March 17, 2018

When a Fire Hit, a Rural OC Library Was There To Help

  • Library staffers relayed information at “tent city”
  • Community suffered from media blackout
  • In aftermath, library was key community center

Wildfires last October in California hit San Diego County hard, with nearby Riverside, Los Angeles, and Orange counties also suffering some serious damage. Orange County is mostly urban and suburban, but the eastern segment has some tiny towns in the hills, among them Silverado, where the library—the smallest and most isolated branch of the 33-branch Orange County Public Library—played a key role in supporting the dislodged community of some 1200 households.

“During the fires, the branch manager was the most active member of the community,” County Librarian Helen Fried told LJ, explaining that veteran library employee Lucille Cruz was a sounding board and roving reference person. “They needed some stability” and she was there.

LJ visited libraries in Orange County in April, researching a feature article that will appear in our June 1 issue. We didn’t get to Silverado—which is some ten miles from any other communities—during the whirlwind tour, but we did get to talk to Cruz on the phone about the remarkable commitment of three staffers who work in what she calls a 1000 square foot “broom closet”.

Key role

Cruz described “downtown” Silverado as consisting of essentially four entities outside of private homes: a library, a post office, a market, and a “little café.” Though Cruz doesn’t live in Silverado, she’s worked there for nearly 30 years and knows everyone. That means the library can serve as “a clearinghouse for everything,” including tourist and historical information for visitors. There’s another distinction: because the library is occasionally a magnet for snakes, “we’re the only branch with a library cat.”

Most residents were evacuated to a Red Cross shelter, where they were frustrated because they weren’t provided with information about the progress of the fire. News coverage focused on fires in the San Diego and Los Angeles areas, she recalled. “We were at the bottom of the rung.” Residents wound up in a tent city at the edge of the city of Orange, several miles away. For two weeks, Cruz and two colleagues used vacation time to relay information from the “incident command post” at a nearby regional park near us. Fire department staffers gave the library staff maps to put up on a bulletin board, further delineating the extent of the fire. “People were kind of panicked,” she recalled, “but being librarians, we were able to give them information in a calm manner.”

Like social workers

 “We acted as social workers, in a way,” she said, “talking to people and calming their fears.” Library staffers helped community members get emergency financial and food aid. A community group, <the Inter-Canyon League, was in charge of the relief effort. A subcommittee of that group is Silverado’s Friends group. “We just showed up and had them put us to work,” Cruz recalled.

The library building itself was intact, though Cruz made several trips to get into the library to retrieve historical files, and the building required “hyper-cleaning” of silt and ash. And when residents returned, the library hosted mental health counselors at story hours and helped residents navigate FEMA forms.

“We had a lot of people come and thank us,” Cruz said. This, however, was not the first time Silverado was hit by fires. In a somewhat similar situation in 1987, the library served as “an information processing center,” Cruz recalled, “and we did live at the branch for four days.” With computers at the ready, she said, it’s gotten a little easier these days to deal with the aftermath.