Lake county fire oral history project works to preserve memories of wildland fire survivors

 Lake county fire oral history project works to preserve memories of wildland fire survivors

13 September 2016

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USA —   LAKE COUNTY, Calif. – For the people who have suffered the heartache and horrors of the Lake County wildland fires of this past year, it’s an experience they’re not likely to forget, and a project is now under way to capture those memories for the sake of history.

The Lake County Fire Oral History Project aims to record and preserve the oral histories of community members who have survived the county’s notable wildland fires.

The project is administered by the Lower Lake Historic Schoolhouse Museum and funded by the Lake Area Rotary Club Association and the Lower Lake Historical School Preservation Committee.

Lake County Museum Curator Tony Pierucci and his staff are participating in collecting the histories.

“It started earlier this year,” he said of the project, which has its roots in a discussion he and Lake County Library Director Christopher Veach began in December about an oral history project.

That led in April to the library and museum collaborating to produce a Book-to-Action series on oral histories, which grew out of the realization – following last year’s “summer of fire – that survivors had stories to tell about the incidents.

That Book-to-Action series was funded by the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services under the provisions of the Library Services and Technology Act, administered in California by the State Librarian, as well as the California State Library in partnership with the California Center for the Book.

During the April series there were discussions, workshops and training sessions on collecting oral histories and a five-hour recording session of histories at the Lower Lake Schoolhouse Museum, as Lake County News has reported.

Pierucci said at that point there were volunteers eager to collect the stories, with he and his staff also wanting to be involved. He said the library also met with organizations involved in recovery to engage them in helping collect the oral histories.

While the project largely focused on the Valley fire originally, Pierucci said it has since been expanded to include the Clayton fire.

“So far we’ve collected about 30 oral histories from various different perspectives,” Pierucci said, with six more interviews scheduled.

Those histories are all audio recordings done by museum staff. Pierucci anticipates creating an index of what is discussed in the histories, which are not currently being transcribed.

He said the shortest of the interviews is about 20 minutes, while the longest is about two and a half hours.

Those whose personal experiences are documented so far include everyday people, along with county employees and volunteers who helped during and after the fire, Pierucci said.

“We’re trying to get the whole perspective on the fire, not just the fire itself but the recovery effort as well,” he said.

“Overall, we just want to create a significant body of information,” Pierucci said. “An oral history collection is going to be very significant in the years to come.”

Especially, he noted, after people settle into new lives. “We really don’t know what the aftermath is.”

Museum staff are aware that they’re dealing with some very painful experiences and are using care as a result, Pierucci said. “This is a very personal thing. We’re recording people’s memories.”

The oral history collection will be a significant source for future research, according to Pierucci.

That audio collection is the first part of the project, which Pierucci said has been developed and expanded beyond its original scope thanks to the funding from Lake Area Rotary Club Association and the Lower Lake Historical School Preservation Committee.

Pierucci said the second part of the project is the creation of a 15-minute documentary on the fires. Bill Groody and his production company were hired to do the documentary.

As part of the video aspect, Pierucci said six proposed standalone videos will be compiled into a 15- to 20-minute mini-documentary on people’s experiences of the fires.

Pierucci said two of those videos have been completed so far. They are shot on-scene in most cases and have a level of production that goes beyond a video of a one-on-one interview. “The closest comparison I can make is that they’re like distinct mini-documentaries unto themselves.”

All of the videos will be available on the county’s recovery Web site and the museum’s Facebook page for free. Copies of the histories also will be stored at both museums in Lakeport and Lower Lake and also at the Lake County Library, said Pierucci.

“Our hope is that they will serve to highlight the county’s resilience and uplift people’s spirits – but also to underscore the bare fact that the county is still recovering and we have a long road ahead of us,” Pierucci said.

Ultimately, he said he wants to see the oral histories included in the oral history archives at the University of California, Berkeley, although he hasn’t yet started outreach on that goal. The university doesn’t accept raw audio, and usually wants it fully transcribed or indexed.

In addition to the oral and video recordings, Pierucci said the museum is collecting other fire-related items, including individual collections of photos and video people took during the incident that they are giving to the museum. “We’re taking all of that.”

He said the oral history project will be continued through the end of the year.

For those who would like to participate and have their oral histories recorded, Pierucci encouraged them to contact the Lake County Museum at 707-263-4555 or at 707-995-3565.

The process includes a basic phone interview and preliminary discussion to help the interviewers tailor the questions to the person’s experience. Pierucci said a sit-down interview for the recording session will then be scheduled.

Volunteers also are needed for the project. Anyone interested should call the museum at the numbers above. Pierucci said the museum will train and work with the volunteers in the oral history collection process.

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