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What to Pack in Your Emergency Bag to Prepare For a Wildfire

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KQED's recommendations for what to have in your emergency bag in the case of a natural disaster during the COVID-19 pandemic.
KQED's recommendations for what to have in your emergency bag in the case of a natural disaster during the COVID-19 pandemic.  (Pexels)

This story was updated on May 19, 2023.

Leer en español.

Across California, hot, dry and windy weather conditions immediately makes residents brace for wildfires.

An increased wildfire risk also increases the likelihood that power outages from public safety power shutoffs may take place, to prevent fires from sparking.

label="Evacuation 101"

We’ve gathered on what should be in your emergency bag with advice from San Francisco’s Neighborhood Emergency Response Team (NERT), Listos California Emergency Preparedness Campaign (guide available in English and Spanish), Cal Fire, the American Red Cross and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And because the pandemic isn’t over, we have tips for COVID considerations when it comes to your “go bag” too.

  • Have questions or advice on wildfire preparation during the pandemic? Let us know here.

What should be in my go bag?

An emergency bag list:

  • Map marked with at least two evacuation routes
  • Medication, supplies and home-use medical devices
  • Medications list: include all prescriptions and other important medical information
  • An extra set of keys
  • Eyeglasses or contact lenses
  • A change of clothes
  • Cash in small bills
  • First-aid kit
  • Flashlight
  • A portable radio and batteries
  • Charging cables for your cellphone and a portable cellphone battery pack
  • A copy of your ID and other important documents (birth certificates, passports, etc.)
  • Baby supplies, if applicable
  • Water: one gallon a person, per day (three-day supply for evacuation, two-week supply for home)
  • Food: nonperishable, easy-to-prepare items (three-day supply for evacuation, two-week supply for home)
  • COVID safety: N95 masks or similar, plus hand sanitizer.

Remember: You may have to walk to safety, so pack your emergency supplies in something that’s durable and easy to carry, such as a backpack or duffle bag. For heavier items, such as food and water, using a tub or chest on wheels may make it easier to transport — but make sure it’s still light enough to lift.

Pet emergency bag list: Cal Fire’s list of items for pet owners includes:

  • A carrier for each pet
  • Vaccination and medical records, proof of ownership, a current photo, contact information for the pet’s veterinarian
  • Two week supply of food and water
  • Food and water bowls that are non-spill
  • A pet first aid kit
  • Medications and instructions on dosing
  • A cat litter box and litter
  • Waste disposal bags
  • Paper towels and newspaper
  • Disinfectant
  • Leashes/collars/harnesses
  • Blankets
  • Toys and treats

Make sure your pets have collars with identification, rabies and license tags. Check to make sure your contact information is up to date.

For more information on transporting pets, larger animals and livestock, check Cal Fire’s animal evacuation guide, and read our story on how to plan for wildfires if you have pets or livestock.

Items to take if time and space allow:

  • Easily carried valuables
  • Personal computer information on hard drives and disks
  • Extra chargers for cellphones, laptops, etc.
  • Family photos and other irreplaceable items
  • Emergency blanket, extra blankets or sleeping bags
  • Can opener
  • Games and activities for children

Where should I keep my go bag and other essentials?
According to Cal Fire PIO Heather Williams, keeping your bag by your front door or in your car is best. Anywhere you can easily grab it and go.

Having to evacuate your home due to threat of wildfire is a scary prospect — especially if you’ve never had to do it before. Read our guide to safely and swiftly leaving your home, from when you should leave to what you should bring (and what you should wear.)


How can I prepare my home?

If you live in a fire-prone area, it’s important to make sure your home is prepared though home hardening and maintaining a defensible space to increase the chance of your home’s survival in the case of a wildfire.

Depending on where you live, you can request for a Cal Fire inspector to come to your property and assess your home for defensible space. You can also conduct a self-assessment of your home’s defensible space that’ll help you identify where any weaknesses may lie, and address them.

Should we turn off our natural gas?
If you need to evacuate immediately, you should follow evacuation orders and leave.

However, if you have the time, FEMA and Cal Fire recommend that you turn off the gas supply. First locate the shutoff valve, which is usually located close to your gas meter. Using a 12-15 inch wrench, turn off the gas by turning the hand wheel clockwise so that it is perpendicular to the pipe. You should also turn off any propane tanks.

how to turn off your gas safely
PG&E diagram on how to turn off your gas safely. (PG&E/https://www.pge.com/)

Do not turn your natural gas back on by yourself after an evacuation. PG&E crews will inspect each meter and turn it back on.

What should I know about COVID and evacuation centers?

Even though COVID precautions feel very different in 2023 to the measures imposed during the height of the pandemic, you may still want to consider your COVID risks during evacuation shelters.

The CDC’s guidance on visiting an evacuation shelter during the pandemic states that if you are preparing to go to a shelter and want to lower the risk of a possible COVID infection, make sure your go bag has items like a N95 mask and hand sanitizer that can help protect you and others from the virus. You should also be staying up to date with COVID vaccines and the bivalent booster, to reduce your risks of severe illness from COVID and making it less likely that you will need medical services while hospitals are under strain from the emergency.

How do you get information on fires prior to evacuation?

You should monitor local alerting systems for the most up-to-date emergency information and instructions. It’s best to set up multiple ways to receive emergency weather alerts:

  • Sign up to get your county’s wireless emergency alerts from the governor’s Office of Emergency Services, which are also available in Spanish.
  • Monitor Cal Fire’s online incident map and download its app, where you can create a readiness plan and learn about imminent threats to your area.
  • Listen to NOAA Weather Radio, which broadcasts information from the nearest National Weather Service station.
  • Follow the Bay Area National Weather Service’s Twitter alerts.

You can also consult our county-by-county list of regional safety alerts, including Nixle.

What can I do if I can’t use my smartphone to connect with family and friends?

“We’ve become so reliant on smartphones. And when it fails us, there is that panic moment,” said Capt. Erica Arteseros of San Francisco’s Fire Department, who is the program coordinator for NERT. “So, we always recommend to identify an out-of-state person to be a check-in contact.”

Here's How to Prepare for Fire Season

Arteseros said you should send a text message to that out-of-state person with the time and your location, even if you don’t have wireless service, because that text message will eventually get to that person. Phone calls will fail when cell towers are down for either you or your contact, but text messages work on a relay system between emergency beacons on cell towers, so they are more likely to reach people than voice messages and phone calls.

It’s also a good idea to update your social media profiles on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram to let friends and family know your status, including where you are and when you will update your status again. This allows people to know when to expect information from you and will save cellphone battery, allowing you to go without cell service and Wi-Fi for a little while, if you must.

Remember, some smartphones allow you to change settings to make calls over Wi-Fi, and some apps like Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp allow Wi-Fi phone calls.

Read more about how to keep communicating with loved ones during a disaster situation in our guide.

Will I miss important news because I don’t have a smartphone?
Not necessarily. Counties increasingly rely on the WEA system — wireless emergency alerts that by and large are delivered to cellphones through the IPAWS system, the federal integrated public alert and warning system. Those alerts also go to NOAA Weather Radios, which operate on emergency cranks or battery power. NOAA weather radios broadcast official warnings, watches, forecasts and other hazard information consistently.

You can also sign up to get Nixle alerts, which can come via texts, voice messages and emails. If you have a friend, family member or neighbor who does have a smartphone, set up a system so they can get you important info.

How can I make sure I don’t lose treasured personal items in an evacuation situation?

Arteseros recommends building a special box that you can take with your go bag.

Those items would include heirlooms, photos and scrapbooks — anything that you consider special in your life that you would be devastated to lose, but is not practical for the go bag.

What should I do about my neighbors?

“Make a plan,” Arteseros said. She said it’s important to know who your neighbors are. You can help them make a go bag if they don’t have one, and make sure they have a way to escape, especially if they don’t have a car. (Keep your gas tank full.)

“We don’t want anyone waiting for a neighbor that just can’t get ready,” she said. “But it is important for everyone to look out for each other when something happens.”

We want to know what your questions and concerns are about wildfire preparation during the pandemic. Fill in the form below and let us know:

  • What questions you have about preparing for wildfires?
  • What you’re doing to prepare for power shutoffs
  • Anything else on your mind around wildfires, power shutoffs and COVID.

KQED’s Molly Peterson, Danielle Venton and Michelle Wiley contributed to this report.


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