North Bay Fires 2017
When I first learned about the North Bay fires on the morning of October 9, my thoughts and feelings initially focused on those who were being evacuated and displaced. As news of deaths from the fires mounted over the course of the week while fast moving and uncontrollable fires were blackening thousands of acres, I realized that something quite unusual was taking place. Was this the consequences of climate change finally knocking on my back door? Until now, I had always felt safe and removed from the forces of nature that could change the course of my life, but now I was beginning to wonder if those thoughts and feelings were becoming obsolete and outdated.
As the fires continued spreading into the second week, I witnessed an immense outpouring of support from the Petaluma community. Neighbors took friends and complete strangers into their homes and they staffed shelters and makeshift encampments in the county. I found myself wondering what I would save “if I only had five minutes to get out” and over the course of those weeks, I knew I was experiencing a life-changing event that touched me in ways I had not previously known.
I decided by the end of the third week that, as a social documentary photographer for some forty years, I needed to see for myself what life must have been like for those who lost everything. I began at Coffey Park in Santa Rosa and then continued to photograph throughout the county for the next several months. I documented not only the rubble of lost homes and other structures, but in doing so, I kept thinking about the people who had once lived or worked at these sites. I photographed remnants of what remained in backyards such as outdoor furniture, a child’s playhouse, lawn chairs, teacups and tomato cages, objects that told a story about people who lived in these homes. And as difficult as it was to witness and document what remained, I found that the process, also in fact, became a kind of healing one for me.
In the weeks that followed, I began to explore the causes of these fires, reading what I could and talking with those who had been directly affected by the fires. The combination of years of severe drought, along with extremely high winds and unusually high temperatures were the primary factors. Later, PG&E would also be held responsible for failing to maintain an adequate vegetation management program which would have cut down tree limbs too close to power lines and which ignited many of the fires in the first place. As one resident told me “it was like raining fire”.
Finally, it is important to recognize that those who fought the fires were not only trained firefighters and other first responders from affected communities, but also prisoners. Many were women and people of color who were enlisted to assist in fighting these fires. Sonoma residents have expressed their gratitude and appreciation for everyone’s heroism and selfless work, and for many months, they dotted the countryside with signs and messages of thanks throughout the county.
Coffey Park, a suburban community in Santa Rosa was completely destroyed by the fast moving North Bay fires.
On Arnold Drive
Glen Ellen, CA 2017
All the buildings of the historic Stornetta Dairy and Farm along Route 12 were completely destroyed by the fires.
Rapidly shifting winds account for why some houses were completely destroyed while others survived.
Plastic newspaper racks simply melt in the fires.
Sonoma Valley Regional Park
Four weeks and two rains-storms later, life begins again in the park.
Ledson Winery & Vineyards
Many wineries in Sonoma and Napa counties were saved by turning on their extensive irrigation systems as the hills surrounding them burned uncontrollably.
Message of thanks were abundant throughout Sonoma county.