On December 30, 2021, a grassland fire surprised the residents of Boulder County, forcing 30,000-plus people to quickly evacuate their homes. In just a few hours, the Marshall Fire destroyed more than 1,000 structures in Louisville, Superior, and unincorporated parts of the county.

Unfortunately, climate change has made blazes like the Marshall Fire increasingly unpredictable, says Brian Bovaird, director of emergency management in Summit County. That, in turn, has made them harder to fight—and given them a better chance of reaching the places people live. More than ever, Bovaird says, residents of fire-prone areas should be prepared for disaster.

One of the easiest ways to prepare? Put together an emergency to-go kit (also called a go bag) with everything you need in case you’re forced to evacuate your neighborhood. The kits, which include simple needs like food and water and longer-term necessities, such as access to important documents, could save evacuees trouble—and, most importantly, they could save their lives.

“The big things people need when they get out immediately are going to be medications, any kind of specialized food, like baby or pet food, and cash, because a lot of times ATMs will be non-operational if there’s widespread power outages,” Bovaird says. “If people can have the basics to not rely on 911 for about 72 hours, they’re just going to be in a much better position in terms of safety and general comfortability.”

Ideally, Coloradans will have a full go-kit stored in an easily accessible space, like a closet or storage space close to an exit, a garage, or under the bed. The kit should be packed in something easy to carry, like a plastic bin or duffel bag. Having an additional kit in the car and a smaller one at work is also a good idea. Below, Bovaird walks you through everything you should consider.

The Essentials

Bovaird recommends Front Rangers scan the FEMA Ready Program on Summit County’s website and have everything listed under the “build a kit” section, designed to last evacuees at least 72 hours. These items include but are not limited to:

  • One gallon of water per household member for drinking and sanitation
  • A three-day supply of nonperishable food, such as canned foods, dried fruits, nuts, peanut butter, protein bars, or jerky
  • A flashlight with extra batteries
  •  A manual can opener
  • A whistle
  • Wrench or pliers
  • A dust mask to help filter contaminated air
  • Moist towelettes, plastic bags, and twist ties to help with sanitation
  • A battery-powered or hand crank radio
  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Weather Radio with a tone alert (these radios broadcast alerts from the National Weather Service Office)
  • A first-aid kit
  • Essential medications
  • Cell phone and charger
  • Local maps, in case GPS is unavailable

Additional Items That Are Good to Have

Once you have the basics covered, there are other things you can add to make an evacuation slightly less stressful, including:

  •  Masks
  •  Feminine care and personal hygiene supplies
  • Eyeglasses
  • A change of clothes
  • Cash and/or checks
  • Baby formula/food and pet food for those applicable
  • Non-prescription medications, such as pain relievers
  • Copies of insurance policies, identification, and bank account records saved electronically or in a waterproof, portable container
  • Fire extinguisher
  • Matches in a waterproof container
  • Mess kits
  • Paper and pencil
  • Books, games, puzzles, or other activities for children

Of course, preparation should extend beyond packing a go bag. “There are so many different complexities that go into evacuations,” Bovaird says. “A kit is not going to solve all of those issues.” He recommends families discuss an evacuation plan ahead of time, like what to do if a family member is home alone or if the kids are at school.

Bovaird also wants Coloradans to be ready to heed evacuation messages. “People often look to verify [the evacuation] message,” he says. “They say, ‘wait a minute, is this a mistake, is this really accurate?’ ” But that delays the evacuation process and puts residents at greater risk.

Coloradans can sign up for Colorado Emergency Alert notifications by visiting tchd.org, which lists systems based on the county they cover. For more information, visit the Summit County emergency preparedness site or Ready.gov.

(Read more: A Coloradan’s Guide to Surviving the End of the World)