As wildfires burn across California, people should not flee their homes without these documents

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When fleeing a natural disaster, your instinct might be to grab a laptop or a treasured keepsake like a family photo album. But what about your car insurance policy or your tax returns?

People need to assume they won’t be back for a very long time.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a statewide emergency as multiple wildfires burned across the state, including a massive blaze in the state’s wine country and other fires around Los Angeles and San Francisco. Nearly 200,000 people were ordered to evacuate because of a fire burning in Sonoma County, and more residents in other parts of the state could be forced to leave their homes on a moment’s notice.

Three fires alone — the Kincade, Tick and Getty fires — are threatening nearly 1,000 homes, which would cost around $535 million to reconstruct, according to an analysis from property data firm CoreLogic.

Read more: Major flooding in the South is a cautionary tale for all homeowners

For the millions of residents across the Golden State, having a “financial go bag” ready will be crucial to ensure that they can bounce back financially after a wildfire if it destroys their home. And that’s certainly a possibility. The Camp Fire, which burned last year, destroyed 18,804 structures, including the entire town of Paradise, Calif.

People need to assume they won’t be back for a very long time, said Tiffany Ballard, a wealth manager with Bergland Wealth Management, based in Ridgeland, Miss. There is a temptation to take bare essentials in a waterproof bag, she said. “The better alternative is storing critical files in a portable bin that stays ready to be packed in the car for travel,” she said.

MarketWatch asked personal-finance experts and financial advisers what they should include to secure their finances during and after a natural disaster:

Pack IDs, medical documents and wills

Bring IDs such as a driver’s license, passport, Social Security card or birth certificate for all members of the household. Also pack health insurance cards and emergency contact information for friends or relatives. People should also bring along anything they would normally keep in their wallets, including credit cards.

Medical information is critical, including copies of prescriptions, medicine lists and contact information for doctors. To prepare for the absolute worst, travel with estate documents, such as their will or power of attorney.

With power outages, cash is king in a natural disaster.

Cash is king in a natural disaster. With power outages likely, many businesses won’t be able to accept credit cards. And leaving cash behind is a dicey proposition when one’s home is at risk. “Do you like to keep an abundance of cash available? If so, be sure to grab it to avoid losing it in a flood or fire,” said Tad Herrington, a senior financial planner with private financial planning firm John E. Sestina and Co. in Columbus, Ohio.

Given that banks may remain closed for an extended period of time and ATMs may be damaged depending on the severity of the disaster, consumers should plan to take a sizeable amount of cash. Ideally, they should split the money among responsible members of their household and carry it in a traveler’s money belt for safe keeping, said Ken Robinson, senior adviser at Practical Financial Planning, an advisory firm located in Cleveland, Ohio.

If any bills or regular monthly payments are not set up for auto-pay, consumers should also bring along their checkbook and addresses for where payments need to be made.

Read more: How to find a contractor after a hurricane

Bring along proof of assets

Ballard recommends creating a “vital document locator. “This is a simple document that details a summary of one’s financial life in the event of a sudden loss,” she said.

Pack all insurance policies and deeds to any property or vehicle titles.

Pack all insurance policies and deeds to any property or vehicle titles.

Also bring bank and investment account statements, including contact information for the relevant financial institutions, information regarding any outstanding loans, tax returns from recent years and any paper stock certificates or bonds.

A USB drive with photos or videos of any property to archive its state and contents prior to the disaster is also important to consider. This should be updated regularly, since it will serve as a vital resource when assessing any damages as a result of the natural disaster. The photos and videos also can be uploaded to a cloud service like Dropbox DBX, -0.05%  or Google Drive GOOG, -0.11%.

Also see: Why trip insurance may not help if Hurricane Florence ruins your cruise vacation

Don’t rely on a safe — do rely on the cloud

Empty your safe. While a water- and fire-proof safe is good to have, it’s not foolproof. The safe and home may both be destroyed, said Joshua Mungavin, a wealth manager at Evensky & Katz/Foldes Financial, a wealth management firm based in Coral Gables, Fla.

The safe and home may both be destroyed.

Safe deposit boxes at a bank are one option, but uploading those documents to the cloud is better, experts say. For $75 a year, Everplans provides an encrypted digital archive of financial and estate documents. It also allows users to designate a deputy who can gain access to the information if the account holder is somehow incapacitated.

The digital note-taking service Evernote can also be used to upload and organize photos and docments, and Cryptee, an encrypted digital cloud service, also allows users to upload documents, photos and videos for safekeeping. A premium Evernote account costs $7.99 for each user per month, while Cryptee costs $3 a month for $10 gigabytes of storage. Free storage options include Google Drive and Dropbox.

Consider carrying passwords with you

If you’re the type of person who saves their account passwords to their computer and then forgets about them, you need to have a back-up plan in place in case the computer is destroyed. But writing down a password on paper is an extremely risky proposition.

One option is to save these passwords on an encrypted Microsoft Excel MSFT, +1.25%  spreadsheet on a password-protected USB drive. Alternatively, consumers should consider signing up for a password manager. Services like Dashlane or Lastpass only require users to know one password and can be accessed on the go using a mobile device.

This story was updated on Oct. 30, 2019.

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