This post is from staff writer April Dykman, who recently wrote about ceviche and how to peel shrimp like a Hawaiian.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how hot it was in the Lone Star State. The update is that we’re literally on fire.

Wildfires have destroyed hundreds of homes in central Texas, and they’re breaking out all over the state (more than 60 fires so far). We were at dinner last night when my mom received four phone calls in quick succession — all family members and friends checking to see if we were okay. In the few hours since we left the house, another wildfire was reported north of Austin and less than 10 miles from our home. That fire evacuated 500 people, burned 300 acres, and destroyed at least 13 homes, but it’s not nearly as big as the one 25 miles east of Austin, which has destroyed 34,000 acres and nearly 550 homes.

This led to a conversation about how prepared we were if we had to evacuate at some point, whether in the near future or even years from now. Would any of us be prepared for such an emergency? Mom said she wanted to make a plan, and Dad agreed that it’s not a bad idea. “People have done crazy things during emergency evacuations,” he said. “I’ve heard of people having minutes to leave and taking out the trash.” And minutes is about how long people in our area have had to evacuate, as a combination of drought and wind created the perfect storm for deadly and fast-moving wildfires.

The go bag
Vali Hawkins Mitchell, Ph.D., the leading authority on emotional continuity management and author of “Emotional Terrors in the Workplace: Protecting Your Business’ Bottom Line,” wrote about human behavior during an emergency in the article Creating a Go Bag [PDF]:

During a voluntary or mandatory evacuation there just won’t be time to think through your choices calmly. You may not be interested in the complex workings of neurology and brain perception that are triggered during crisis. But if you are interested in emotional continuity management you know that people in crisis do really predictably crazy things…When something unexpected happens, people naturally try to grab and protect belongings. This is normal behavior. Unfortunately, normal doesn’t cut it during a disaster! It is heart wrenching to see people run back into burning homes desperately trying to retrieve pets or valuables and come out with a phone book, an old pillow, a teaspoon, and a broken heart. Trust me on this. You don’t want to be one of those people.

As I sit in my home office, sipping coffee and typing on a laptop, I think to myself, “Surely I’d know to grab the cat, computer, safe box, and camera and make sure my wedding rings were on my finger before running out the door.” But that’s not necessarily the person I’ll be if I get a call or that knock on the door telling me that I have 5 minutes to get out of my house. That’s a scary and highly emotional situation. It’s easy to understand why a person wouldn’t be able to think clearly.

Create your own emergency bag
Mitchell’s idea of creating a “go bag” is a practical solution that won’t take much prep time. You’ll need a backpack, preferably made from water-resistant material. You probably have one already, but if not, check around at discount and thrift stores. You don’t have to spend a lot of money to be prepared for an emergency. You’ll also need a notebook and pen. Here’s the plan:

  1. Put some basic survival items in your go bag, such as an old pair of glasses, medications for at least three days, a portable self-charging radio, granola bars, a flashlight and extra batteries, etc. Mitchell also recommends one change of clothes and some cash in small bills.
  2. Go into each room of your house and list everything you’d want to take with you in an emergency. All of these items must fit in the backpack together. Record each item in your notebook.
  3. List one or two items that you would hand-carry out (If you can fit them in the bag, that’s even better, but if not, they go on a separate list.). For me, that would be the cat in her pet carrier and the safe box. Record those items in your notebook.
  4. Create a “go list” to keep inside your bag. This is a list of tasks to complete as you head out the door. Make sure you can complete the list alone, Mitchell advises. If there happen to be others with you during the evacuation, you can assign them tasks. Your list might have the following tasks: turn off gas, pack prescription medication, put dog in pet carrier, pack cell phones, lock doors.
  5. Create another list with phone numbers, passwords, and e-mail addresses. Gather any originals or copies of valuable documents, which might include credit card numbers, Social Security cards, birth certificates, passports, bank account information, discs of photos for insurance purposes, and a utility bill to provide proof of where your home is (or was) located. Need help getting started? GRS-reader Erik Dewey created a life-affairs organizer you can download free of charge.
  6. Store your go bag in a secure, easy-to-reach place.

After you’ve finished creating your own go bag and emergency plan, you can create a bag for each member of your family. Mitchell then recommends creating a 15-minute plan, 30-minute plan, and 60-minute plan, in case you have more time to evacuate.

It doesn’t sound like much of a time investment to make a go bag, but the payoffs could be huge if you’re ever in the unfortunate position to have only 5 minutes to leave your home.

What else would you include on the list of must-brings and to-dos? If you’ve had to evacuate your home or cope with a disaster, tell us about your experience in the comments.