During my risk management days, campus clients frequently asked me for a checklist. “Just give us a checklist and we can review the risk ourselves,” they’d offer. I’d politely refuse, explaining that every situation is unique and requires separate analysis. What I didn’t say is that checklists take the thinking out of risk management — and that over time, self-interested risk assessors find a way to check every box whether they’ve conscientiously evaluated the risks or not.

But checklists can be useful when the risk is high and time is short. So after a thick blanket of wildfire smoke smothered our part of the Bay Area last week and we could sense our local emergency services people starting to sweat, The Fabulous Wife and I put together a checklist of what to take with us, in what priority, if we received an evacuation order:

  1. Our cats. Life before stuff.
  2. Our cats’ necessities, including food, a clean litterbox (no guarantee either will be readily available where we wind up), and ID tags (in case the babies run off).
  3. Our wallets and keys. Especially the car key — we won’t get far without that.
  4. Eyeglasses. I definitely won’t get far without those, and at this stage of life, The Fabulous Wife probably won’t either.
  5. Prescription medications. Fortunately we don’t have many, but we shouldn’t risk going without them for a prolonged period.
  6. A folder containing our most important papers: birth certificates, passports, marriage certificate, etc. In addition to providing identification, they’d be a pain to replace.
  7. Our cell phones and chargers, so we can communicate.
  8. Our laptops and chargers, so we can follow the news and play Spider Solitaire.
  9. Extra clothing, including masks.
  10. Toiletries, although if time runs short just toothbrushes and hairbrushes will do.
  11. Sentimental items like old photo albums.
  12. Ready-to-eat food, the less messy the better.
  13. Blankets and pillows — we may need to sleep in the car.
  14. Paper goods, including tissues, paper towels, and toilet paper.
  15. Lanterns or flashlights.

Although we did some pre-packing, we didn’t test whether everything would fit in our little car because we didn’t need to: the danger has passed (for now, anyway). But the last six items, which are the bulkiest, are the lowest priority, so if they take up too much room we’ll leave them behind. We’ll pay in discomfort, but probably not for long, especially if we remember our wallets and the credit cards inside them.

And, of course, in a worst case scenario, we’ll dispense with everything except the cats and run for our lives.

Developing the checklist has been a worthwhile exercise. The fires this time are tens of miles away. We haven’t had a wildfire within sight in nearly thirty years. But dry-season conflagrations have become California’s new normal, and if a torrent of embers ever comes flying over the Berkeley hills on a late-summer diablo wind, we won’t have to think about how to respond.

One last thing: a huge thank-you to the firefighters and their support network. You exemplify the best of public service.

What Berkeley hills?

Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.