Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Fossils on Fire: How We Evacuated A Museum.

Hello, Dear Readers!

It's been a busy two weeks for the Strange  Woman: the international assessors from the Global Geoparks Network have completed their on-site visit, and I now have a few spare moments to attend to both personal and professional activities.

It did not really occur to me how closely entwined are my personal and professional lives until this weekend, when I was telling the story of having to evacuate the PRPRC collections facility because of a forest fire that was encroaching on the town of Tumbler Ridge, and how this event will forever be associated with my marriage to my colleague and partner-in-paleo crime.

On a personal note, one of the most frequent questions I receive when I tell people that I work professionally with my husband in the same facility is "I could never do that - my husband would drive me insane! How do you stand it?" It's simple, really: he's my best friend. We think enough alike that we know how each other thinks and automatically have the other's back on important issues, yet have different approaches to these issues to cover multiple bases and explore new ideas together.

Along with celebrating the good times and fantastic results of our joint efforts, we are also there for one another during the soul-suckingly frustrating times. We may get the double hit of a budget cut, but since we know exactly what the other is going through, we can both plan, sympathize, and move forward together out of the fire. No matter what, we always have each other.

Our wedding was on July 1st, and even though it was a small event, there was still enough planning involved that we were quite busy up until the day; however, as the old saying goes, where there's smoke, there's fire. My family had arrived a couple of days before to help with the set-up and, of course, attend, and one of their first comments was that they were very disconcerted by the smoke rising above the ridge roughly north east of town. At the end of June, after a series of dry days and lightning strikes, a wildfire had started on Highway 52, and was growing larger daily. We were growing less concerned about our wedding and more concerned about the fledgling fossil collections of the PRPRC - what would we do if the official order was given to evacuate?

Not one of our choices was logistically simple. Our first option was to leave everything and bolt, taking only our personal belongings. We had had enough warning of the impending fire to cut and run with only personal items. However, that would entail leaving behind the fruits of our and those of several volunteers' efforts behind to suffer the whims of the weather and fire: we would be leaving behind the fossils. Rich and I didn't even discuss Option 1: these were some of the first and best representatives of Mesozoic vertebrates from British Columbia, and we both knew that the other felt it was our duty to do whatever we could to protect this part of our fossil heritage. This collection is bigger than ourselves.

Option 2 was to move everything out of the museum to a secure location. Unfortunately, this was logistically impossible. We could not arrange the freight in time, and the cost was more than our fledgling organization could bear (it still is more than we could afford if another evacuation were to happen.) At this point the collections had already accumulated several hundred specimens of Triassic vertebrates, not to mention dinosaur track-bearing rock slabs weighing several hundred kilograms each. The secure location part was not readily available: there was a muster station for evacuees set up in the nearby town of Chetwynd, but we wanted to avoid that area. Stress makes some people to odd things, and we wanted to keep stress as far away from the collections as humanly possible.

Option 3 was really our only option: to perform specimen triage, and identify those specimens that could be safely transported in our truck and educational van. All the computer towers and paper records would also be moved. In the event the evacuation warning became an order, we would load up the vehicles and leave the remaining specimens to chance.

If you work at a museum, imagine going through your collections and performing such a triage. What do you take, if you know your repository faces destruction? All the electronic and paper records, of course. Any type material would be the first to be packed, and if it were too large, any replicas or molds of said material. Other specimens that had been published would also be a priority. But what of the non-published specimens? What would be your criteria for selection? What becomes important?

Our wedding day was hot, and that is not a bad joke: the temperature was above 25C, and the forest was aromatic with dry needles. Most brides don't want rain on their wedding day, but this bride would have welcomed a torrential downpour if it had meant not having to worry about evacuating BC's fossils. There was no rain. After a small reception at the Dinosaur Discovery Gallery, we spent our wedding night wrapping and tagging specimens for the anticipated move. We were at the museum until 3am.

July 2 we had reserved for showing my family some of the hiking trails in the area, and we were able to visit most of them. My family were very aware of what we were facing in terms of the possible evacuation, and decided to leave a day early on July 3 so that we could focus on the museum. We spent the night of July 2 at the museum, putting the finishing touches on packing.

My family left just after 2pm on July 3, and Rich and I took this opportunity to catch up on some sleep. We were physically and emotionally exhausted. On waking around 7pm, we went outside to see the progress of the smoke over the mountain. I now know how characters in zombie movies feel when they wake from a coma and see the world around them rendered silent and abandoned. We made a couple phone calls and found that the evacuation order had been given not long before we had woken up. It was time.

I dropped Rich off at the museum to begin the official packing while I went back to our apartment for a quick personal pack. The very first item that was packed was my cat Maia she was none too pleased at being unceremoniously bundled into her carrier and tossed into the cab of the truck. Next I packed our important paper documents (previously secured in one case as soon as we saw the smoke.) Then I packed a change of clothes for both of us, and, because they were still sitting out, our wedding clothes and gifts. I took about 15 minutes.

During the personal packing, I tracked down our Summer Education Coordinator, who was here without a vehicle. I picked her up at her apartment, along with a small, grey and white bob-tailed kitten that had been in the apartment next to hers. The kitten's owners could not get back into town, so we took the kitten with us. I have no idea what the name of the kitten was, but we called him Evac.

We went to the museum and began loading specimens. Both cats shared a space in the truck's cab, much to the endless dismay of a yowling Maia. We spent many hours loading specimens and documents: we had found that we had more room than previously thought for the move, and decided to stay, packing specimens into the vehicles until we were told in no uncertain terms that it was time to go. As we packed between 8pm and 11pm, we were visited a few times by the emergency response team. They were very curious about when we were planning to get out of town, and each time they stopped their insistence increased. We understood: they had a job to do and didn't want to have to worry about our safety while doing it, but I think they also understood that we had a job to do as well. During the loading of the specimens, we received concerned phone calls. The first question was "Are you guys OK?" The next question was "What is going to happen to the fossils?"

The final specimens that would fit - all the track slabs were left behind, but their latex molds were stowed on the top layer of material in the back of the van - were loaded just as fine, while ash particles began to fall around us. We broke out the field walkie-talkies and divided ourselves between the vehicles - Robin (our E. C.) and I were in the truck (with the two rather agitated cats), and Rich was in the van. We drove to our friend's house in Fort St. John via Chetwynd and Hudson's Hope, as the direct route was now inaccessible due to the fires. This white-knuckle drive took about four hours. Four hours of wondering if the remainder of our collections would survive. This fretting was accompanied by yowling from the back seat from Maia, repeated escape attempts from his temporary cardboard box carrier by Evac, and listening to the radio for updates.

Once we arrived in Fort St. John, we relaxed a bit. The fossils were secured, and we had nothing to do but wait. So we waited. We watched local TV to keep abreast of the updates, watched bad movies, played a round or two of golf, and ate pizza. We still jokingly call it the Evacuation Party. Maia was tormented by Evac, who wanted nothing more than to play with this other cat. Maia wanted to play as well, but only on her terms.

We were in Fort St. John until July 7. The evacuation order had been downgraded to an alert on July 6 after 4pm. The winds had shifted so that the town was no longer in danger, and 17mm of rain had fallen. The fossils could go home. Our Evacuation Party/honeymoon was over.

Collections management isn't just about keeping track of the history and location of a specimen: it also involves the health and safety of that collection, and having to consider everything that could possibly threaten that security. I often joke with VIPs that I'm paid to think of the worst things that could possibly happen to the fossils under my care, and to then come up with ways to avoid those scenarios. They laugh and I laugh, but it is a serious matter. Museums in the zone of the Ring of Fire must contend with earthquakes and possible tsunamis. Collections managers secret away valuable specimens in vaults and basement rooms during times of war or political uncertainty. Hurricanes, floods, and tornadoes are a reality for collections managers in tropical and flat locales. In our part of the world there are only three things that threaten the safety of our collections: forest fires, deliberate acts of vandalism, and loss/reduction of funding.

This began as a story about how closely my personal and professional lives are tied, but it really is a story about how seriously all collections managers, archivists, and curators take their duty of caring for our natural heritage. I am not the only curator with a story like this. It's not just a job: it's a mission to do the best we can by our ancient charges. Keeping vigil over The Dead is such a huge responsibility that it becomes an intimate part of all of our lives.


  1. Yes... It's not just a job: it's a mission.
    By the way its considered a good omen if it rains on your wedding day. (as for us it rained on our engagement day - unusual rains)

    1. We would have definitely considered it a good omen if it had rained - we would have done the "Yay! We don't have to mad dash the fossils out of town!" rain dance!