Skip to main content
Blog post main image
  • Mapping Our Memories: A Digitized Archive of Place and Loss in Sonoma County, California

    I woke up the morning of October 9, 2017, and lazily checked my phone. It was clear that something was wrong. Text messages and Facebook posts all pointed to one word: fire.

    Taking no notice of the time difference, I frantically called my family and tried to piece together what was happening. There was a fire. A big one. It was still burning. Everyone was scared, preparing to evacuate if they hadn’t already.

    I grew up in the small city of Santa Rosa, California. I attended the same high school as my parents, and most members of my very large family still live there. It is the city where I was born, where my dad built houses, where I buried my mother, and the place that I still call home. In an instant, my home was destroyed in the most destructive wildfire in California history. Over 5,200 structures burned and 22 people dead. Overnight. In a matter of hours.

    As the Tubbs Fire continued to burn, I spent the next few weeks glued to my phone and social media. The stories began to come out. A friend of my father’s, a leukemia patient, escaped his home with nothing more than the clothes on his back and hadn’t been able to get his medication refilled. The parents of a high school classmate survived by spending the night in a swimming pool. A doctor rode his motorcycle down a burning freeway to evacuate the hospital as his own home burned. A trailer park burned to the ground and killed residents—from their own homes, my family could hear the trailers’ propane tanks exploding.


    Click on the image above to view photos of Sonoma County before and after the fire

    Almost fifteen percent of my graduating class lost homes. My high school was gone. Three homes I had lived in were gone. The landscape of my youth was gone. Everything was gone.

    Desperate to help, I collected donations and flew home to help distribute food to those experiencing loss. Nothing felt like enough. How do you even make a drop of difference in a disaster of this magnitude? I was frustrated with all the national news only referring to Santa Rosa as “Wine Country” and reporting on repercussions on wine production, as if the city was inhabited by bottles of alcohol and not by actual people.

    On the positive side, I was able to reconnect with people with whom I had fallen out of touch. A previous neighbor asked if I knew anything about the house he had grown up in and loved. It didn’t survive the fire, but I realized I had family photos of his house in the mid-1990s. An idea dawned on me: what if there was a central place for Sonoma County residents to upload their own family photos of places that were destroyed? A virtual map allowing people to click through and see collective memories.

    Here is the result: Sonoma County Fires Community Memory Map. I built this interactive platform so that anyone can upload photographs to the map. The pictures must be linked to a specific address and have a brief caption. The intention is to create a patchwork of community memories of spaces that are no longer there. It’s a place where people can get a virtual respite from the fire-scarred landscape and everyday reminders of tragedy, and reflect upon the past. However, it will be effective only if people participate.

    As a professional archivist and a folklorist, I am often thinking about space and place. While it may be true that houses are just timber, walls, and plumbing, homes are places filled with memories. They are the backdrop to the mundane (waking up, showering, eating breakfast) and the extraordinary (falling in love, celebrating births, mourning deaths). In short, everything that encompasses the human experience. When a 6,000-degree fire tornado destroys the physical place, all that remains are memories.

    Many people lost photographs and other physical touchstones, but other members of the community may have some they are willing to share. There is no way to recreate what was lost, but we can attempt to recreate memory.


    Click on the image above to view photos from the memory map

    Having worked with both national institutions and community projects, I am familiar with the power that exhibitions and cultural documentation can have. This project is a way for people to be proactive in our own communities, tell our own stories, and respond as private citizens. Like the outpouring of support the community experienced from our neighbors—from making monetary donations to boarding livestock, housing displaced families, and feeding thousands daily—this is an effort for the documentation and cultural preservation to come from within.

    I hope that I have created a platform for community members to represent themselves through acknowledgement, mourning the loss of property and life, and creating a way to remember and memorialize what happened. If and when something happens again, the long-term value of the map can help inform and contribute a type of empathy that provides solace for other people who experience trauma.

    Nichole Procopenko is a records management specialist in the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections, housed at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, and an archivist for Dischord Records.

  • Support the Folklife Festival, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, Cultural Vitality Program, educational outreach, and more.