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What Fire Evacuees Grab with Seconds to Spare

For those who had time to escape the wildfires of 2017 in California, the question was what do we grab? As flames barreled toward their homes, devouring block after block, residents had 15 minutes—in some cases, 15 seconds— to grab what they needed.

A musician opted for the violin. A golfer grabbed his clubs. A bride-to-be remembered her dress. Many dived for the practical—toiletries and clothes. Others fumbled though boxes and old photo albums, desperate to save memories.

One woman grabbed diapers, wipes, and clothes for her kids, but nothing for herself. An 82-year-old woman grabbed her walker and—of all things—a hairbrush, but forgot her husband's thyroid medication. As Tonia Whitaker, 31, sat with her kids on a blanket in the corner of the Petaluma Community Center shelter, her voice quivered as she went down a list of things that could currently be in flames: sonograms, her children's first teeth, their umbilical cords, the new bike her older son recently got for his seventh birthday, and all of his unopened presents.

At least one man, 57-year-old Michael Dornbach, died refusing to leave something behind. "I'm not leaving without my truck," Dornbach told his nephew, who begged him to flee without the vehicle.

A clinical psychologist noted: "We're so used to being in control and so used to making decisions all the time. But in situations like these when our lives are reduced to what we can grab in 30 minutes ... and we have to live with the consequences with our decisions under duress, then we question ourselves."

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