For Kristen Lawrence, the memories remained nearly as searing as the flames she had escaped on the night of Oct. 8. But on Saturday, the time was right for her to share those memories – and to join other survivors of the Napa County wildfires whose experiences are being recorded for posterity.
“It’s something that’s healthy and important to share,” Lawrence said as she entered an impromptu recording booth at the Napa County Library to detail her flight from the Atlas Fire that destroyed the family home. “It’s an emotional thing, and you need to get it out there,” added her 11-year-old son Colt Maloney, just before their interview.
The Napa parent and child were among more than a dozen who came to the Napa County Library on Friday and Saturday to take part in California Listens, a partnership between the Berkeley-based nonprofit StoryCenter and local library networks.
Using modified Apple iPads with special editing software, organizers are turning interview videos into documentary shorts that will be offered online through the California State Library as well as the Napa library, allowing historians, researchers and others access to some of the most immediate and vivid accounts of the North Bay firestorms that killed more than 40 people, destroyed thousands of buildings and turned numerous lives upside down.
As the iPad camera ran for a half-hour, the images of a raging fire tumbled out from Lawrence and Maloney one after the other – a relaxing afternoon at the Safeway Open golf tournament and an enchilada dinner cut short by a power outage and the ominous smell of smoke and, at 9:35 that night, a hurried phone call from an aunt urging them to leave the house on Canyon Place without delay.
“I opened the shutters and all you could see were flames; it was a red wall,” said Lawrence as a StoryCenter worker kept an eye on the video screen. “It was just pure panic – I yanked my son out of bed, grabbed our two dogs and got us into the Suburban – which had almost no gas, of course. I remember shaking violently; I laid on the horn and screamed at the neighbors to get out. I called our parents (who were visiting Texas at the time) to say ‘We’re gonna lose the house, we’re gonna lose everything.’”
Preserving accounts like Lawrence’s was a digital video rig created by StoryCenter, a specialist in recording oral histories and sharing them online. According to its founder Joe Lambert, the nonprofit has led similar projects in recent years to archive first-person accounts from other wildfires such as the Thomas Fire, which ravaged 440 square miles in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties last December and became the largest recorded fire in California history by area.
StoryCenter agreed to take its storytelling effort to Napa after meeting with the Napa library director Danis Kreimeier last October, mere weeks after the Atlas, Tubbs and Nuns fires erupted, Lambert said Sunday.
Using a small and lightweight video system is meant to create a looser and more inviting atmosphere to let speakers better unburden themselves, according to Lambert’s son Massimo Lambert-Mullen, who is handling post-production of the fire interviews.
“Instead of running people through a process, we go straight to a casual interview situation and let people take control and talk in a less structured way,” he said at the library. “It brings people into those moments where they can process and share and educate.”
According to Lambert-Mullen, among the people who shared their recollections of the fires were a Yountville hotel manager who provided candles and company for blacked-out guests; a woman who struggled to find a place for herself and her two dogs after being burned out of her home; a former Santa Barbara County firefighter who volunteered for duty fighting the Napa Valley flames; and a Texas transplant who compared evacuating her aged mother in Napa to the challenges faced by her husband in Houston during Hurricane Harvey.
As the iPad camera continued to run on Saturday, Lawrence pulled up memories of cars aflame, propane fuel tanks exploding like bombs – and the feeling of chaos and confusion that prevented her from thinking clearly enough to grab more valuables before speeding away from the house.
Later, mother and son recounted their losses at the burned-out home, including heirlooms like a white wicker chair Lawrence’s grandparents had given her for her 4th birthday. But the family emerged safe even as six other Napa County residents died, and benefited from the generosity of other residents – including Colt’s fellow students and faculty at St. John Lutheran School, who took up a collection of clothing, gift cards, cash, and even board games and an Xbox video game console.
“You lose all your stuff, but you’ve got your family and friends,” Colt said, levelly speaking toward the camera. “Not too much stuff is worth a life.”
Napa library staff members are learning how to use the video recording station and software in hopes of preserving more first-person accounts of local lore in coming years, said Kreimeier, the library director.
“Now we’ll have a tool that we can use not only to capture stories about the fires, but all sorts of stories,” she said last week, suggesting the equipment could be used to document experiences like the wartime service of Veterans Home residents in Yountville. “This really ties into what we’ve learned from the community; people want to get to know one another and this is a great way to learn about each other and our great history.”
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