner of the yard just in case the fire spread to our house. The memory of the fire freaked me out for a long time, so I can’t imagine how terrible it must be to lose your own house. 🙁

  19. When I was about 5 we had a house fire started by a faulty plug. Fortunately the door to the room was closed so the fire was quite contained. We were out at the time and I can clearly remember coming home to find a fire engine outside the house and the subsequent panic of my mother. To this day the smell of burning paint makes me panic. One of the most vivid memories I have is from a few days later, the whole house stank of smoke and my mum put all our cuddlies through the wash and hung them on the line. I can still remember what they looked like hanging there by their ears or tails, they looked awfully forlorn. The other thing I remember is the fact that the water used to put the fire out actually did more damage than the fire itself. The fire was confined to one room, but the water damaged the carpets throughout much of the house.
    The fire scarred me mentally and I became a very nervy child. I would burst into tears at any fire alarm, and I still panic and count seconds when the alarms are tested at work. If it sounds for a split second longer than I think it should then I begin to panic.
    As to what I would save were it to happen again. Apart from my husband, child (currently unborn) and our ferrets I don’t think there is anything I would try to save. There is nothing that is not alive that is worth risking your safety for.

  20. December 2009 in the Midwest we had an ice storm and snow lightening (it’s freaky cool if you ever get to see it). I was staying at my sister’s house, and I woke up to a light flash outside my nephew’s window. I realized was it was (a flash from the side of the house; tree limbs fell on the electric lines) and yelled for my brother in law, who was in the room in no time. I grabbed pants & glasses, woke up my niece, and headed downstairs. I stuffed a bra in my purse and by that time we knew the house wasn’t on fire, but had to be ready to go at a moment’s notice. To think, if it really had been a fire, I had grabbed a bra.

    My husband is former military and one of the first things he figures out in a building is his exit strategy. The first time he stayed over at my place he said, “if you have a fire, use that table to break that window like that and go out the window.” We often go over the if/then statements of fires/burglary/etc.

    I can’t even imagine what you’ve been through. So glad it ended up being freeing for you though.

  21. I’m so sorry you went through the pain of this experience, but so glad you found positives from it. Sometimes the things which cause us the most pain bring us the most happiness in the end.

    As the daughter of a firefighter it was drilled into me from a young age what to do in case of a fire. We would often have ‘fire drills’ where my dad would ask us how we could get out of any room in the house, so upstairs would be tying bed sheets together or throwing mattresses out of windows etc. It did not occur to me at the time, but looking back I see he was trying to keep the things he deemed precious safe. Whenever we stayed somewhere new and whenever I moved he would check for fire escapes and an exit strategy. As an adult I see the logic now and do the same.

    As for what I’d grab? My fiancé, and try for the chinchillas, but since they are blighters to catch on a good day it might be shut the door and block the bottom to stop smoke getting in.

  22. In the past I’d have had lots of different answers to this but now they crystallise into one: my four month old. I would like to believe my husband would say the same but I have a sneaking suspicion he’d go for his guitar. (To be fair, he is a guitarist. And he’d probably save the kid first. I think.)

    If I had time I’d also get the box of documents like birth certificates, passports etc for which I really need to get a fire and burglary proof safe. If I had a safe and put those things plus my external hard drive (baby photo backup) in it, I wouldn’t care about anything else. Stuff can be replaced, we have insurance.

    Gotta go get a safe.

    ETA: I’m assuming that my husband is saving himself, here. If he couldn’t, I’d help him too.

  23. I’m not sure what I’d try for except our pets. My husband’s family’s house burned down when he was a teenager, his priority was getting his infant neice out.

  24. Last year, the house we were renting caught fire. I was the only one home, and was relaxing in bed watching Netflix when I noticed the house was getting smoky.

    My first thought was grabbing our fire extinguisher (everyone should have them!!) and trying to put it out myself, but the fire was inside the second apartment downstairs and I couldn’t get to it. Just the billowing smoke… So I grabbed the phone and called 911, threw on some sneakers without socks, and went for the cats. They were both freaked out by the smoke and even more because I was chasing them. I grabbed one, locked him in my car outside, and went back for the second one. No way in hell was I leaving a cat inside. She was hiding under the bed, so I crawled under it and struggled to get her, but I did. I grabbed my hard drive on the way out, too. We waited in the car for the firetrucks to arrive.

    Afterwards, the fire inspector said we were so lucky, because if they’d gotten the call five minutes later, the house would have been gone. Luckily the damage was contained to the basement and the kitchen of the basement apartment. The fire was caused by a fault in the hot water heater. I’d also like to note that not one fire alarm went off. The landlord upgraded the system after that.

    I found out later that week a coworker’s house had also caught fire, but it was much worse. She’d been asleep. She lost her kitten.

    Since then, I’ve traded in my plastic file box for a fireproof safe, got a storage bed so the cats can’t hide under it, and pay for a cloud backup service for every device in the house. (Crashplan—highly recommended—if anyone else is shopping around.)

    I get panic attacks if an alarm goes off unexpectedly. If my glasses are dirty or catch the light in the wrong way, my mind immediately jumps to thinking it’s smoke. We just moved into an apartment with a gas stove and using it scares the crap out of me. I made bread last night and couldn’t catch my breath the whole time.

    I even have the occasional nightmare of coming home to find the house on fire.

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