18 June 2012

Preparing for Disaster

We currently reside in the mountains of Colorado. If you've been watching the news recently, you may have heard: we're in wildfire country. And it's been a very dry year. Those are two things that do not go well when mixed.

So far, we've been well away from the action (knock on wood), but this past week there were a couple scares a bit too close to home for me. Now, tonight, I'm watching reports come in on a new fire in the next county over. My husband and I have started to plan what we will take, where to go, and what, unfortunately, to leave behind if the call comes in.

Over the past years, I have accumulated literally thousands of documents on my family history, and the artifacts to go with it. I have hundreds of photos, family heirlooms - everything from an antique meat slicer to quilts - high school yearbooks, letters, government documents... the list carries on. Is all of it digitized? No. And I'm running out of time.

This wildfire season puts a new perspective on the "protect your stuff" proclamation for me.

I need one of these to magically protect everything:

What can be done?

Of course, I'm diligently working on getting everything digitized, backed up on CD's, the cloud, thumb drives, anything I can get my hands on to store data. Realistically, though, if something is going to happen in my neighborhood this summer, I don't have enough time to do it all. (Unless someone out there wants to move in, and just take over the rest of my life for me.)

Honestly, beyond just putting in a fantastic effort to get it all done in the coming weeks, there probably isn't much I can do. Except to prioritize. And this is the hard part.

What would you take? If you could only take a box or two of records, what would it be? My list goes beyond the photo albums, and the images currently hanging on the walls of our home.

First on my list is Oscar's land patent. It's the original document, he held it in his hands. That, to me, is quite something. That is something I will never be able to replace. In fact, it's in our fire proof box right now. That's just where it lives.  Right alongside the original photo we have of him atop a horse during the Civil War. That's number two.

Three is a box full by itself: all my active research binders. Not everything in there is proven, not everything has been fully explained, and that's why it needs to come with me. There's valuable information in there, and I need it to progress further. There's about ten binders there, all on different surnames.

The other binders lining my bookshelf are part of what I have named the "Carlyle Collection." This is a recent acquisition, consisting of numerous documents, including several letters and a diary, that I obtained from a 2nd cousin just last year. Handed down from Oscar's daughter, Carrie, to her descendants. Although all of it has been digitized, not all of it has even been read thoroughly yet. These books must go.

Finally, the letters that started it all for me. Oscar's wife, Frances Lawrence, had several brothers, and we have five letters dating from the Civil War period, that were written by her siblings. Addressed to either Frances or her mother, Sarah, they are certainly items that need to be saved.

I'll admit, the rest of the decisions are hard. Most of my documents are in my genealogical software, so I think my next move would be to just cram as much into the car as I can.

Really, though, it's the photos that concern me. I have numerous boxes of loose images, as well as photo albums, and there's no way I could take it all. The collection has been split up in the past; this is really the first time that the majority of our family archives has all been housed in the same place, together. It's an overwhelming amount of trust my family has placed in me, and yes, facing these next few critical months, a scary responsibility. How do you decide? Oldest images first, moving forward in time until you run out of trunk space? Is that fair? Hardly.

So, here's the question I'm posing: what would you do? Facing a summer of threats, high level dangers, extreme environmental conditions in your neighborhood. How would you choose?

Best of luck. This is not an easy theme to attack.

(Oh, and for up to date information on the current wildfire conditions, please visit InciWeb. You can also donate through the American Red Cross. Thank you.)


  1. Jen, my brother lived up in the San Bernardino mountains, south of Big Bear, in California for about 15 years. 8 of those years he was evacuated due to fires, and sometimes it was more than once.

    I learned to think in this 'what if' way starting there and moving in to my work as an Archivist, where prioritizing what material stays and what goes during an emergency is a lot like Sophie's Choice.

    Since you live in a well populated area, there's a relatively easy & inexpensive solution. Head to your local bank branch and rent a safe deposit box for your photos. You don't have to keep them all there, but during the dry season, you can move the bulk of the material there. What's really good is the vaults are usually climate controlled, which aids in preservation. Is it a perfect solution? Probably not. But, it'd ease your mind &I free up some space in your truck. ;-)

  2. I know this might be a little weird...but I would rather the "stuff" be safe than digitized.
    I would pack several boxes with the stuff I am not going to get into a car, and take them to FedEx and send them off to a trusted friend or relative that will house them for me for a couple of months. When they come back home...then I worry about getting them all digitized.
    You need to move fast. Digitizing is not fast. And you still have the paper you would hate to leave behind.

  3. Hi Jen, I have been reading about fires in Colorado and worrying whether they affected you. Both Laura and Kim make excellent suggestions. I have a smaller suggestion -- we bought a fireproof box at OfficeMax to save our financial papers for our kids, in case the house burned down when we were gone. They don't cost too much, and you can use files in them. Maybe buy several and put them in the basement if you have one. Every time we return from a trip, my hubs says, "Well, glad to see the house is still standing." Not really a joke, in your case

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