by Linda Masterson, author of Surviving Wildfire

Tip #1: Never Say “It’s Just Stuff”

“Thank God you got out alive. Everything else is just stuff that can be replaced.” People mean well, but you may make survivors feel guilty about mourning personal treasures that truly can never be replaced. And since more than half of all homeowners are underinsured, many people will not be able to replace their home and all that stuff. The loss of your home is like a death in the family. A thoughtful response is “I’m so sorry for your loss, and so happy you are okay. What can we do to help?”

Tip #2: Take Time to Listen to Survivors

People need the enormity of what has happened to them to be acknowledged. When you’re on the listening end, avoid rationalizing why it’s not as bad as it could have been. It’s BAD.

Tip #3: Offer Your Time and Talents, both Priceless to Survivors

A survivor’s to-do list is overwhelming. Help crossing things off is invaluable. Don’t say, “If you need anything, just call.” People need everything, but asking for help is hard. Offer to do something specific, or even better, just do it.

Could you help sort through debris, research items and values, take the children for an afternoon, or make a home-cooked meal? There are dozens of ways big and small to help. One of the best gifts we got was a spreadsheet template for recording our contents inventory on the computer.

Tip #4: Send Notes, Cards and Photos

Emails and phone calls are immediate, but those handwritten notes and cards remind survivors every day that someone cares.

Losing your family photos is heartbreaking. Old photos make a great gift. Photos that show their home and belongings will help survivors do their insurance inventory (digital photos can easily be shared with their adjustor).

Tip #5: Give Gift Cards

Gift cards to home centers, restaurants, grocery stores and office supply stores are always handy. The tab for our first shopping trip for basic necessities was more than $1,300. Gift cards let people choose what they want and need, and help restore a feeling of control.

Tip #6: Think About Necessities That Are Needed Now

In the first few months after the wildfire people need:
• In-season clothes, nightwear, jackets and sweaters; working folks need office attire
• Shoes, boots, slippers, socks
• Old clothes, boots, hats and gloves for safely digging through their debris
• Backpacks, tote bags, caddy
• Office supplies for working on their claim (daily calendar, notebooks, file folders, calculator, etc.)
• First aid kit and personal care items
• Pet and livestock supplies
• Portable storage containers
• Cooler

Tip #7: Offer Things That Bring Comfort and Smiles

Losing everything is both humbling and disorienting. The sooner you have a few things that go beyond the basics and are “yours,” the sooner you start to feel like a person again.
• Snuggly throws and blankets
• New pillows and pillow cases
• Cuddly stuffed animals; people of all ages admit to curling up with a teddy bear
• Toys, cards, games
• Books and magazines
• iPod with iTunes gift card
• A journal, nice pens, notecards and thank you notes (and stamps)
• A gift basket of treats like chocolates, cookies and fresh fruit
• Pet beds and toys
• Digital camera
• Cheery coffee mugs; insulated travel mugs

Tip #8: Help Store Those Big Donations

It will be months before most people need – or have a place to put – furniture, beds and major appliances and other household goods. Can you store items for a survivor or organize a community storage center? By the time people need these items, temporary relief centers are often closed.

Tip #9: Assist at the Community Level

Ask your County Emergency Services Manager what is being done to help survivors and how you can get involved. Also reach out to the homeowner associations and your volunteer fire department.

Every community is unique; just start asking questions and you’ll find families who need help. Is there a community gathering place where survivors can get together for support and to trade tips and sources? If not, can you help set up one? After the devastating High Park Fire in northern Colorado, a vacant department store that was turned into a donation center became a haven where survivors could come and find things they needed and talk to others in their shoes.

Tip #10: Keep Reaching Out; It’s a Long Road Back for Survivors

It takes an average of one to two years for someone who has lost their home to get back on their feet and find their way back to “normal.” By staying in touch in the months and years ahead, you’ll know what people need as their situations change.

Every holiday and special occasion brings with it reminders of what has been lost. Organize events around changing seasons or upcoming holidays, or establish regular events like a monthly potluck.