It’s wildfire season; do you know where your photos are?

Sylmar WIldfire 2008

Sylmar WIldfire 2008

It’s wildfire season; do you know where your photos are?

Depending on what part of the country you live in, natural disasters can strike, and strike fast. While here in California we are bracing for another torrid wildfire season (and it’s always earthquake season), the Gulf States are readying themselves for a hurricane season that seemingly gets more intense each year. Other parts of the country can experience tornados, floods and Nor’easters.

Natural disasters can be horrific, but fires and floods in your home can also cause terrible damage and wipe out most, if not all belongings.

So of course you grab your kids and pets, but what is next on the list, that’s if you even have the time? Many people grab the family photos. But as we are living in the age of digital, the question has to be asked – do you know which hard drive to grab? And what about your older prints and albums?

Prints and albums.

These may or may not be easy to locate, pick up and get out with. I have seen situations where the family albums are nicely and prominently displayed on a bookshelf and could easily be grabbed as you head for the door. But if you happen to have many, and I have seen homes with up to twenty to thirty albums, you need to have a way of identifying the best or oldest or whatever you consider your most valuable albums, you can only carry so many.

Loose prints are another story. Often they are in boxes that are placed in closets, attics, basements or some out of sight location. If your best prints are already in albums, you know they are accessible as already discussed. But if all your prints, slides and home movies are in boxes, well you are in trouble.

You may have your immediate family’s photos in an album on your bookshelf, but I often see the much older albums, perhaps the ones passed down from your parents or grandparents, put away in boxes in your closet or garage. Because they are so old and may be falling apart or very fragile, we often place them out of sight to keep them safe, and from shedding brittle paper bits all over the place. These are often the most valuable and unique photos we have, and yet they are very vulnerable to disaster and can be very difficult to locate in an emergency.

So what to do.

Albums. Mark or somehow indicate which photo albums should be grabbed first. Know what you can carry and consider the fact that it may be a somewhat panicky situation and clear thinking may be difficult. Make it “simple stupid” as an old teacher of mine used to say. If you have time to make a second trip or you have advance notice to evacuate, you may have time to grab them all, but you cannot count on that so prepare for one quick trip and then hope for the best.

Prints. Unless you have advanced notice to evacuate, you are not going to be able to carry out boxes of prints to be rescued. You really have only one option and that is to scan them as digital images and then care for and make sure your digital library is safe (see below). Scanning every print is not realistic and can be expensive, but editing for your good and great ones is not as hard as you think. Take some time to find them and scan them, and remember that the only word that can really describe these pictures is “priceless.” Let that be your guiding light!

Scanning your albums, or at least the oldest archival photos in your albums, is something that really should be done to preserve these one of a kind photos. Even if you do save them in an emergency, it is only a matter of time before the years catch up with them and fading and brittleness destroy them forever.

Digital library

This can be easy or it can be hard. If you know your entire, or close to entire, digital photo library is backed up to a cloud platform, you can rest easy knowing that your digital photo files are safe and can be restored. An iCloud Photo Library backs up the images in your Apple Photos app from your iPhone, iPad and desktop or laptop. Google Photos is an entirely cloud based platform, so if you have your photos in Google Photos you are most likely protected.

The problem is many of the clients I see aren’t really sure what’s backed up and what’s not backed up. Worse are those who believe their photo library is backed up but find out that in fact it was not. That truth, when found out too late can be devastating.

If it is not backed up to a cloud platform, you need to know with full certainty which computers and/or hard drives contain your digital photo collection. Thinking that some photos may be on some drives and other photos are on other drives isn’t going to cut it, you need to know exactly what to grab. Thinking you are going to disconnect cables and then haul out a bunch of computers and hard drives amidst an emergency evacuation is completely unrealistic. Sorry!

If you have everything backed up to one hard drive using Apple’s Time Machine or any equivalent, you can at least know that everything from all your computers and drives will reside on that one backup drive. That’s a big help if you do have time to grab one drive, this should at least ensure that most of your files will be saved.

But I have a better suggestion.

There is one thing you can do as an interim solution that will not only ensure everything is saved, but doesn’t even necessitate the last minute grabbing of hard drives or computers while evacuating (and who is to say you will even be able to have access to your home to get things).

Subscribe to a cloud back up platform and have every file on all your computers and external hard drives safely stored in a remote cloud storage and easily restorable. There are several companies that perform this service – Carbonite and Backblaze are two popular options. I personally use Backblaze and spend $50 a year, with no limits on the number of files or file size limits. It took about 6 weeks to back up the terabytes of image files I have, but it did so in the background and now performs the backup once each day, I never even know it is being performed.

My files are encrypted and can be restored to their exact original format in the eventuality I lose everything. Not a bad deal!

At some point you should really organize your photo files and have a clear idea of what is where, but this is something you can do right now (literally right now), it takes a few minutes and you will sleep better knowing all your digital photos, as well as all your other files, are safe.

A word about fireproof safes

Fireproof safes can be a good answer, but good ones are expensive, large ones are expensive, and good, large ones are really, really expensive. And while they may protect against actual burning, the heat in some fires can destroy certain files just on its own. Film and video for instance are very sensitive to high temperatures, and can melt to the point of destruction. Not all safes are created equal, so make sure to do research and find out if the safe will perform as needed.

Water Damage

If your paper prints and/or albums should be exposed to water damage, either from flooding or fire hoses, make sure you take the proper steps to save and restore them. If they have been exposed to water or dampness for any prolonged period, there is a risk of mold, so follow the restorative steps carefully and take all precautionary measures to ensure your safety.

Be prepared

Sorry for sounding such an alarming tone, but the thing you hear most out of those who have been victims of these disasters and accidents is that they never thought it would happen to them. It happens to someone, if it is you, just make sure you have taken some simple steps and be prepared, you will never regret it.

Here are two great links from photo restoration expert Kathy Stone on working with damaged photos

Some helpful information on how to get started

Online course for in-depth photo restoration