PCN Blog: An Interview with Claire Phillips on Wildfire Emergency Response

By Colleen Grant posted 01-03-2023 09:37


This interview is part of the Preventive Care Network's (formerly the Collection Care Network) blog series, which features interviews with conservators and collection care professionals. The stories and insights shared in these interviews highlight the many aspects of collection care and its cross-disciplinary nature. If you have a project or story you'd like to share or know someone we should feature in this series, please contact us at

This edition of the blog is an interview with Claire Phillips, Assistant Archivist at the California State Railroad Museum Library and Archives in Sacramento, California. This interview coincides with the PCN and AIC’s Emergency Committee's joint column in the January 2023 edition of AIC News, which highlights the unique challenges that climate change presents to collections care professionals.

Claire Phillips during the 2021 Caldor Fire evacuation of Vikingsholm in Tahoma, CA 

Could you tell us about your own background, as well as about your institution and its collections?
I was a special education teacher for 17 years before going back to school and getting my Masters in Library Science from San Jose State School of Information. I completed an internship at the California State Railroad Museum (CSRM) Library and Archives and soon after, I was hired as a seasonal employee. Just this month, I was hired as a permanent employee at CSRM, and now serve as the Assistant Archivist. In my current role, I write finding aids, organize and preserve collections, and digitize materials for patrons and for our catalog. I work alongside our librarian, archivist, and curator to help organize and preserve materials and to answer patron requests and research questions. I have always enjoyed the history of California and working at CSRM has been a great place to begin this second chapter of my career. 

The California State Railroad Museum Library & Archives, along with the museum itself, preserves and interprets the artifacts and culture of Western railroads and railroading for present and future generations. We collect materials that tell stories of the railroad through the stories of people. These materials can include 3-D objects, full-size equipment, photographs, ephemera, books, maps, manuscripts, scrapbooks and more. 

Can you tell us how you came to be involved with the Heritage Emergency and Response Training (HEART) program? 
I attended a collection workshop led by the State Parks curators at the Statewide Museum Collection Center in early 2019. While objects are not my specialty, I really enjoy books and papers and I wanted to expand my knowledge about museum objects and procedures. While there, I learned about HEART from a colleague who attended a training in 2018. I decided right then and there that I needed to be part of the 2019 class, and I was lucky enough to be chosen to attend. I enjoyed that experience and when I returned to CSRM, I was able to join the team who support the curators from the Statewide Museum Collection Center when parks in Northern California need to be evacuated, primarily due to wildfire threats. However, we would /could be activated for other natural disasters when a park needs to be evacuated. I have been part of the evacuation team since September 2020– since then, I have helped evacuate six parks and I have provided support at the collections center, unloading trucks of evacuated collections.  

In addition to my HEART training, I have been a certified forklift driver for five years (something they didn’t teach me at library school!) and I have begun to explore the possibility of getting my Class B driver’s license. Having a truck driver’s license will help me be more versatile on this team, as we are often given very large moving trucks to drive to and from evacuation sites. If nothing else, it would greatly improve my reversing skills for big trucks and trailers!

You were involved in the effort to evacuate collections from multiple California State Park sites during the Caldor Fire in August 2021. What types of collections had to be evacuated? How much notice did you have to implement the evacuation, and how did you have to adjust those plans as the situation evolved?
The Caldor Fire burned 221,835 acres in the El Dorado National Forest and threatened many communities, including South Lake Tahoe. Vikingsholm Castle, part of Emerald Bay State Park, was threatened as the fire headed toward South Lake Tahoe. Because of the extreme fire threat, Vikingsholm, known as Tahoe’s Hidden Castle, needed to be evacuated.

The team evacuated the entire house–from the classic car to bedrooms, bathrooms, the kitchen and all linens, curtains, rugs as well as the paperwork and manuscript collections kept on site. We had to evacuate artwork, chandeliers, lamps, tables, and finials on the curtain rods as well as extremely heavy furniture pieces that needed to be moved down multiple flights of stairs. Some of the mattresses were custom made for the beds, so those needed to go as well. 

There are multiple levels of personnel who make up the evacuation team. State Parks has a team based in the Sacramento area who oversee the evacuation of collection spaces and also manage the stock of supplies, arrange for trucks and vehicles to move people and artifacts, and monitor fires in state park areas. When fires or threats to parks are identified there are various people at the top of the chain who are monitoring and making the calls. When the threats to the parks become more urgent, we are all contacted and given as much notice as possible. Sometimes it is a day or two’s notice, sometimes it is a couple of hours. We are alerted as soon as the wildfire season has started. That is when I review my go-bags (containing extra clothes, water bottle, granola bars, etc.) and make sure they are in the car with me at all times. This ensures that I can get to our base of operations without much delay. When the time comes, I let my family know I might be gone for a couple of days. I have three teens and a husband who are pretty great about me taking off for a bit. But there is a shift in the household that I need to prepare for, if I can. If I had smaller children and I was going to be gone for a couple of days, that might change how quickly I could respond to calls to help evacuate a park.

As for adjusting to changing plans, I am sure that they were making changes at the upper levels of management - they were constantly watching the fire, assessing threats to the park, and anticipating the needs of the staff – but I don’t recall many changes to the evacuation plans. Rather, in every situation we just focus on being flexible and being ready to evacuate the site if the fire shifts. 

 Claire (right) and a State Parks evacuation team member evacuating collection items from Vikingsholm

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced during the evacuation? 
It was challenging to communicate with emergency personnel who were monitoring the fire’s proximity to our location. Due to intermittent WiFi issues and a lack of cell service, we were frequently without knowledge of exactly how far away the fire was. The park’s law enforcement rangers were stationed at the top of the road and were not always at our immediate location to communicate fire status information. We didn’t ever think that we were unsafe; the rangers made it clear that they would get us out at the hint of danger, but not having that immediate connection was frustrating and a little unnerving.

Another challenge was obtaining vehicles large enough to hold the house belongings, finding drivers for the large trucks, and maneuvering the large trucks down the long, narrow, winding road. Most of the Lake Tahoe Basin was also evacuating at the same time so resources, like moving trucks, were hard to find.

Running out of supplies is always a concern. We always come in with a van load of supplies and we are lucky enough to have supplies stashed in various state parks that we can pull from. Even with the supplies we brought and the “park stashes,” running out of supplies was something to be mindful of.

A final challenge was keeping staff healthy and safe. We were in the middle of COVID and dealing with heat and smoke, a combination that made for a stressful time, health-wise. We were trying to stay hydrated while at the same time being mindful of both breathing issues from the smoke and COVID protocols. We also had to be very careful about dust as the hantavirus is common in the basin and there are rodent droppings and dust inside the house that can contain the virus. We needed to be careful to always wear our masks while also ensuring we didn’t touch our bare hands to our faces. We needed to mask and wear gloves when moving carpet, linens and basically everything in the house.

 A truckload of collection items packed and ready to be evacuated

What are some of the most successful strategies you implemented during the emergency response and evacuation process?
There is a core group of amazing curators from the main facility who monitor the fire status and, along with their upper management, make the call to activate the larger team to evacuate collections if needed. I am part of that additional support team. The core team of curators are kind, competent, knowledgeable and calm people. Their composure and understanding of the chain of command keeps communication open, and makes it clear to other staff exactly who is in charge. They have been able to create a strong team who work really well together. This allows them to come in and get the job done under very stressful circumstances.

Having a well-planned strategy has also helped. Having the main evacuation site in Sacramento with ample supplies, as well as collection storage for the evacuated park starts the process off in the right direction. There are also key contracts with moving companies, piano movers and other contractors who specialize in moving the oddities. Curators of the state park districts are also encouraged to have well-organized evacuation documents and plans. These documents can help to establish the critical objects to remove first. By getting the high-priority objects identified, the staff who come in to evacuate collections are able to target those special objects. We also had staff that stayed back at the main evacuation center to assist with unloading trucks. This allowed those who were onsite for the evacuation to either head home or just be at the unload site to occasionally help with tricky boxes or items. For the Vikingsholm/Caldor Fire evacuation, we were onsite for three days removing items. It was really nice to head home after we were done and not have to then unload the trucks. Sometimes with other fires, especially the ones where we were working through the night, it was nice to have a fresh team there to unload. We do have the option to stay and help, especially if we have knowledge of some tricky packing. One of our fire evacuations required us to handle items that were restricted to specific genders (culturally sensitive items) and it was important to make sure that those boxes were moved with care by the appropriate people.

With the benefit of hindsight, is there anything you would have done differently? 
First, I really need to up my strength training!  Those massive pieces of furniture were heavy! Besides that, we realized that we needed to photograph the process much more. It is important to document how the room/display was set up before we started moving items. This will be helpful if, for example, items need to be rebuilt. We also needed to document the work that we were doing to demonstrate to other agencies how this process can be done. 

It would have been nice knowing how many large trucks we were going to have as we were going to the fire. However, this was hampered because so many people were trying to get trucks and evacuate from the Tahoe area. In the past we have been able to get trucks in Sacramento and drive them to the location, but most of the trucks in the Sacramento area had been moved to the Lake Tahoe area to facilitate the evacuation of citizens.

Finally, it would have been nice to have had a radio to communicate with the rangers at the top of the hill. It was very frustrating for us at the lake level not to have more consistent communication with them. Hopefully before we have another big fire we will have worked out some of those communication issues, especially where we cannot rely on our cell phones.

Staff readying a classic car stored at Vikingsholm to be moved off-site

Could you speak about what this experience was like for you personally? 
It is different from my main job as an archivist. I enjoy going into the other California State Parks sites and assisting with the safekeeping of items, buildings and treasures that are so near and dear to California’s history. I like working with the core team of curators and learning from them.  Being part of the team has helped me to gain additional skills and knowledge about parking and storing objects.  Our curators have held workshops in between the fire seasons to make sure staff stay up on our skills. I have also been able to be part of the team who is putting together a comprehensive evacuation plan for our museum. My skills and experiences have definitely helped us to begin to write a strong evacuation plan. I like being part of this small group of people who are doing such an important thing for our state parks. 

What mitigation efforts have been added to regular procedures to reduce fire risk to your facility? (E.g. removing brush/trees that are abutting the building, removing combustibles abutting the building, etc.)
State parks have been reviewing their sites to assist with reducing fire risk. Sadly, there is only so much money and staffing to complete those projects each year. My team provides support to other parks, so a lot of those mitigation factors are out of our hands. I know that “fire proofing” State Parks facilities is a goal, but one that probably wouldn’t realistically be completed. The fires are getting too hot and too fast for a lot of “fire proofing” techniques. At this point, we hope that Parks will create disaster plans that identify priority objects/rooms/items and create stashes of supplies for evacuating the facilities. One part of disaster-proofing the park would be to move critical, priority objects that are not on display to our main collections facility, which is located in an area that is not likely to be threatened by fire or floods. 

The CSRM is located in Old Sacramento. Due to our location, our biggest threat is not from wildfires, but floods. We are extremely close to the Sacramento River, which has been known to escape its banks from time to time. We have been working hard to make as much of our collections safe from water as possible. Since we have our collections in the facility’s basement, we have been slowly moving what we can to our offsite storage.  That facility is 12 miles from the river, well above ground and part of a modern, temperature- controlled facility that is very well maintained. 

In addition to moving collections out of our basement, we have been working on strengthening our emergency plan. We are in the process of re-labeling our shelves and rooms as well as photographing, documenting collection locations on facility maps and physically moving items to color coded shelves to assist with evacuation of priority items. 

View from the evacuation site of smoke from the Caldor Fire across Lake Tahoe.

With increasing wildfire risk on the West coast and the other threats posed by climate change, how have you seen cultural heritage emergency preparedness efforts evolve to respond to these risks? 
I've seen a greater emphasis on establishing emergency plans. I have also seen more institutions take advantage of the team of curators who are available to assist with collections evacuations. There is also a push for funding to set up “supply stashes” and collections storage in safe zones. I think that other museums and historical societies are also becoming more aware of the risks to their collections and are participating in programs that will help them to evaluate their facilities and collections in the event of an emergency. We recently participated in the “Ready – Or Not” Cultural Heritage Disaster Preparedness Project through the NEDCC Northeast Document Conservation Center. They evaluated our onsite collections area as well as our building, inside and out. They met with our facilities staff as well as our law enforcement rangers. Their final report documented what we were doing right and the many ways we could improve. This report will help strengthen our emergency plan in terms of how and where we store our collections and how we will physically remove them in case of emergency.

If you enjoyed this post, check out PCN and the Emergency Committee's second joint interview, an interview with Kim Roche on Preparing for Hurricane Ian.