The California Wildfires Burned Down Irreplaceable Documents On Silicon Valley History

2017 has been a brutal year in northern California, where a series of wildfires have burned through hundreds of thousands of acres of land and left dozens dead or missing. The deadly Tubbs fire in northern California, which is estimated to have burned roughly 5,300 buildings across 36,807 acres and killed at least 22 people, also took out irreplaceable documents which traced the rise of massive PC manufacturer Hewlett-Packard (now two separate companies) and the early years of Silicon Valley earlier this month.

A wildfire near Calistoga, California on October 13th. Photo: AP

According to the Press Democrat, the wildfire blazed a trail through the Fountaingrove headquarters of Keysight Technologies, a spinoff of HP spinoff Agilent Technologies, and burned down a modular structure where the personal and business papers of late HP co-founders William Hewlett and David Packard were stored. Appraisers had estimated the documents were worth up to $US2 ($3) million in 2005; former HP staff archivist Karen Lewis told the paper that the archives had previously been kept in special, flame retardant-lined vaults.

"This could easily have been prevented, and it's a huge loss," Lewis said, adding the documents should have been stored at a public institution. She said when she had put together the collection in 1988, "I realised, 'Oh my god, this is the history of Silicon Valley ... This is the history of the electronics industry."

Jeff Weber, a spokesman for Keysight Technologies, told the paper that they had taken "appropriate and responsible steps to protect the company archives," but said the "most destructive firestorm in state history" defeated attempts to protect the collection. He added that a large portion of the archives were still in HP's hands.

Hewlett and Packard founded the eponymous company in 1939 in a Palo Alto garage that the company now refers to as the "birthplace of Silicon Valley." According to the Press Democrat, the Fountaingrove facility in Sonoma County was established in 1975 and "consistently focused on testing and measurement equipment," which helped lay the groundwork for the company's later development of more advanced devices like personal computers.

While the devastating wildfires which ripped through northern California in 2017 have mostly been contained, reports CBS News, the recovery effort will likely take years. The threat posed to the region by wildfires is growing, and scientists say the blazes have been exacerbated by climate change-related patterns of increased drought followed by periods of heavy rainfall, which creates large amounts of fuel.

[Press-Democrat/Quartz]