Surviving the firestorm: 
Southern California libraries show their best

Message from the State Librarian:

Thank goodness that we did not lose any libraries in the October 2007 Southern California fires. When I became aware that some of our libraries were used as deployment or rescue centers and that our library staff had volunteered to assist fire victims, we started collecting stories on how our libraries were used during this terrible crisis and how we were able to serve our communities under the most stressful conditions. I would like to thank the folks who took time to contribute the following first hand accounts. They show California libraries, and the great people who work in those libraries, at their finest.

- Susan Hildreth

Perspective from County of Los Angeles Public Library

Fred Hungerford, Assistant Director Information Systems [reporting between October 21, 2007 and October 25, 2007]

The County Fire Department utilized the Malibu Library as part of its command post for the Malibu fire. On October 22 we received a call from the Fire Department requesting that we create log-on IDs so that Fire staff could use the Library's public access Internet computers and our public WiFi service for writing and transmitting reports and e-mail.

As part of the Operational Area, the County Public Library was assigned to provide support to the Department of Public Social Services for care and shelter services. Libraries may be used to distribute disaster information, provide information and referral services and in an extreme disaster, may serve as shelters. During these fires our role was limited to the use of the Malibu Library and distributing public health advisories.

We also entered status reports on a daily basis into the County's Emergency Management Information System during times of emergency. This web-based system collected high level summary status data for all 88 cities in the County and every County Department. We also used this system to monitor emergencies, responds to requests for support from the County's Emergency Operations Centers or request support if needed for our agency.

Perspective from San Diego Public Library

Marion Moss Hubbard, Senior Public Information Officer, San Diego Public Library

The October firestorms were trying for the people of Southern California. This was particularly true in San Diego where over 250,000 people were evacuated in the path of the fires and smoke. While many of the staff members at the San Diego Public Library (SDPL) were directly affected by the evacuation, SDPL made a valiant effort to serve as many residents as possible and help restore a sense of normalcy. At the height of the fires on Tuesday, October 23, 11 of our 35 libraries were closed, but staff worked quickly to re-open facilities and all libraries were back in operation on Thursday.

For many people the library was one of the few places during the fires that they could go for free information, resources, and to connect with the outside world. Even National Guard members who were in San Diego to assist with the fires used the Internet at the libraries to connect with friends and family. With schools shut down, many SDPL branches had extra programming for children, including opportunities for kids to create pictures that illustrated how they felt about the terrible events happening around them.

When Qualcomm Stadium was pressed into service as a major evacuation center, SDPL's Central Library and Friends of the Library Groups delivered books to the stadium to help comfort evacuees and occupy their time until they could find other accommodations or return to their homes. Anne Porter, a Qualcomm volunteer who coordinated with the Central Library Deputy Director, Bruce Johnson said, "…thank you personally for opening your heart and the library's resources to kids and adults who were lost and afraid…you are a hero and make the library great and San Diego an amazing place to live."

The Rancho Bernardo Library, in the heart of the firestorm area, was already one of the most visited and highly circulating branches in the SDPL system. It served as an annex to the City's Local Assistance Center, offering services and support to fire victims. Since the fires, even more customers, including those in outlying areas, are visiting this branch. To assist customers with their informational needs, the library is purchasing additional library materials to replace lost and damaged materials and to support the rebuilding efforts, which includes materials on topics such as reconstruction, interior decorating, landscape architecture and recovering from traumatic loss. In addition, the Library Foundation has agreed to cover approximately $10,000 in costs of library materials that were destroyed or damaged in the homes involved in the fires.

Until tested in a crisis, we never know how we will respond. The firestorms of 2007 demonstrated the character, heart and service that is so integral to the San Diego Public Library and its staff, who made an indelible mark on the lives of so many in the community in their time of need.

Perspectives from San Diego County Library

Sandra Coleman, Youth Services Librarian, San Marcos Branch

On Monday morning as we listened to the news of fire making its way into Escondido, we began to pack our bags and make phone calls to a list of friends to determine if they were safe or needed any assistance packing or evacuating.   By two that afternoon homes one block south of us were evacuated and as the smoke became thicker and family members began to experience difficulty breathing we decided to leave.  The Coleman family spent a little time at a friend’s apartment in central Escondido making arrangements for our night’s stay.  Oceanside would be the evening’s destination.  The Baha’i community of Oceanside opened the doors to its local Center and families from Escondido and Valley Center found refuge there.   Tuesday morning as the families were gathered we began to consider how we could help others affected by these fires.  One friend contacted the local evacuation site, El Camino High School, to inquire as to their needs.  Help with the children, was the reply.  So a friend who plays guitar and four others of us, packed children’s instruments and crayons and coloring pages and drove to the High School.  I’ve often seen images of evacuation sites broadcast on the television, but the experience of actually walking into one caused me to hesitate momentarily upon entering as my heart filled with empathy.  After breathing deeply and taking in the vision of a sea of cots, the sound of reverberating voices and continuous movement, we were escorted to the center of the room where an activity center was arranged.  Our small group began to sing children’s songs and the young ones along with their parents came quickly to join in the fun of playing instruments, dancing and singing.  After two hours of singing every childhood song we could think of, talking with children that were coloring, sculpting with play dough, and playing board games it was time for dinner to be served.  So we gathered up our things and said good-byes to the young friends we had made.   The sights of smiling children’s faces along with those of their parents are the most striking memory of my experiences from this past week.

Ellen S. Zyroff, Principal Librarian and Public Information Officer, San Diego County Library [reporting from Lemon Grove Branch]

Customers affected by the wildfires have been coming in to the Lemon Grove Library all week.  I had a customer today who said that "one of the first things" she grabbed when she got evacuated were her library books so that they wouldn't burn up and also so that she would have something to do while she was at the evacuation center.  Another customer, an elderly woman, came in and told me that her son had just lost his home in Poway. He lost everything they owned.  She wanted to print out the GTM stores coupon from the Internet so that she could buy them some items.  She said she had never used a computer before, so I printed it out for her from the Internet and she was very thankful for my help.  Yesterday, a very disoriented customer from Potrero came in and she said luckily her house only had wind damage.  She was very frazzled and I was open to listening to her story. She said that the Harris fire practically started in her backyard.  She left feeling better and I felt good that I could help her by just hearing her story.  It's difficult not to cry when they tell you their story.  I was glad we were open this week to serve people at this time of crisis.  We were very busy and checked out a lot of movies and books to families with children who couldn't leave the house. 

Ellie Slade, Librarian II, Ramona Branch [also reporting on Poway Branch area]

I left my Rancho Bernardo home today [Monday October 29th, 2007] to venture into the “before and after the fires zones.”  Some of the “before zones” in Poway were left untouched  At first the tranquil images of suburban Poway filled my vision as I traveled through north side of the canyon where secluded custom built ranch homes dot the green hilly landscape surrounded by huge boulders and white picket fences.  On public fences along the highway there were handmade murals on butcher paper in bubble letters that said, “Thank you fireman!”  But other than these signs, there was no vestige of fire.

Traveling further into Poway, the “after zones” that are closely adjacent to the untouched areas bore out another reality.  The fire cannibalized the canyon and consumed the once wide open green space; replacing the verdant hills with rubble, ashes and knotted blackened tree trunks.  Sporadic tattoos of red fire retardant were dumped and smeared on the blackened earth next to the scorched underbrush.

Signs with “Evacuate livestock here,” “Rosie is back,” “Pray for us,” and “You have a friend in Jesus” were posted along the rustic road as I descended into Ramona.  To my right I saw a makeshift altar of silk flowers, perhaps in tribute to the people who died or sacrificed their home, livestock or labor.  As I approached Ramona, some of the horses, haystacks and quaint lifestyle remained.  Not all was lost; the fire somehow erratically skipped round pouncing on some homes and miraculously ignoring others.  Everywhere a smoky chemical smell something like burning plastic mixed with greasy barbeque grill ashes permeated the atmosphere.  As I moved closer to the commercial area of town a big sign that prominently advertised, "Anxiety counseling," in chipped green and white paint hung outside of a shabby clapboard house.

Despite the beautiful day and the overwhelming feeling of “thank God I did not lose my house,” I could not help to think what it was like for the people who did not have towels, bedding or a roof over their head with an unknown rebuilding period hanging the balance.

I went into the public library and noticed that yellow tape was over the drinking fountain as water had not been restored yet.  Despite the tragedy of the last week, there was an espirit de corp feeling that could be felt in the library, as well as the supermarket, feed store and barber shop. No matter if you were in Ramona, or Rancho Bernardo, people were helping each other out and wanting to tell their story of how they left or lost their homes at 4:00 am with trees falling and traffic backed up waiting to flee the fires.

My once quiet suburban neighborhood has been visited by the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, President Bush and FEMA.  Where houses once stood, there a signs that read, “ACME Demolition” or “Termites Finally Gone.” 

Even though things do not seem very funny, I bought a Halloween half mask of an owl with an orange nose that cackles on my face or in my purse….depending on how funny or absurd I want to feel. However, I don’t want to put on a witch mask or be named after the Witch Fire that burnt down some 300 homes in my small area of Rancho Bernardo.

Writing this all down helps let it go and makes room for the new changes that will undoubtedly occur in the future.  It compartmentalizes and synthesizes reality into smaller mouthfuls that can be digested by the overwhelmed mind.   It is often said that life deals us a large pill that we cannot even lick, let alone swallow.  Be that as it may, I am sharing this with you to let it go.  I do not want the experience to stick in my throat like a peach pit and choke off my breathing with memories of smoke.  

It is now 193.5 hours since the first San Diego fire was discovered and we are 70 to 90% contained.  I just watered my roses and checked to see if they are still growing.  Good news: the roots survived and the flowers will flourish again.  I take my best lessons from nature and keep planting…..The color of hope is green.



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