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Flames lick the sky along the 101 Freeway in Ventura as residents evacuate the Thomas Fire.

The reality during this week’s wildfires in Ventura County could happen in Malibu at any time: Wind is whipping, your nerves are on edge, you smell smoke, hear sirens and finally see flames appear close to your home. Although some stay to fight a blaze and would have it no other way to try to save their homes, most evacuate as authorities urge. Many Malibu residents have lived through this experience already--some more than once.

Evacuation plans can often make the difference between life and death and many of us don’t have a plan on what to do should a fire force us to scramble out of our homes—sometimes with only moment’s notice. Fire and other safety officials recommend everyone have a plan to escape. It could save your life and make things easier to bear should your home and possessions be lost after a wildfire. And don’t wait. Officials urge evacuating as soon as possible if given advance warning. Waiting to evacuate could possibly mean fleeing with loss of power, in heavier smoke and alongside hordes of neighbors fleeing with you down clogged, narrow streets—even the possibility of contact with flames.

Time and space will be at a premium in an emergency. If you’re prepared, you’re likely to panic less, keep your wits about you and follow your preset plan. Pack a bag with medications, eyeglasses, passports, other essential papers and your computer if evacuation is imminent. These items are not easily replicable so keep them together and easy to reach. Underwear and a change of clothes is important since you could be away from home for a while. Sturdy shoes and a jacket would be ideal to pack if there’s time. Cash, IDs, keys, checkbooks, cell phones and such can be loaded in a handbag. Many people have told The Malibu Times that while rushing to leave they forgot their purses.

If there’s room, consider taking camping supplies with you--a sleeping bag, tent, pillow, flashlight loaded with batteries—along with an AM/FM radio to hear news updates.

Pets, livestock and other animals need their own evacuation plans. Often there are sites and organizations to help in these emergencies. Make contact in advance so your animals have shelter. Often, veterinary hospitals will take in house pets that have no other place to go. Don’t forget their medications or other essentials.

As for cherished family items, photos and artwork, experts say if gathering them jeopardizes you or your family’s safety, do not waste precious time trying to retrieve them. “Don’t be a hero” trying to save your property, Malibu’s Public Safety Manager Susan Dueñas told The Malibu Times. The best advice is to record on video your home and its contents, not only as a keepsake and remembrance of your belongings, but also as evidence for an insurance company in case you need to file a claim. Dueñas suggested a time-stamped video or picture that can be presented to an insurance company, “so there’s no question if your home is partially damaged that any insurance company can argue about whether that happened before or after some other incident.”

Your best bet is to keep your video or digitized log of your possessions in another location than your home, such as a safe deposit box or at your workplace to ensure another layer of security—or save a version online.

If you have an emergency supply or first aid kit, pack it with you in case someone is hurt. It’s advised to include a bandanna, glasses or goggles to protect against smoke, plus a quality dust mask.

Another important point concerning evacuations is the use of electric cars. Electric vehicles are preferable to drive in a fire evacuation because they are able to operate in heavy smoke. Regular, gas-powered internal combustion engine cars can stall out in heavy smoke when the air filter is clogged with smoke and ash and when all the oxygen is depleted. While it’s possible that drivers and passengers could survive for a little while with the buffer of air inside a car’s cabin area, there have been many reported cases of traditional cars stalling resulting in deaths of those fleeing a wildfire, including last year’s huge blaze in Santa Rosa that killed 41. If you don’t have access to an electric vehicle, that’s just another reason to make sure you evacuate as early as possible.

Dueñas also reminded to make sure you know how to operate your garage door manually in case there’s no power to operate it. She said many people in the Thomas Fire had their cars packed and ready to leave when the power went out and they were stuck in a garage. “That’s really critical,” Dueñas shared.

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