Burning Down The House (or: What To Do When All Your Stuff Is On Fire.)

This is, admittedly, sort of close to home in a very literal sense; a few weeks ago I walked out of my back door, took a bracing lungful of clear morning, air, coughed, and then noticed that the large expanse of legally-contested Mesa behind my yard was, in fact, on fire. Thus:

Admittedly less dramatic than half an hour earlier, but in my defense I’d been too busy not being on fire to spend time composing artful studies on the savage beauty of the open flame. Also, it was very smoky.

Now, I don’t know about you, but this kind of thing is something I typically find… perturbing. You know what? I’m not ashamed to say it. I was perturbed. You could even make an argument for my being alarmed. There’s an initial instinct to be very British about it (which – being British – comes easily to me) and look at the encroaching flames and say things like “Right,” and “Ah,” and “I see,” and then go back indoors and spend a couple of minutes unpacking the emotional load that comes with oncoming disaster in order that those emotions can be best suppressed or – better yet – filed away, never to be spoken of (because, again, British). Once that initial instinct is out of the way, I’m glad to report that I behaved in an adult and responsible fashion and immediately called the local authorities that deal with these sorts of things, let them know who I was and where I was and what the issue was, and then hung up and watched the roiling inferno as it bore down upon my person, my loved ones, the collection of creatures that I think of as pets and that they think of as roommates and, oh yes, all my possessions.

I had a nice, long wait until fire trucks turned up. I’m not complaining; mine is an out-of-the-way sort of place that’s hard to get to. We don’t often see any kind of law enforcement-type activity back here, which is fine because we’re not exactly a hotbed of crime and public disorder (save for the party house on the next street and the occasional, terrified middle-class teenagers doing low-level drug deals in the most highly conspicuous, terrified middle-class teenager way underneath the sole streetlight at the end of the road). I spent some of that time messing around with hoses and calling neighbors, and the rest of the time running through the mental checklist of What I’d Do If My House Burned Down.

Other than protecting all my stuff and the welfare of my loved ones, it turned out to be a fairly short list. I have a go-bag with a laptop that’s signed into iCloud so that I can get to iCloud Keychain, a portable hard drive with a lot of copies of insurance information on, a key to a safe deposit box and a bunch of chargers and cables and batteries. The idea would be that if I had a few seconds I could grab that thing, throw it into whatever vehicle is nearest, and then leave the family manse to the flames, secure in the knowledge that as long as I can get to some kind of internet access I’ll be able to start piecing everything else together. Further, everyone in the household backs up to BackBlaze, so provided nothing wildly unexpected happens most (if not all) of everyone’s data should be available in some form.

So, well done me. Roll out the red carpet, do mischief to the fatted calf and so forth. The whole nine yards. But now that self-congratulatory claptrap is out of the way it’s probably worth establishing some basic guidelines so that you, gentle reader, can figure out what to do when sheets of flame come roaring and hissing down the hill behind your house while your neighbors talk to the local TV reporter and don’t pull their weight vis-a-vis the oncoming inferno. Yes, you can imagine the petty, annoyed tone in that last sentence. Oh please, it’s not like they read this, anyway.

Firstly, have a backup strategy that includes a cloud component. Or two; after all, while belt and suspenders are solid, belt and suspenders and another pair of suspenders are better. And optionally another belt. When I talk to clients about backup strategies I like to present three separate scenarios, ranging from mundane to ridiculous, that hopefully spell out the value in mixing different backup techniques. They are:

You lose a file or accidentally erase something. This one’s easy; use some kind of directly attached storage on your computer or (if you’re accessing files on a server) have some kind of directly attached storage hooked up to the server. This mostly works out to be some kind of big hard drive, and the product I chiefly recommend to clients to actually run the backups is Apple’s Time Machine. No, it’s not perfect, and yes, once in a blue moon it’ll just stop working, but it’s built in to the OS, its extremely easy to use, and it’s… well, it’s reliable enough

Your office/home burns to the ground. A little more alarming, but still possible. In that case I like to recommend a combined strategy of offline physical and (optionally) online cloud backups – a set of hard drives that are rotated out on a regular schedule and then the inactive drives stored at a separate physical location. If disaster strikes then you can retrieve the offsite backup, plug it into a replacement computer (or server), and within an hour or two you’re back in business.

The entire State of California sinks into the unforgiving blackness of the Pacific Ocean, or else is enveloped in relentless white-hot fire that pulls the air from your lungs even as if blackens the sky, bringing utter destruction and the irretrievable loss of not only your business premises but every other place where you might have a backup stored. Funny thing, this one. There was once a time when I’d trot this out and there’d be a certain amount of good-natured eye-rolling and general amusement. Of late this has started to tip over the edge from “kind of thing that people laugh about” to “kind of thing that people laugh nervously about.” It’s California. Sun. Surf. Gorgeous scenery. The Golden Coast. The American Riviera.

Except during fire season, when it unaccountably has a tendency to turn into bloody Mordor at the drop of a bloody hat. Having your data backed up to the cloud is a solid hedge against this kind of disaster. Cloud backups are massively slower than direct backups because, well, internet, but services like BackBlaze will send you a hard drive containing all of your data if you give them about a hundred bucks, which seems like an astonishingly efficient way of recovering huge amounts of data without having to muck around with hotel wifi.

Actual daytime photo of Santa Barbara. See that blue sky on the right? The part that isn’t swamped by oxidized trees? Just don’t go outside, and if you do, don’t breathe.

Secondly, have some kind of secure repository of information that you might need in case of disaster.

Now, that sounds completely subjective, as it doesn’t make a lot of distinctions about what either “secure,” “repository,” or “information” actually consist of. I’ll try and break this down in reverse order because, hey, that’s a little more fun.

Information. What information? That kind of depends on what you’re currently doing with your data and what you need to be able to do. For example: if you use two-factor authentication through an app like Google Authenticator the you should have a bunch of backup codes for each of the services you use so that (once your house has burned down with your phone in it) you’ll be able to set up a new device to get new two factor codes. Or this might mean something physical – paper copies of insurance documentation, deeds, birth certificates – stuff that’s not necessarily irreplaceable but certainly not something that can be re-sourced at the drop of a hat.

Repository. This can be digital, but it doesn’t have to be. That’s important to note; I think it’s widely assumed that having everything on a thumb drive or on The Cloud™ is better than traditional media, but that’s not always the case. When you’re talking about the aforementioned birth certificates, deeds etc then that’s kind of a moot point – there are some things that are only valid in dead tree format – but having vital information on paper can be a huge time saver. Of course, there are a slew of issues with having physical copies of things, so it’s worth mentioning…

Secure. Having that data – no matter what its form – secure is vital. Critical data in rest is always a target of some sort, or at least vulnerable to opportunism. In the simplest sense; having a notebook labelled “Passwords and Bank Account Info” lying around in case you need to grab it on the way out the door is only great in that one, narrow moment. Until then it’s just a book with everything required to remake or ruin your life, just lying around the house. Don’t do that. A Safe Deposit box with your local bank runs to a couple of hundred bucks a year. Put it in a vault, get a spare key, and put the spare key somewhere safe. If we’re not talking about physical security then think about data and encryption. Really consider things like the keys you’re using to encrypt your data, and where records of those keys might be kept.

Finally – and this is something that I don’t see mentioned a lot, but that I personally think is vital – have spare hardware. Nobody stands in the smoking ruins of their home, brushes themselves off, and says “Oh good. Now I can go stand around at the Apple Store for an hour spending upwards of a couple of grand on a new laptop. At last, the excuse that I’ve been looking for. Oh happy day! This was all worth while.”

Okay, maybe there are few really odd people out there, but I’m willing to bet they’re the exception rather than the rule. I go the other route – the laptop I have shoved in my IT go-bag is a 2013 MacBook Pro running macOS Mojave. It’s not some speed demon, and it’s not running anything except the basic, stock applications. I power the thing on a couple of times a year, kick the tires, make sure that everything seems in working order, then shut it off and put it away again. It’s not a thing for tinkering with; it’s the thing that I’m going to know is working properly when I absolutely need it to. You don’t need a laptop, though; an iPad does the job just fine for most things, and even an old iPhone or iPod touch will be serviceable in a pinch – provided that whatever you use can is recognized by iCloud or your cloud-solution of preference.

I’m reliably informed that – this being the internet and all – many people reading this are not in Southern California, but I think these simple guidelines work no matter where you are and no matter the disasters you’d like to mitigate. Fire, flood, violent political unrest – at the end of the day you end up coming back to something that I bang on about endlessly both in the written word and in person whenever I’m called on to speak to a room full of people who are checking Facebook while ostensibly paying attention at conferences: Helen Keller was right. Security is mostly superstition. It doesn’t exist in nature. The sun may rise and set from one day to the next for months, years, decades – but it’s an unwise person who believes that we’re playing anything other than a numbers game. One day, the axe will fall. Possibly when you least expect it – you’ll stroll out of your back door with coffee cup in hand, behold the fire as it races forward, borne by the cool morning breeze, and in a moment your world will shift minutely but significantly.

Thankfully, my house didn’t burn down (which was a great relief to all parties concerned), but yours might. Or your office, or in extreme cases, the city where you live. It may sound doom-and-gloom, but there’s no getting away from that; you can’t escape the risk, and you can’t prevent it. But, with a few careful decisions and an ounce or two of forethought, you can mitigate those risks and prepare for the worst.

After all, this is 2020. Preparing for the worst has practically become a national sport at this point… 🙂

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