With no evacuation plan in place, Sonoma County’s oldest records were imperiled by fire

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.

“It was part of a wake-up call for us,” she said.

The county archives had no such priority list in place for evacuating its collection. When asked what she would have taken, Rinehart said last week she would “probably go for the oldest of the records, such as the minutes books - records of civil and criminal cases heard in Sonoma County from 1851 to 1879.”

She also thought about the county’s register of adoptions from 1927-1945, as well as the four boxes of Sonoma County Hospital records from the ‘30s and ‘40s.

“I’d grab the rolls of old maps,” said Jeremy Nichols, president of the Sonoma County Historical Society. “Many records in which I have an interest I’ve already copied, but maps are hard to copy because of their size. No. 2 would be the bound volumes of early birth, marriage and death records.”

In all, Sonoma County’s archives building houses more than 40,000 historic photographs and countless architectural drawings and surveys. About 3,000 bankers boxes full of documents are stacked on the building’s shelves, not to mention the filing cabinets that line the walls.

“It’s local archives, libraries, museums and historical societies that tell the story of who we are as Californians,” said California State Librarian Greg Lucas.

“These plans are a small investment to better protect these irreplaceable pieces of who we are as a state. An important part of our history could have been lost forever if the Sonoma fires had advanced.”

In the wake of the fires, sign-ups for the disaster-preparedness workshop later this month have ballooned, with more than 30 historical societies from across the North Bay planning to attend.

There, Rinehart and others will draft their own disaster plans, with lists of who to contact, priority items and any other pertinent information they think could be needed.

Page, who is leading the workshop, has been working to help cultural institutions prepare for disasters since the 1990s.

But for her, the effort became “more real” after fires broke out across San Diego in 2007.

“I was evacuated from my house,” Page said. “So watching my house almost burn, and trying to track what was going on in the county and being in touch with lots of other places that would be affected - it struck home for me, that’s for sure. And this will be the catalyst up there.”

You can reach Staff Writer Christi Warren at 707-521-5205 or On Twitter @SeaWarren.

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