When Sonoma County archivist Katherine Rinehart learned of the firestorm sweeping across Santa Rosa early on the morning of Oct. 9, her first thought was about friends in the fire’s path. Her second went to the safety of the county’s archives building, a 3,800-square-foot facility that serves as the storage house for Sonoma County’s oldest government records.
As its steward, Rinehart’s job is to ensure the safekeeping of the tens of thousands of priceless artifacts kept in the Sonoma Valley building, part of the Los Guilicos complex, where evacuations were ordered for county Juvenile Hall in those terrifying first hours.
“By the time we knew anything was going on, they had evacuated the whole area,” Rinehart said.
But no plan had been made for the safekeeping of the county’s archives in such a disaster, according to Rinehart, who is employed by the Sonoma County Library.
The tens of thousands of records at the county facility, some dating back to the 1850s, stayed put as flames grew closer. Ultimately, by Oct. 14, a branch of the massive Nuns fire would come within a quarter mile of the nondescript building off North Pythian Road.
“We did have library commissioners contacting the Board of Supervisors,” Rinehart said. “What was alarming was there was a sense that some of the supervisors didn’t know the archive was the county archives. That was very concerning to us.”
At most other cultural institutions and repositories around the county, archives, artifacts and other treasured historical works were removed from danger.
Another exception was a collection of the historical papers belonging to the founders of Silicon Valley’s first technology company, Hewlett-Packard.
More than 100 boxes of William Hewlett and David Packard’s writings, correspondence, speeches and other items were contained in one of two modular buildings that burned to the ground at the Fountaingrove headquarters of Keysight Technologies, which traces its roots to HP and acquired the archives in 2014 from an HP spinoff.
Just days prior to the fires’ outbreak, Rinehart had been in touch with Julie Page, who works with the state library’s California Preservation Program to help cultural institutions and records repositories establish disaster preparedness plans. Rinehart and Page were in the process of planning a workshop at the end of November to help Sonoma County’s record-keepers learn how to best protect their cultural collections.
That timely correspondence allowed Rinehart to turn back to Page for help. She instructed her to have Tracy Gray, the county library’s interim director, contact the office of the California State Librarian, which in turn alerted the Office of Emergency Services to the building’s significance.
“And then we waited and then we waited and then we waited,” Rinehart said.
All that first week, as Rinehart worked to gain access to the buildings, she watched the flames encroach on the site, once a school for Sonoma County’s female inmates.
The same fire complex menaced much of the Valley of the Moon, including the Oakmont retirement community and outer edge of Rincon Valley. It would claim more than 500 homes across Sonoma Valley and on the overlooking hillsides. Three people died in that blaze.
Online, Rinehart saw stories about California State Parks workers evacuating artifacts from Mission San Francisco Solano. The highest priority artifacts from Jack London State Historic Park’s cottage at Beauty Ranch and the House of Happy Walls were removed Oct. 9, said Tjiska Van Wyk, the park’s executive director. On Oct. 11, State Parks crews returned to remove everything else. Those efforts relied on emergency clearance from contacts in their disaster plans, whereas the library employees had none, according to Rinehart.