Libraries Largely Spared, Considering Safety of Curbside Service During Worst California Wildfire Season in State's History

California’s 2020 wildfire season is one of the worst on record, with fires causing extensive damage to homes, businesses, and forestland. Libraries across the state have largely escaped severe fire or smoke damage. However, harsh smoke conditions have curtailed many libraries’ curbside or front-door pickup services, and the resources they have offered patrons in past wildfire seasons, such as assistance filing claims and in-library computer use, are impossible to provide safely because of COVID-19 related library closures.

hills on fire in multiple spots at nightCalifornia’s 2020 wildfire season is one of the worst on record, with fires causing extensive damage to homes, businesses, and forestland. California Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency on August 18, and more than 1.5 million acres have burned so far. Response and evacuations have been complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as a record-breaking heat wave. The Santa Clara Unit (SCU) and Sonoma–Lake–Napa Unit (LNU) Lightning Complex fires, sparked by lightning storms on August 16 and 17, are currently the second- and third-largest fires, respectively, in California history.

Libraries across the state have largely escaped severe fire or smoke damage. However, harsh smoke conditions have curtailed many libraries’ curbside or front-door pickup services, and the resources they have offered patrons in past wildfire seasons, such as assistance filing claims and in-library computer use, are impossible to provide safely because of COVID-19 related library closures.

Nearly 1,500 structures have been destroyed in the San Mateo–Santa Cruz Unit (CZU) Lightning Complex fires, including a number of historic buildings in Big Basin Redwoods State Park, and they have caused at least one fatality. The University of California, Santa Cruz completely evacuated its campus on the night of August 22; the evacuation order was lifted on August 31, although some buildings remain closed.

“We have been lucky in regard to the CZU and SCU lightning complex fires,” San José City Librarian Jill Bourne told LJ. “We did have some branches that were impacted by smoke and poor air quality for a few days” at San José Public Library, she added. “There have been some power outages, and some staff were told to evacuate their homes at one point, but otherwise, our express services have continued.”

Sacramento has also seen extreme smoke conditions. Out of concerns for staff safety, “we closed curbside for a couple of days to allow us to develop protocols for the new normal,” Sacramento Public Library Director Rivkah Sass told LJ at the beginning of September. “Right now, since our libraries are closed, we believe staff is quite safe with minimal time outside.”

Because the library’s service area covers a thousand square miles, decisions about when staff can work vary widely among the 28 branches. “We had larger concerns about our delivery drivers who, of course, do jobs that require a lot of in and out as well as physical exertion. We're comfortable now that we can do the right thing, including closing different libraries in different areas of the county,” said Sass. “What works in our North Highlands–Antelope Library doesn't necessarily work in our tiny Delta branches.”



In Napa, Sonoma, Santa Cruz, and parts of San Mateo County, the multiple fires of the LNU Lightning Complex have been burning since August 17. Initial evacuation orders in Sonoma County were lifted by late August but then reinstituted on September 7; as of press time evacuation orders for most residents have been lifted again.

Because Sonoma County Library (SCL) buildings are closed to the public due to the pandemic, the library can’t provide services such as charging stations, helping people locate the services they need, or entertaining local children that they offered during previous wildfire seasons. “We're doing as well as we can,” said Director Ann Hammond. “It's definitely been a challenge. With COVID, that was bad enough, and then you throw a fire on top of that—it's hard to know how to respond.”

The library has nearly 1,000 hotspots—a critical community need, as the hilly terrain means that many residents can’t connect with broadband—and Chromebooks checked out. It is also providing curbside service; workers wear cloth masks inside buildings and N-95 masks to take materials outside and place them on tables for customers to pick up, said Hammond. To date SCL has only needed to close one branch, the Guerneville Regional Library, because of its proximity to one of the fire sites, although September has seen short-term closings because of power shutoffs.

When the 2019 Kincade Fire forced SSCL to close all 14 branches briefly—with only three able to reopen after the first week—Hammond told LJ, “We're going to get through this, and we'll be stronger as a result.” Hammond also made good on last year’s vow to be prepared, which she believes helped avoid smoke damage and poor air quality in the buildings in 2020.

“After the big fires last year, we put in super high-quality air filters, and we have air scrubbers at most of our locations,” she told LJ in August. “We've been able to keep things safe inside the buildings, so that the staff and the collections did not suffer in that regard.”

The library also has a partnership in the works with PG&E, the state’s largest power provider, which will install generators in several branches in return for being allowed to use them as community emergency centers in case another major fire causes evacuations.

And in 2019, the library began providing remote story times live on Facebook for children who had been evacuated or whose branches were closed—getting a jump start on programming that would become business as usual during the COVID-19 shutdown.

The air filters will likely come in handy after the library reopens its branches, which closed in March (the air scrubbers—which are portable and can be moved among locations— clean particulates, so would not be as effective in countering aerosolized coronavirus). “We're learning to be prepared,” Hammond told LJ. “The fall is fire season in northern California, and that's not going to change any time soon.”



In the San Francisco Bay Area and parts of the California Central Valley, the SCU fires have burned more than 390,000 acres and destroyed 82 structures. As of September 7 they were at 94 percent containment, but smoke conditions continue to impact the area. San Francisco Public Library (SFPL) had only opened two locations in mid-August and had instituted SFPL-to-Go, its front-door version of curbside pickup—“but it was only a matter of days before we had unhealthy air in San Francisco,” said Tom Fortin, chief of the main library.

SFPL monitors the local air quality through the Environmental Protection Agency website, and when the air quality index (AQI) reaches a threshold of 150 or higher, the library cancels SFPL-to-Go. “It's essentially an outdoor service, so we can't have our staff outside when it reaches an unhealthy level, “Fortin told LJ on September 4. “It's happened in the past couple of weeks maybe five or six times.”

Cal/OSHA, the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health, mandates that government employees must wear N-95 masks to perform any work outside when the AQI reaches 150 and should not work outdoors in any capacity when it hits 200. Although jurisdictions across the state have varying rules, SFPL abides by OSHA and union regulations. “The city is very cautious and we're keeping our staff safe, so we are suspending service when the air quality index hits 150 or higher. It might only be a matter of hours, and then we reopen again,” explained Fortin. Customers may see it as a disruption, he added, “but when we put it in context and remind our patrons that we want them to be safe and stay home when the air quality is not healthy, they understand.”

As Sonoma County Library continues to provide curbside service, a number of workers have objected to the fact that they’re required to bring books out for pickup when the air quality is poor, despite the availability of masks. When staff members are unable to work under smoke conditions, SCL requires them to take sick or vacation time, they stated, rather than being offered paid leave. Some employees have taken to Twitter, asking supporters to email library administration to request that they close branches in evacuation zones.

Hammond has heard the criticisms, and “I appreciate having the concerns brought forward. We take that very seriously. We have made sure that we have good procedures in place and plenty of PPE [personal protection equipment] for the staff.” she said. “If anyone has an underlying condition we're only too happy to work with them to come up with an accommodation."

She realizes that this has been difficult for staff, Hammond added. “It was already stressful with COVID, it's made more stressful with the fires, and I'm really proud of them for their dedication.”

At the time of publication, California and parts of the Pacific Northwest region are still fighting what the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has declared the largest wildfire season recorded in California history, compounded by record-breaking high temperatures and dangerous fire conditions. The small town of Malden, in eastern Washington state, was destroyed over the Labor Day weekend—including the library, a branch of the Whitman County Rural Library District. Residents across the state are urged to keep a close eye on reports for their area.

California library workers, how are your libraries doing? Let us know in the comments.

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Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Senior News Editor for Library Journal.

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