Imagine you're suddenly forced to flee your home, knowing that wildfires will turn it and everything inside it into ash. (For many in southern California, this nightmare has been happening.)

Ask yourself if you would rather:

A. Evacuate your family to a shelter with your important papers in hand, a comfortable pile of savings in the bank, and a general understanding of your homeowner's insurance policy.

B. Evacuate your family to a shelter with your important papers about to burn to a crisp, enough money in the bank to last until your next paycheck, and no earthly idea what to expect from your homeowner's insurance.

While sitting in relative comfort in your cubicle's ergonomic office chair, you'll doubtless pick A. But if you haven't taken the necessary steps to prepare yourself for an emergency, you've eliminated any choice you have. You've already picked B.

No time to spare
An emergency doesn't wait for you to find the time to get organized. Mother Nature strikes with ferocity whenever she likes, and often without warning. So please, set aside an extra hour or two this weekend (next weekend, too, if necessary), and work through the steps below to prepare yourself for whatever the winds blow your way.

  • Compile important information. Gather documentation like birth, death, and marriage certificates; ID cards and passports; stock and bond certificates; mortgage documents; car titles; divorce or court documents; and copies of your will. 
    Make a list of all your financial accounts, including contact information for each financial services company.
    Add a recent tax return, a pay stub, and emergency and medical contact information.
    Throw in a backup copy of important computer documents.
    Take a look at the documents the Red Cross thinks you should keep safe.

Extra credit: Do something to protect this information. Get a fireproof and waterproof safe to keep the paperwork, in case disaster strikes before you can gather the pile. Stash it all in a safety deposit box. Or go electronic.

  • Check your emergency savings . If it's been a while since you've evaluated whether your emergency savings will weather an emergency, take a look. As a general rule, you should have enough to cover three to six months of expenses. There may be plenty of reasons why you want to keep more than that on hand. If you don't have anything, get started. Even the tiniest of emergency funds will help you cover some costs if you're stuck in an expensive bind.

Extra credit: Add some cash to the pile of documents that you gathered with your important documents. Include a debit card linked to your emergency savings in the same file.

  • Review your homeowner's insurance. Get a copy of the policy and put it on your bedside table. You can both inform yourself and treat insomnia simultaneously. Become familiar with the coverage you can expect if a disaster occurs. Make sure you have enough coverage to permit you to rebuild your life if wildfires, tornadoes, flood, or some other catastrophe came your way.

Extra credit: You can make your life a lot easier in the event of a disaster if you have an up-to-date inventory of your belongings. Get help valuing your belongings if you have antiques or unusual items.

Keep reading for more help: