I’ve been thinking a lot about all my family and friends in Southern California where some of the worst wildfires in the state’s history continue to burn out of control. (Hopefully by the time you read this firefighters will have gained the upper hand.) Fortunately, the flames have missed most of my family and friends, but last week, two of my dearest friends had to flee their home in the middle of the night.
At the time, theirs was a voluntary evacuation, although the threat has crept ever closer until the fire line is now only a little more than a mile from their home. They tried to return to their house yesterday to gather a few more belongings but their attempts were thwarted when the main freeway was closed between where they are now staying and their home.
They grabbed what they could last week as they quickly abandoned their house. Among the things that went with them, were their priceless family photo albums and the external hard drives on which they had stored their digital images.
This was on my mind because I’m obviously very concerned and worried for my friends but also because I had heard a television news item earlier last week about the “5 Ps” to take in case you have to evacuate. Photographs was on the list, along with pets, personal papers, prescriptions and your personal computer. In a year when this country has seen devastating fires, hurricanes and floods, too many Americans (including those in Puerto Rico where they are still struggling), have had to decide what to take when suddenly told to leave their home.
I have had only one instance in my life when this happened to me. That was the year the 6.7 Northridge earthquake rocked our neighborhood. When the shaking stopped, we gathered our sons, carried them out to our front lawn and told them not to move while my husband and I went back into the house to collect some items. Plumes of smoke were rising into the air from a nearby fire. We decided to prepare for the worse, not knowing whether another quake would follow or whether the fire would move to our house, pushed by the Santa Ana winds predicted for that day, the same winds driving the terrible fires in Southern California now.
Among the things I considered essential, were my family’s photo albums and the portraits hanging on my walls. I carried out armful after armful, nearly filling the family van. One reason I could do this was because I kept the albums in one spot and stored the boxes of photos not yet in albums in one place. This is something I still practice although I now have many more albums, along with the boxes and the photos still to be sorted from my parents’ home. Some of the photos I couldn’t stand to lose are those from Christmases when I was a kid.
I first wrote about this after the devastating tornado hit Moore, Oklahoma in 2013. What I said then still goes: nearly everything else, with the exception of family heirlooms, can be covered by insurance or replaced when destroyed by disaster. But a family’s photographs are truly priceless and often irreplaceable. I offered then some tips for keeping your photos safe and encourage you to go back for a reminder by clicking here.
Digital photography has made it easier in many ways to archive your precious images by uploading them to a ‘cloud’ storage service, or burning them to CD or storing them on external hard drives, hopefully you do at least two of these. In addition, make prints of the images that mean the most to you because as wonderful and convenient as ‘cloud’ and digital storage is, there’s still no guarantee that these systems are fail proof. And keep your prints somewhere where you can easily grab them in the event you are ordered to evacuate.
My friends are safe, for now, hoping and waiting for the winds to die down, for fire fighters to gain ground and for the fiery monster approaching their home to be stopped. There is much they will lose if the flames aren’t extinguished, but along with the family pet, their prescriptions, their personal computer they have their family photos. I hope others who also have had to head for higher ground in rising water, hunker down against a hurricane or run from engulfing fires this year also had the chance to grab their own family’s photos.
None of this matters, of course, if lives are at stake. There are ways to reconstruct your photographic history if it comes to that, even prior to digital technology. You may lose some of your most meaningful visual memories, but nothing surmounts the loss of life.