April 23, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

CO Library Serves Kids “On the Fly” as Wildfires Rage

What do you do when disaster strikes? That’s the urgent question the staff at the Poudre River Public Library District in Fort Collins, CO, was forced to answer when the raging High Park wildfires—among the worst in the state’s history—ignited June 9 north and west of the city.

The blaze, which was 50 percent contained Monday night, has forced more than 1,000 people to leave their homes, with many seeking refuge at a wireless-equipped Red Cross evacuation center in Loveland, CO, 10 miles south of Fort Collins.

The library’s ten staff members immediately leapt into action to distribute eight laptops and a projector to the shelter’s briefing room (left), where residents can receive updates on the fire and view maps showing its progress. Library staffers are also on hand to provide story times and show movies to kids as a way to divert their attention from the wildfires that have so far devoured about 58,000 acres of land, and as of Sunday night, destroyed 189 homes.

Cobbling together programs for kids and adults is totally “on the fly,” says Holly Carroll, the library’s executive director. In an effort headed up by Irene Romsa, the library’s outreach manager, library staff, aided by librarians from nearby Windsor, CO, set up a children’s area for story time, movie-viewing, and play time. They also worked with a collection of about 300 donated and library-owned books.

“There’s no written procedure” for crafting kids or adult programming during a disaster, says Romsa. “The rules that apply in a library don’t apply.” That being said, library personnel, who’ve been rotating through the evacuation center, “have been tweaking the strategy several times a day.”

At first, librarians tried setting up a separate room for kids and teens at the evacuation center. But that didn’t work, says Romsa. “The kids were scared and didn’t want to be away from their parents.” So staffers carved out a nook that let family members see each other easily.

There’s storytime, but instead of the traditional group setting, Romsa says staffers read single books to kidslike picture book Pete the Cat (Merrymakers, 2010) by James Dean—as individual kids trickle in and out of the space. They library is also outfitting children with backpacks so those who’ve relocated temporarily to hotels and friends and relatives’ homes will have books to read.

The library’s three branches are located in Fort Collins, population 143,986, perched in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, 65 miles north of Denver, but they serve all of surrounding Larimer County, a vast swath of largely rural territory that stretches northward to the Wyoming border. The Poudre River Library boasts a circulation of 3.2 million books and serves 138,000 users.

At outlying communities where the library conducts kids programs, poor air quality has forced staffers to decide daily whether to cancel outdoor programs, says Carroll.

At the time the fires broke out, Romsa was working at a local quilt festival. Library staff soon contacted the local Red Cross chapter to ask whether the library could assist in the recovery effort. The Red Cross took them up on the offer and is heaping praise on the library as “first responders,” as some have dubbed the Poudre River crew.

“I’ve been completely impressed with what they’re doing,” says Erin Mounsey, executive director of the Northern Colorado Red Cross chapter. “They’ve been a great resource.” Specifically, residents use Poudre County Library laptops to sign up for a special Red Cross evacuation alert, which sends messages to cell phones and emails so people know when it’s safe to return home.

Key to the swift response was the fact that the library had already forged positive relationships with other community organizations.

“Establishing these partnerships ahead of time is useful,” says Carroll. “We’ve had these laptops and had taken them to communities so they’re already familiar with us.”

At some point, the library will move its operations to a recovery center located at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.

But one way or the other, it’s going to be a long, hot summer for the library and for the Fort Collins community at large.

“It’s a real fire, says Monsey. “It’s not over.”

About Laura B. Weiss