A lesson re-learned from disaster

The recent wildfires in California have devastated an entire city.  Paradise, CA was so completely destroyed that it may never be rebuilt.  Those who lived there have mostly lost everything, because the fire moved so quickly that there was no time to pack important belongings before evacuating.  Even fireproof safes turned out to be not fireproof enough.  One person lost his life savings when the safe holding the money was subjected to such intense heat that its contents “turned to unrecognizable dust“.

I’ve been taking the time to read reports of how computer and document backups were, or were not, adequate to safeguard important records during and after the fire.  Most of the reports are dismal, to say the least.  From online conversations and other sources, here are just some of the incidents that have been discussed:

  • Computer data backed up on thumb drives, stored in a “fireproof” box, were indeed protected from the flames;  but the heat inside the box rose so high that the drives simply melted, becoming unusable.
  • Documents in a similarly “fireproof” file container were charred into unrecognizable black ash, even though the container remained nominally intact.
  • In many cases, fireproof safes and filing cabinets were badly warped by the heat, rendering them incapable of opening.  Many people have not yet been able to return home to see what survived the flames, but some who have claim that they had to use angle grinders with cutting wheels, the “jaws of life“, or other heavy-duty equipment to open them.
  • Some who managed to load their vehicles with valuables got stuck in traffic jams on evacuation routes.  They had to abandon their vehicles and their contents to save their lives as the flames approached.  The net result was as if they had left their valuables at home . . . they still lost everything.

This disaster has highlighted the need for backups of vital documents, work in progress, etc., for businesses and individuals in general and for writers in particular.  Our life blood, so to speak, is usually stored at our homes – not just manuscripts and work in progress, but research notes, details of research trips (including photographs, recordings, museum guides, etc.) and other important items.  Our bookshelves are often filled with important reference material, too – and older books that we’ve painstakingly accumulated over many years may not be replaceable, or at least not by affordable copies.

We should learn from this disaster, re-examine our current backup plans, and improve them where needed.  In particular, off-site digital storage has been shown to be more reliable and trustworthy than thumb drives or CD’s kept in allegedly “fireproof” storage at home!  USA Today has a useful article on backing up our digital footprint, with some good suggestions.  It might also be a good idea to store copies of physical media with friends some distance away.  (Writers in Paradise, CA who did that at friends’ houses in the same town are probably regretting itright now, because the whole town is gone!  Distance from disaster is your friend…)

Let’s learn from this tragedy, and update our own plans accordingly.  For useful ideas, read Cedar Sanderson’s article on the subject on this site earlier this month.


  1. Fire, flood, tornado, of the three I worry least about muddy flood waters inundating where I currently live. It is possible, and pipe breaks are a constant concern here in the land of Rotted Water Heaters and Related Woes. I’ve packed a run-away bag more than once for tornadoes. Inside were: laptop and back-up drives, dissertation notes, two books I could not replace if lost, change of underwear, and good-to-have meds. And extra $$ tucked here and there. It all fit into a single backpack. I added two flashlights and some water bottles in case I ended up in a shelter and the lights went out.

    My being prepared kept other people calm, as I discovered later. And while I would have lost a great deal, my dissertation (seven years of work) would have been saved.

    1. Re: the books. If you mean sentimental value for the physical books I understand that. If you mean to read and use then take images of the pages with a digital camera. If you want to do it one better use character recognition software to reduce the files to text instead of images.

      1. I think she means one of very few copies in existence. Her interests include historical documents.

      2. I had no digital recording equipment, and the books are very unusual, privately printed historical monographs. To replace one would have been impossible, and the other would have cost several thousand dollars.

  2. My own approach is that I just keep everything on Microsoft’s OneDrive. That lets me work on my laptop when I want to (e.g. like now when I’m in Chattanooga with my relatives for the holiday) or work upstairs on my desktop in Seattle. If I buy a new PC, there’s zero problem bringing it up to speed, since there’s no data to copy onto it.

    Where OneDrive doesn’t work (e.g. for computer software I write), I use git. That automatically pushes files to the server and I get another backup whenever I pull from the server to any other machine.

    If I had enough data, these things wouldn’t be free, but we’re talking an awful lot of data to reach that point. Since we have Office 365 Home edition, we’ve got 5 TiB of storage on OneDrive automatically, of which we’ve used about one thousandth. Git has a 10 GiB “suggested” limit, but we’re not even at 1% of that either.

    1. Do note that the day that Microsoft no longer finds it to its advantage, OneDrive could go away. Likewise github or any other git host that you don’t control. By all means, use them if you find them useful, but also rely on many decades of sysad experience and “defend in depth.” Always having “offsite backup” doesn’t just mean “off your site” but also “never rely on one and only one provider.” Several local backup media, several off-site media storage locations widely separated, in addition to electronically-transmitted remote storage, a.k.a. “The Cloud.” Paranoia is good for you when it comes to data you don’t want to/can’t afford to lose.

      1. It doesn’t matter if OneDrive or a particular git server goes away, though. All they’re doing is backing up the data you already have on your own devices. If they go away, you won’t lose anything; you’ll just need to find new services for backup.

  3. For some reason I’m reminded of Rosie O’Donnell’s infamous rant about fire not melting steel.

    House fires easily reach 1800 F, at which temperature steel sags like a CD case left on the dashboard in the summer. That safe ain’t going to survive unless it is buried under more than 3 feet of earth. If it is buried, there are floods to worry about. ~:(

    Nobody is so smart they’re going to out-think Armageddon. The Paradise fire was that, with bells on it. Your back-up better be in your pocket, or you’re screwed. If you’re using cloud storage, it should be in several other countries. Better hope you remember that password.

    One thing that is rather glaringly obvious, gold hoarders have a point. Even if the safe gets so hot that paper turns to dust, even if gold bars turn into melted chocolate-bar looking puddles… they are -gold- puddles. And gold does not care if it gets wet…

    1. At least with things like git and OneDrive, the server in the cloud holds the backup (or the master version, if you’d like), but all that data is copied down to every machine that syncs with the cloud. (That’s why I can keep working on an airplane.) So even if you lost the cloud, you’d still have copies of the data on every machine you synched with it.

      In an event big enough to take out all your machines and the servers, I suspect you’ll have much larger concerns than losing the draft of your novel. 🙂

      1. Hmmm… Makes me wonder if GIT might not be such a bad thing to use for keeping track of manuscripts. Works on any device. Have a bit of time and your laptop? Update your local copy the latest, when you are done push the changes back to git. If your server, or your laptop, or any other device gets destroyed in a sharknado. You still have the local repository on every device you worked on it on. One or more of those is bound to have the latest. I wonder if there are any good editors for writing books that have git functionality built in (like quite a few IDEs/Programming editors do).

        1. It helps that you’re not trying to merge changes from different sources; I’m not sure git could usefully merge two Microsoft Word documents together. But if it’s just you using it for backup, it ought to be great. You could even use it to track your changes, in case you want to resurrect that character you cut out six months ago or something.

      2. I admit to being a dinosaur where the “cloud” is concerned. I am not a fan. I even know some guys who were on the cutting edge of it when it first started, they explained the whole thing in excruciating detail. Still not a fan.

        I like my files local, where I can touch the thing that’s storing them, and I know who’s messing with them. I have a firewall too. I’m cranky that way.

        One of the things that’s making me seriously consider ditching Microsoft and smartphones is this insidious insistence by vendors on sneaking in remote storage. Apple, Android, even Blackberry, they all do it. My stuff is getting in the cloud and on their servers whether I like it or not. Pictures, calendars, contacts, all of it. Current news (and stock price!) of Facebook indicates this is what they’re doing.

        Samsung Android: Since you mentioned it Greg, I got a bee in my bonnet to back up the phone securely. I’m doing it right now, and I’ve been doing it since you posted earlier. Its been about an hour, making this a non-trivial exercise. A backup should be essentially automatic, strictly plug-and-play. But since I want to back the thing up to -my- computer, suddenly that’s a big deal.

        Work continues. 😡

        1. Things are always more difficult when you fight the system. If you don’t worry about having your files in the cloud, the system is simple, convenient, and effective. And you do have copies on all your machines; you won’t lose your data if you disconnect from the cloud.

          Instead of fighting with the system, you might look into encryption options, if you’re worried about Microsoft, Amazon, Google, or DropBox having access to your data.

          1. I’ve read the fine print on a few of the cloud storage things early on. What it basically said was that they own the data, and if it is lost, you have zero recourse.

            I didn’t like the idea of “they own the data” when I upload it. Not that it MEANS anything. It’s not like MS or Google, or whichever cloud storage co I read the fine print on, is going to STEAL my work (I hope) but the words were in there and it creeped me out.

          2. I am fighting it and WINNING!!! Raaaar!

            So what are we, three hours in now? Turns out you -can- do it. Backup to the computer and restore from the computer.

            If you:
            – use the charging cable that came with the phone. No other cable will do. Which is both stupid and deliberate. Because I can hook up a TV with -any- cable and a USB 3.1 hub. I use it to give talks sometimes, that’s how I know.

            – download Smart Switch software from Samsung, and agree to let them keep data about your phone and your PC. They don’t -need- that data to do the job. But they wants it, Preciousss!

            – are willing to wait. This is slow as shit. Given USB 3.1, it is slow on purpose. USB 3.1 is fast enough to support 4K video by HDMI

            So somebody really, really, REALLY wants me using their cloud service, and they really want to collect all sorts of data about my backups, to the point where they make it agonizing unless I use the cloud thing.

            This makes me super-duper suspicious, and even less likely to use the cloud thing.

            I’ve been around long enough to know just how easy it is to set up FTP on a Unix/Linux operating system, same with networking. I’ve put SGI Octanes on my network, and upgraded them with Linux too. How hard can an Android phone be, right? The phone -can- do it, because Android is Linux. It’s a hell of a lot faster computer than an SGI Octane. Samba should work, if nothing else. So they had to add stuff to make sure that can’t happen. And they did.

            Y’all techies want an interesting experience, try to set up wifi networking with your phone. Try to arrange file transfers. See how long it takes to navigate the roiled waters.

            This makes me even more suspicious, and now I’m going to find a way to do this transfer that is -way- off the books. Kernel hacking for the win.

            By the way, regarding encryption. If it is commercially available, it has a backdoor in it. For sure. Hard drives have back doors in them. Sounds very tin-foil hat, until you look it up. Turns out you can’t erase a hard drive anymore. Not even by writing zeros to it. You have to physically destroy the platters and the cache memory.

            Apropos of nothing, did you know that you can make a very handy metal forge in your driveway out of an old brake disk, a hair dryer and a bag of charcoal? Hot enough to melt a horse shoe.

          3. I fought and WON! Raar!

            Yes, you -CAN- back up a Galaxy Note 8 to a Windows PC.

            If you:

            1) use the actual cable it came with, no other cable or hub will do,

            2) download Smart Switch for Windows 10 from Samsung, which was not easy to find, and

            3) spend 3 hours to find all this info and do all this stuff. And then wait while the phone grinds away with the backup for 20 minutes.

            Making me suspect somebody really doesn’t want me doing it this way, they would much prefer I use the cloud.

            I also discovered my pictures were being “backed up” in the cloud, apparently despite my efforts Google Drive decided they would download anyway. So helpful.

            My next project will be getting Windoze networking to find and interact with this phone properly, as if it was a Linux computer. Which it is.

            Because whenever a company makes it this hard to do a function on a computer of any sort, it makes me want to do it more.

            1. Incidentally, the cops can root and peel your phone in their squad car, without the password, faster than you can do a USB backup. What does this tell us?

              1. Phones are too insecure to be trusted with any confidential information, and internet-via-phone is of the devil?

                And it might be better to lose the data than to hand it to the likes of Google, even encrypted. Over the time scales nation states care about, substantial advancements in decryption can be made.

                1. “And it might be better to lose the data than to hand it to the likes of Google, even encrypted.”

                  If a lowly $18/hr beat cop has a box in his cruiser that can rip a phone in five minutes, there ain’t no such thing as commercial encryption. Unless you write it yourself and run it on a box made in the 1990s, it doesn’t exist.

                  In my books the combat suits have 30mm guns with chemical ammunition and cable triggers. Even though they -could- have hyper-velocity railguns. Why? Because somebody laughed when the words “network security” were said in the planning meeting.

                  I’d feel kinda paranoid about thinking that way, but every time I get a twinge about computer security I shortly see I wasn’t twinging hard enough.

            2. Have you taken a look to Syncthing? I set it up on my NAS (Synology), and it worked OK with the data in the internal memory. Unfortunately, I was mostly interested in automatically backing up the data in the external SD (where all my pictures are storage) and the confounded Android rules make it impossible, so I haven’t kept up using it.

          4. Greg Hullender said: “Things are always more difficult when you fight the system.”

            Here’s an example of why I do what I do:

            “How much danger they could be in was illustrated this week with the sentencing of Chinese erotic writer Tianyi to 10.5 years in prison over gay scenes depicted in her novel. The news sparked outrage both inside and outside of China. But she is far from the only one caught in the crackdown that began in early 2018.”

            The Chinese government, in a sudden 180 degree turn, has decided that porn is bad and is hunting it down in all its forms. The above quote is from a Zerohedge story:


            10 years in jail for WRITING A STORY. $86,000 to snitch on a “porn provider.” There will be a lot of takers, I’m sure.

            This is provided as an example of a principle, not a defense of porn.

            If every keystroke I make is spread all over the Internet in a million servers, and every picture I’ve ever taken is likewise, I had better hope that some government or major corporation does not decide I am an undesirable. Because they’ll have all the evidence they need, a keystroke away.

            One never knows what particular behavior will be considered undesirable in the future. Currently there is a very loud movement that has declared biology does not determine gender, and anyone who thinks it does it literally Hitler. Nobody saw that coming 20 years ago, right?

            And that is why I am not a fan of “cloud computing” when I already have 6 terabytes of storage sitting next to my desk and 4 more in a RAID NAS sitting elsewhere in the vast Phantom Compound.

            Western Digital Blue, 4 terabyte, $99.99 CDN at Canada Computers black Friday sale.

            But all vendors are making it very difficult to access their phones and tablets locally, demanding we use their cloud storage services.

            Which is suspicious.

            1. Phantom: unless you wrote every byte of the microcode that resides on the chips in your hard drive, motherboard, etc., and literally never have your system use any sort of connectivity, whether wired or wireless…. then they gotcha if they wantcha.

              Heck, on one of my early government contracts, we got a home demonstration of how they can use a receiver in the back of a car to signal analyze the rf noise when you typed on a keyboard or displayed text on a monitor from a hundred yards away unless you had them in a Faraday cage.

              The only thing holding that back is the government’s fear of what the citizenry might do to them. It’s why the Second Amendment is important….. and why it needs a periodic workout.

    2. Manmade hill.

      A interior structure that is basically a concrete building, except for spaces inside that which are filled with dirt. The dirt columns are kept dry by a concrete roof overhead, beneath the top of the hill, and drainage at the bottom of the column with a pump to keep it dry. Your fire proof safes go in a column, and the access spaces are kept in nitrogen atmosphere when not in use.

      Fire, flood (if you make it high enough), tornado safe. Issues remaining: mold growing when the pumps fail, nitrogen system malfunctions, earthquakes (because I don’t know enough about structures and vibrations to design something proof against earthquakes that fall short of the Earth exploding).

      1. Earthquake wouldn’t do anything but bury that under more rubble. At worst it might wind up at the bottom of a new rift and you’d need a backhoe to retrieve it.

        Having personally seen one guy on a bulldozer move an entire mountain (admittedly it took three years, but that’s where Santa Clarita CA’s Costco now stands) I wouldn’t be too worried about a safe under 20 feet of newly-moved rock.

      2. Very expensive. Concrete and rebar costs a hell of a lot more than one might expect. $10K for a perimiter-beam concrete floor for my barn, 20×40, 14″ in the beam, 4″ in the floor. Easy pour and form-up, in the middle of a field with no trees to dodge.

        Water is always a problem. Passive water handling is The Way it should be done. I have a wet sump and a pump here at Chez Phantom, and it is a worry. There’s two pumps in there in case one breaks, and one of them is on a battery backup unit. A -large- unit. Hopefully large enough to give me 12 hours to clear the place out in a power failure, or at least get a gasoline generator going to run the pumps.

        Such a pain in the ass, but that is how life is here in Hooterville. Clay soil, high water table.

  4. We’ve had connections to Paradise, so I’ve been looking at the news stories since the day the fire started. A couple of incidents gave me an idea. Animals (at least one horse, some birds and others) have survived the fire by getting in a pool. It would take a hell of a long time for a pool to boil off; much longer than fire-rated safes would last. (I’ve seen ratings of 40-60 minutes at 1400F in recent adverts.) One assumes that there wasn’t much superheated air near those pools, not sure how that happened. Still, that water isn’t going to get hot for a long time…

    How about sticking valuables in a whitewater dry bag, then putting that in a strongbox, then submerging that in a tank, pool or carp pond? A galvanized stock tank *might* be sufficient. I’d skip the freestanding plastic ones, though. 🙂

  5. There are non-cloud remote data storage options, for me a bit of space on the machine I rent a portion of to do my e-mail and website serves well. You can rent storage space from a variety of providers that unlike the cloud folks don’t peek at your data or make any claim on it. Going with one that also runs periodic backups of your space is even safer. If you are worried about the admins snooping you can always encrypt the uploaded data.

    For physical storage we did a good bit of looking into the fire resistant boxes a while back as we were living in an RV and they have a tendency to catch fire. Priorities, first was fire resistance and second was water resistance. Gotta survive until the fire department and water trucks arrive, then have to survive the deluge. Nothing small has enough thermal resistance to last more than a few minutes in an RV or home fire, they have the gory details in their fine print of for better brands on-line. Water resistance goes from zero to poor and for many the poor goes to zero in a fire as they use a cheap gasket that melts and fails. We ended up with something far bulkier than we wanted and the weight was an issue too but we thought it gave us a good chance as long as we caught fire within about a 15 minute distance from the fire department, out on the highway or camping in the boondocks, not so much. Oh, we kept it as far as possible from the propane storage too.

    What we ended up with is the really hard to replace or valuable stuff went into a safety deposit box in a facility with good fire suppression and well above any possible flooding risk.

  6. Another online backup provider to consider is SpiderOak. They use what they claim is “zero knowledge” encryption, which is supposed to me that nobody (not them, not the government) can decrypt what is stored on their servers. As always, in situations like this, there is a large element of trust involved. The price is reasonable – I’m paying $10 / month for 1TB of data from up to 5 devices (Windows/Mac/Android) per account. I like their approach (select which directories are backed automatically whenever anything changes) as opposed to what I’ve seen of OneDrive (everything in the OneDrive directory is backed up). Just remember … the cloud is just some else’s computer.

  7. I will admit that I don’t trust that cloud backups will be available to me when I need them, so I tend to back things up to USB sticks. And, since a 128G stick (which is big enough to back up my frequently-changing files, plus my software environment) costs about $20-30 (depending on speed), then I can keep two of them in my pocket, whenever I leave the house.

    Because there will be failures — and I need to be able to recover.

    (Unfortunately, I had to test out that theory a few years ago. I was flying off to Australia for a week-long trip, and my laptop, with all my data, failed over the Pacific. So I bought the cheapest laptop I could find there, and spent my first day there rebuilding a working system. I took most of the first day — but I was running with all the software I needed, and with all the data I needed for the week, from the sticks in my pocket.)

    As Peter says — things will fail. Plan for how you’ll recover.

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