That was the dilemma faced by Bryan Nemire, a 2009 graduate of Edison High School, when the California wildfires forced him to leave his apartment in Calabasas, outside of Los Angeles.
“If you asked me right now what I should take, I could give you a pretty good idea,” Nemire said. “But in the moment, when you’re being forced to evacuate, your brain goes blank and I was just walking around my apartment trying to figure it out.”
Nemire is among the hundreds of people displaced from the region due to widespread fire. And on Friday, national media outlets reported more than 600 people are listed as unaccounted for from the impacted California regions.
Butte County spokeswoman Miranda Bowersox said the "unaccounted for" list released by the sheriff's office is an effort to put names out there so people can call in to report their status.
Nemire, a native of Berlin Heights, moved to California two years ago to do crop research at Driscoll’s Berries. He left work early last Thursday because a wildfire threatened to shut down the freeway he needed to get home.
But when he arrived back at his apartment, he found out another fire was less than six miles north of him, and he could see it approaching from over the hills.
“When you first see the fire it’s an orange-red glow over the mountains, but it spans for miles, so the hills all just look red,” Nemire said. “But then when the fire crests over that final hill, that’s when you can see the flames and you know it’s time to go.”
As the fire approached, Nemire was given the mandatory evacuation at about 9 p.m. last Thursday. He took with him the essentials.
“You take anything valuable to you or that you think could be useful,” Nemire said. “I had two hours before I had to evacuate so I had some time, but, unfortunately, you can never take as much as you want.”
Nemire decided to take his passports, insurance documents, five days worth of clothes, camping equipment and items of sentimental value like photos. He loaded the belongings into his car and left.
Nemire was struck by how chaotic the evacuation was as he joined the other people fleeing from the fire. There was no electricity, traffic signals were down and he could barely see as he drove because of all of the smoke.
“It’s crazy how chaotic it all becomes,” Nemire said. “There were people driving down the wrong side of the freeway because they got to a certain point and then were forced to turn around because of the fires.”
Nemire originally planned to go to a friend’s home to stay, but his friend was then evacuated as well, and he was forced to go to a shelter in Woodland Hills. When he first arrived at the shelter, there were only about 40 people and decided to try to get some sleep.
“It was hard to sleep because everyone was just worrying about what they left behind,” Nemire said.
When he finally fell asleep and woke up again, he found that the shelter had filled as more people were evacuated and there weren’t enough cots for everyone.
Nemire’s home was threatened by the Woolsey Fire, which has burned across more than 98,000 acres and killed three people. The other fire, the Camp Fire, is farther north in the Sierra Nevada foothills. There, the old gold mining town of Paradise that blossomed into a working-class retirement community of 27,000 has seen fires claim more than 14,000 structures and 77 lives.
Wildfires are particularly dangerous in California because of how dry vegetation acts like kindling.
“I think the one thing that’s hard to understand is how dry everything is,” Nemire said. “It’s so wet in Ohio, but then you get out here and it’s only rained a half-inch since April.”
Then, once the fire starts, the Santa Ana winds accelerate its growth and can make it travel across the wilderness toward towns at alarming speeds.
“They can travel faster than you can run,” Nemire said. “It’s a unique perspective just seeing it.”
Nemire said the morning after he was evacuated he got as close as they would allow to his apartment and saw the fires burning in the distance.
“I could see fire all around, but I hardly saw any firefighters because there just aren’t enough people,” Nemire said. “Once they protect the homes they just move on to the next community.”
Nemire was allowed to return to his apartment, which survived the fires, on Wednesday. But development close to his lost about 15 homes.
He still can’t stay in the apartment because of the soot and smoke left from the fire could be dangerous to people’s health, so he’s staying with friends until he can arrange to have his apartment cleaned.