By Mike Cobb, Director of Engineering, originally posted October 2017
Wine country in California is currently overcome with a series of fifteen wildfires that began late Sunday evening, October 8 2017, and continue to burn across Sonoma, Napa and Lake counties. High winds of fifty miles per hour fed the fires, which grew into a devastating scene, tearing through entire communities.
Families, hospitals and nursing homes found themselves being pulled from sleep and evacuating in the middle of the night. The fires sent more than 20,000 people fleeing for their lives as more than 2,000 homes and businesses burned. Over 73,000 acres have already been engulfed.
Many employees of DriveSavers live in the affected areas and have been evacuated to shelters and other safe areas. My own neighborhood was one of the first to be evacuated, and I have received news that my family has lost our home. Luckily, the mandatory evacuation was well organized and I left my home with my wife, children and dogs around 2:00 am in the morning of October 9th. All of my loved ones are unharmed. Even if our neighborhoods, homes and belongings are lost, we have our lives and we have each other.
When the fires are quenched and residents and business owners return to see what’s left, we will all be faced with picking up the pieces. I’ll speak to the digital pieces since that is where my expertise lies and where I feel I can provide the most helpful information.
Each one of those homes and businesses that were in the paths of these fires has at least one computer or storage device with valuable data on it that may be recoverable. Many customers don’t understand how much data can be recovered. Over the past thirty-two years, DriveSavers has recovered data from thousands of fire-damaged devices. Each type of data storage device comes with its own challenges, but we can overcome most of them.
Fire Damaged Hard Disk Drives (HDDs)
For hard disk drives (HDDs), it’s really all about head alignment—the readers have to be perfectly located over the data. Any distortion throws it off. Usually, the drive is burnt and the controller card, which tells the head where to look for data, gets destroyed. There can also be warping of the platters. It’s a difficult and long process to realign data that has been warped and replace the head. It usually takes several tries and many parts from new drives to get it to work properly.
Even so, hard disks have a remarkably sturdy design and are generally recoverable. Restoring the controller card is a trial and error affair, but the data is usually still intact.
Fire Damaged Solid State Drives (SSDs)
For solid state drives (SSDs), it’s all about the memory chips. While the housings for SSDs are typically not as substantial as an HDD, the silicon materials used to make the memory chips that the data is stored on can withstand some pretty high temperatures. As long as the memory chips remain intact, then there is always the possibility for a recovery.
Fire Damaged Smartphones and Tablets
With the large number of different smartphones and tablets on the market, the path to recovery can be very different based on the device. In some cases, as long as the memory chip is intact, then recovery is possible. However, there are also cases where the entire device needs to be rebuilt and made operational in order to successfully recover the contents. We have had many successes with fire damaged devices and they need to be looked at on a case-by-case basis.
Fire Damaged Camera, SD and Micro-SD Cards
For camera cards and thumb drives, the most important parts that are needed are the NAND flash memory chips. We have seen many cases in which the casing has been pretty melted, but the NAND was able to be recovered and reconstructed for a successful recovery.
What To Do and Not Do with Your Fire Damaged Device
If you have a smoke-damaged or burned computer, smartphone or tablet, do not attempt to power it up or clean the device. If a computer is wet from fire hoses, remove the hard drive, place in a plastic bag with an airtight zip closure and contact a professional data recovery service company such as DriveSavers.
DriveSavers has recovered data from storage devices that have been destroyed by some of the worst natural disasters imaginable, including Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Katrina, Southern California fires and the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. Recovering data that have been exposed to sustained water and fire damage, corruption, corrosion and erosion are just a few of the challenges that DriveSavers faces every day.
DriveSavers has put together a checklist to use when electronic devices have been exposed to a wildfire:
- Do not attempt to power up a smoke-damaged or a burned hard drive, phone or tablet.
- Do not attempt to clean a device with water.
- If the computer is wet from fire hoses, remove the wet hard drive—do not dry—and place in a plastic bag with an airtight zip closure. If you are unable to remove the hard drive but your computer is a laptop with a removable battery, remove the battery.
- If a smartphone or tablet is wet from fire hoses, remove the battery if possible, dry the exterior of the device with a clean towel and place the device in a plastic bag with an airtight zip closure. Do not attempt to open the device or use desiccants such as rice to dry the interior.
- If the drive is “sealed” in a melted computer, leave it intact and send the entire system to DriveSavers for certified engineers to safely remove the drive.
- CAUTION—beware of electrical cables at the site of your computer; talk to your local fire official to be sure your area is safe before removing computer drives.
- Call DriveSavers at 800.440.1904.