The Memory Remains
A year ago seems far away but the memory still feels raw. The destruction that began a year ago today in Napa and Sonoma Counties still draws chills down my spine. I arrived into the Wine Country Fire Siege a day after winds exploded into downtown Santa Rosa, with the Tubbs Fire leveling thousands of homes alone. I arrived as the search and rescue teams were doing secondary searches for bodies, as the stench of rotting animals, wild and pets alike, filled the air along the roadside and in neighborhoods. Just arriving from destructive wildfires in SoCal, my sense of destruction and suffering was already acute.
Upturned cars in parks, melted aluminum engine blocks lay as they burned. Further up the mountain the Nuns Fire still burned in the hills as hotshot crews fired out, but the quiet moments each dawn I was sent out to photograph the wreckage, in time for east coast deadlines, were the most sobering. One morning after briefing during a particularly nasty inversion, I went out to the Fountaingrove neighborhood where I’d scouted out a hillside vista a few days prior. The photo speaks for itself. The entire neighborhood, gone.
(Continued from Instagram) One man I met outside the police roadblocks begged me to tell him if his house was still standing. He gave me a street name, I demurred. He asked again and I couldn’t say no with the look in his eyes of exhaustion, stress, and heartbreak. So I went into Fountaingrove, and the afternoon I scouted this picture, gave him a call. “Sir, I’m sorry to share this news with you, but your house is gone.” “Are you sure? Well what about the neighbors or the cat? Maybe their house is OK, or do you see a cat?” “I’m sorry, the entire block is gone, hopefully the cat made it to the golf course” knowing full well the feline was probably gone, unable to escape a closed home. It’s usually not my place to tell residents whether their home is still standing or not, but in this case, I think it brought the gentleman and his family some peace. After a long silence, he replied “OK, now we know,” seemingly resigned to the reality, and hung up. As someone who documents these fires, we are bound to a code of ethics and transparency, and we are also human. We have to make judgment calls that generally mean not getting involved, but we also have to remember our shared humanity. And I think we need to never forget that when covering a tragic distaster.
On the subject of humanity in a world that has a changing climate, it becomes obfuscated by politics and agendas. I can’t change what I saw, what Santa Rosa experienced, what my firefighter friends and other journalists who were there from day one, watching their community burn. When people shrug off climate change, it’s personal. I hear denial and head in the sand arguments, and all I can think of is driving through block after block of leveled house, trying to not run over the petrified squirrels in the road or the broken glass every few feet from exploded windows. Yes, there is an emotional response, but also a rational one. Cold, hard aluminum puddles in the street from melted cars are cold hard facts. You can’t argue with a leveled subdivision and body bags. The images and numbers don’t lie. We saw it in Redding this year, in Lake County, in Ventura, and will see it too soon at the next firestorm. The silver lining was the communities affected by the Wine Country Fire Siege coming together, neighbor helping neighbor, and the region pouring in support. Firefighters from all over the west came to help, and the cleanup and healing still continue.
While I can write and share, few will ever understand the enormous mixed emotions of seeing such destruction and it’s lingering effects. Those that were there, either as civilian, first responder, or journalist all share a bond, for better or for worse, of seeing these things as they were. It’s the small things that got me, personal items, a kid’s tricycle, a family BBQ.
Every time I’m watching a wildfire in the forest, it’s a sight of nature under the stars doing it’s dance, but I also remember Santa Rosa, a fire nobody should ever have to suffer through, and remember that despite making pretty pictures of fire, there is a toll to be paid by those affected by fires, and by those who fight it. And ultimately, I realize that I too am affected. But this isn’t about me, it’s about telling the story of wildfires and climate change in the west. Many others dedicate their time and energy to telling that story, and even more to fighting it each year.
This past July I stayed at an off-duty Cal Fire firegityher’s family home in Santa Rosa who hosted me while photographing the Ranch Fire. I was heading south on Highway 101 in the middle of the night after photographing for many hours in Lake County, driving through downtown Santa Rosa around 3am. I was exhausted, running on caffeine and heavy metal. I don’t really listen to metal, but it helps you stay awake on the roads and to get home safely. On the left I saw a dark void amidst the lonely glow of the orange sodium vapor lights, the specter of burned palm trees rising into the air, hulks of once living trees. I realized it was the Journey’s End Mobile Home Park, where multiple senior citizens were trapped and killed by the Tubbs fire in the middle of the night, unable to escape the flames in time. Here I was, 9 months later, passing through while at a fire nearby, which would grow to be the largest wildfire in California history, surpassing the Thomas fire that happened two months after the Tubbs fire. So much fire, so much destruction, in so little time.
As I drove past the phantasmorgic shapes in the dark, I turned my head back to focus on the road, Metallica’s song “The Memory Remains” played, the words playing a twisted serendipitous melody. - “ash to ash, dust to dust, fade to black.”
Be safe out there, - SP
PS - If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading. It’s taken a while to process the experience and share. For every incredible piece of fire behavior out in the woods, there’s a human toll borne by destructive wildland urban interface fires. Putting my thoughts into writing helps me process what I’ve seen, and hopefully civilians and firefighters acutely affected by the fire share their stories or process them. If you’ve been affected by these fires my door is always open if you want to talk or just need a listening ear.