Introduction: In this article, Gena Philibert-Ortega writes about having to recently evacuate her home due to the raging California wildfires – and how she decided what genealogy records and family heirlooms to take with her. Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “”
For those living in California, the threat of an earthquake is always there. Unless you have experienced a “big one” you probably have become complacent to the damage and destruction a really big earthquake can wreck. Californians also deal with a season that most states lack: “fire season.” While this season was once thought to be restricted to certain months of the year, it has now become a nearly year-long reality.
Back in 1980, when there used to be a defined fire season, this newspaper article reported that high winds had “extended the fire season in Idyllwild indefinitely.”
2017 is ending with a string of fire storms in Southern California. While other states are starting to report snowfall, California is experiencing temperatures in the 70s and 80s with strong, dry Santa Ana winds. Warm weather, winds, and dry brush are the perfect ingredients for the six major California fires that started to burn in December.
Fire Forced My Family to Evacuate
At first, these December fires were nowhere near where I live. The nearest fire was over an hour and a half away. I had been reassuring concerned friends that my family was in no danger and there was nothing to worry about. However, that changed in a matter of about an hour – when we went from being far away from the fires to having a fire that was at the end of my street! No known cause has been determined yet, but with high winds and a field full of dry brush it was just a matter of time before we could be in grave danger.
As we watched the black smoke, fire engines, and police officers gather in our neighborhood, it was obvious that plans needed to be made. By the time the sheriff told us we were under voluntary evacuation, I had already started packing the car to leave. With the amount of smoke present and the visible flames, the fire had quickly become a little too close for comfort.
As he gave us information about leaving, the sheriff said something that really stuck with me. While a voluntary evacuation is just that, voluntary, the next level would be a mandatory evacuation. He warned us: “The next time I come and tell you to leave, you will have five minutes to go.”
So, in a matter of moments, what do you take knowing that everything else might be destroyed before you can come back? What do you decide are the most precious items to bring with you? Obviously, there will be things related to your day-to-day life you’ll want to leave with – but what about your family history? What documents, photographs, heirlooms, books and other resources do you take with you?
Get It Off Your Computer!
One thing that became obvious to me as I was packing up was the importance of not only backing up computer files, but also having that backup in more than one place. For me, I realized that I didn’t have all of my family photos digitized and stored in the “cloud.” I have started that process but am not quite done. Now that the emergency is over and my family is safely back home, that is a priority.
Make sure that you back up your computer regularly and that you digitize your family history and photos – and store everything in the cloud. My family’s recent voluntary evacuation gave me the “luxury” of time to decide what to take; however, you will not be afforded that if faced with a sudden mandatory evacuation, or if you are away from home during the emergency (for example, at work or travel).
After our voluntary evacuation, my son and I traveled to my parents’ home. One of my mom’s first questions when we arrived was if I had grabbed all of our “important papers.” Now, of course, when I hear “important papers” I think genealogy – but she was thinking financial paperwork.
You know what? I didn’t grab any financial records because I felt like they could, with some effort, be replaced. But I did consider my genealogy papers and which of those couldn’t be replaced – and was overwhelmed to realize there was too much to grab.
Everyone’s list of what to take in an emergency is going to be different, and that’s ok. But now is the time to seriously consider what should be digitized and uploaded to the cloud – or even given to a family member on a flash drive should something happen. What genealogy papers should you digitize?
If you’re overwhelmed by the process, start by digitizing original copies of items or documents that cannot be easily replaced. For now, skip scanning things like copies of documents easily found online (census records, for example).
In an evacuation situation, don’t take anything that is not an original copy or that you can obtain copies easily. What should you consider taking during an emergency? My personal belief is you should grab anything that is original and/or cannot be replaced. So, for me that would be:
- Letters of correspondence from ancestors
- Awards, recognition
- Original naturalization, military, or other papers
One of the questions I kept asking myself as I was packing was: “What cannot be replaced?”
What heirlooms do you have? Some items that made it into my car were my great-grandmother’s hand-painted 50th anniversary china bowl, a souvenir from Paris owned by my husband’s grandmother, and my maternal grandmother’s hand-made soap. I also grabbed various framed photos off the walls.
I know that seems eclectic and weird (something my son pointed out when I couldn’t find clean clothes in my suitcase the following day). But those are items that, once they are gone, they are gone forever.
Did I forget some things? You bet! So that’s why I’m following through on a plan I’ve had for a while but have never completed: I’m putting together a book of heirloom images that include provenance details, etc., so that if something was to happen and everything was destroyed, we would at least have a physical reminder of those items. And yes, I will be backing it up to my cloud storage.
No matter where you live there’s a chance of some sort of natural or man-made disaster. Fires, earthquakes, tornados, hurricanes, you name it. As genealogists we are the custodians of our family heirlooms and memories. So, we need to take that responsibility seriously. We may not be able to do much in the case of a sudden emergency, but planning ahead is much better than making a last-minute decision in the stress of the moment.