Burning books- often a symbol of oppression- is one of many tragic consequences to the massive wildfires that have terrorized California, Oregon, and Washington this year. 3 million hectares have burned in those states, making it the West Coast’s worst fire season in at least 70 years, according to Science. A few libraries have been lost entirely, and many more are impacted by smoke and unhealthy air quality, as well as loss of materials that were checked out to residents with damaged homes.
“We are open regular hours- except of course the branch that burned to the ground. Our closest branch has almost doubled its hours and set up a private area for people to use a computer for zoom calls and insurance filings,” reports a staff member of the Whitman County Library in southeastern Washington. The branch that burned was the Malden Library, destroyed in a firestorm over Labor Day weekend along with 80% of the town’s buildings, according to CNN. According to library staff, “It was a tiny branch in a tiny town and truly the heart of the community.” However, in a remarkable spirit of resilience, the branch has already resumed some services, according to its Facebook page.
Three branches of the Fresno County Public Library in California were closed due to wildfires and related evacuations. Those branches were Auberry branch, the Big Creek and Shaver Lake branches. The Big Creek and Shaver Lake libraries remain closed as of this writing. Auberry Library reopened recently with limited services after being closed for three weeks due to the fires.
Poor air quality has forced some libraries to curtail services. “We have closed curbside services if PM2.5 (particulate matter) gets into the purple (hazardous) zone, we don’t do anything different when it’s just unhealthy,” reports a library assistant in the Sacramento, California area.
“We had to close our no-contact holds pickup service for eight days (a little more because we left midway through a day) due to smoke and refrain from having staff work inside the building during that time,” reports Michelle Rosenthal, Operations Manager for the Happy Valley Library in Oregon. Other branches in her system have been impacted in different ways: “The Happy Valley Library is in Clackamas County Oregon, part of the LINCC cooperative of libraries. The amount of services affected varied for each LINCC location.”
“My public library has several branches that were closed for nearby fires last month. They’ve all reopened now, and while I know some checked out materials were destroyed (over 2000 homes were burned) all the branches survived,” reports an academic librarian who is a patron of the Jackson County Library System in Southern Oregon. “I think branches were closed for both the Almeda and Obenchain Fires,” she added.
Clancy Pool, a Branch Manager at Whitman County Library, spoke to the impact of the 2020 fires compared to previous years: “My branch serves a population of about 1000 when I include the rural residents. We are in southeastern Washington State, an area of grain fields, not forests. Our normal wildfires have damaged acres of crops in the past, but not buildings. This year’s fire that destroyed small communities is the first I am aware of and I am a fifth generation resident in the area. The Labor Day fire came within 8 miles of my town and we were under a ‘prepare to evacuate’ order. In the last few years the big change for us has involved hazardous air quality. More and more we have had weeks each summer where smoke has come in from fires hundreds and even thousands of miles away and prevented outside activities for around a week.”
How can people help? Pool cautions against donating items that might not be needed and suggests using due diligence before donating online: “After a wildfire ask what is currently needed and what might be needed later. Do some research on where you are donating especially if it is a ‘Go Fund Me.’”
The Oregon Library Association https://www.olaweb.org/ has been receiving many offers of help, according to their website. While the impact of the fires is yet to be fully assessed, they suggest library workers who have been evacuated or lost their homes may be aided via the Red Cross (use “Western Fires” option to support efforts across the region) or Oregon Community Foundation page for Supporting Oregon Wildfire Relief.
*Some staff members preferred not to be identified for this story. Names are withheld in those cases.
**The status of libraries mentioned may have changed since the writing of this article. Please see library websites for the latest information.