Voices From The Fire

 Rocky Fire smoke plume

Rocky Fire smoke plume

This past summer, three major wildfires burned 170,623 acres (267 square miles) in south Lake County California--where I grew up and where my family lives.  I happened to be visiting home for the first two fires (The Jerusalem and The Rocky Fires) but was away for The Valley Fire, the last and worst of the three. The Valley Fire burned 76,067 acres, destroyed over 1,300 homes (1,958 structures), injured four firefighters, and was responsible for the deaths of four residents.  It has been declared the third most destructive wildfire in California's history. For the sake of comparison, the Jerusalem and Rocky Fires (while large in terms of acreage) burned only 49 homes combined, with no firefighter injuries or resident fatalities. The Valley Fire tore through three whole communities, whereas the Rocky and Jerusalem fires mostly burned large areas of unpopulated brushy wilderness. 

Fair Warning - A few of the photos below show dead and/or partially burned animals.

 Jerusalem Fire Day 1

Jerusalem Fire Day 1

On September 12, the day the Valley Fire burned through Cobb, Middletown, and parts of Hidden Valley, I was two thousand miles away.  I called my mom and found out she was with my sister and her kids in a large irrigated field surrounded by fire.  The road to the highway was blocked, and they'd been forced to flee to the 100 acre green pasture about a half mile from our house. Knowing they would be safe in the pasture, my dad had stayed behind to try and fight off the fire.  I've never in my life felt more helpless than I did in that moment.  Through sheer determination and a bit of luck, my dad was able to save the house, and I flew home three days later to help in any way I could.  During that time, I took as many photos as I could and talked to hundreds of affected residents.  

 Jerusalem Fire Day 1

Jerusalem Fire Day 1

There is more to say about these fires than I could ever write here, and many of the stories have already been told.  The Valley Fire especially has been the subject of weeks and months of news coverage.  Instead of rehashing what media outlets have already covered, I wanted to share a few of my own photos, accompanied by snippets of stories I wrote down and saved while talking to locals in the aftermath of the fire.  Most of the people I quote here are close family and friends. I have decided to quote anonymously, mostly because I am drawing from my own notes to the best of my ability, often paraphrasing, and I don't want to misquote anyone.  But I also hope that these many anonymous stories can show a certain universality that came with the disaster. Middletown is a small community, and we experienced the fire as a collective whole. Everyone who lived through the fire has their own unique story to tell, but in the end I thought that most of the stories boiled down to two essential truths: everyone went through hell, and everyone lost something.

A note to avoid confusion: While the photos are a mix from all three fires, all quotes pertain exclusively to experiences from the Valley Fire.

 Jerusalem Fire: Day 1

Jerusalem Fire: Day 1

"Fire doesn't burn fast downhill, or isn't supposed to anyway. But we sat on the front porch and watched it pull its way all the way down the mountain in under forty minutes. You could see the trees and brush igniting out ahead of it. Each time you looked, there was a fire in a place where there hadn't been a fire a minute before. You know how a cigarette burns when you take a long drag? That's how the fire burned down the hill. That's what it looked like and that's how fast it was. Like someone was sucking the fire down the hill. And the sound of it. A roar, but a roar like you've never heard. So loud that you felt it more than you heard it. It was about then that we felt like we needed to leave."
 Jerusalem Fire smoke plumes

Jerusalem Fire smoke plumes

"I remember that it got dark early from the smoke. The sun hadn't set yet and it couldn't have been later than four or five, but it felt like late evening. And so windy. The wind just whipping everything. I remember that I said to myself I don't like this at all. I'm going outside to water the garden. And as I stood out there with the water running on the tomatoes I noticed that there were black leaves falling out of the sky. But they were leaves from trees that didn't grow near us. Leaves from trees way up the mountain on Cobb. Miles and miles away. I went back inside to grab just a few things and we left shortly after that, never thinking it would be the last time we'd see the house."
 Tanker flies over the Jerusalem Fire

Tanker flies over the Jerusalem Fire

"I wasn't in town when the fire came through, of course. But my brother was. I'd heard something about a small fire up on the mountain, and I knew it was moving quickly. But when my brother called and told me that the fire was already there at the house, I immediately got on the phone to CalFire. I must have tried a dozen times before I finally got someone to answer. I gave them our address and told them that we needed structure protection. I asked them where their fire units were and how soon they could be there. At first the man on the phone didn't seem to understand me. He asked if we were still at the house. I told him yes, my brother was there. I remember that he yelled at me. 'ARE YOU MAD?' he said. 'GET OUT GET OUT GET OUT. THERE ARE NO UNITS. EVACUATE. GET OUT NOW.'"
 Jerusalem Fire approaching a home

Jerusalem Fire approaching a home

"I've never seen town that busy. This was before the fire came down the hill, when it was still burning up by Harbin. It seemed like the whole mountain had emptied into town. People everywhere--standing on the sidewalks and in the street, taking photos and talking. A lot of people were laughing and excited. I don't think they believed the fire could burn through town. But it kept coming and then people started to leave. They didn't really panic, but they were leaving fast. As fast as they could, anyway. In just a few minutes the highway was a solid line of cars going nowhere. It looked like those movies, you know the disaster-volcano-earthquake ones where everyone is scrambling to leave but they can't. It looked just like that.... Eventually they did get through though. CHP opened up both lanes of the highway. And then the town was empty, except for a couple police cars and fire trucks. All that in about an hour."
 Jerusalem Fire: Day 2

Jerusalem Fire: Day 2

"We got stuck in our horse arena. The fire blocked the road and the arena was the closest clear open space we could get to. We drove the truck down there and watched the house go up behind us. The arena never caught fire. There's nothing in there to burn. But the fire was close enough that I started to worry about the heat. I had to keep getting out and pouring water on the windows and windshield to cool them off. We had the engine running and the air conditioner blowing but the window glass was still hot enough that if you touched it, you got burned."
 Valley Fire Aftermath: Black Hills between Middletown and Hidden Valley

Valley Fire Aftermath: Black Hills between Middletown and Hidden Valley

 Hills burned in The Valley Fire

Hills burned in The Valley Fire

 Doe likely asphyxiated (not burned) during the Valley Fire

Doe likely asphyxiated (not burned) during the Valley Fire

"It was pretty well dark by the time we left. I drove my truck and my daughter followed behind me on the highway. The smoke was so thick that I ended up hitting a horse on the road. I never saw it. You couldn't see anything out the windshield. My daughter, she hit the horse too and got a flat tire. So I got her in with me and we were able to drive the rest of the way out, but I gave up trying to steer through the windshield. I opened my door and found the double yellow line. I drove slow with the door open and used that all the way out."
 Remnants of a barn destroyed in The Valley Fire

Remnants of a barn destroyed in The Valley Fire

 Sifting through rubble at a home destroyed in The Valley Fire

Sifting through rubble at a home destroyed in The Valley Fire

 Swing set partially melted in The Valley Fire

Swing set partially melted in The Valley Fire

"Were you hurt by the fire? I was. My place is gone. I just found out today [Five days after the fire]. They wouldn't let us back in until today. I've been staying in Oakland with family and this was the first day they said we could come back and see if our homes survived. I was in my kitchen when it came, the fire. I'd seen the smoke earlier. Far off at first, but then closer and closer until it blocked out the sun. I watched the smoke all evening out my kitchen window and finally when I could see flame, I ran next door to ask my neighbor what he planned to do. He didn't even know there was a fire. He'd been watching a movie on tv. When he came out and saw it he left right then. He didn't even try to grab anything. His place is gone too. I decided I was going to fight it before leaving. I'd cleared the brush all around the house. I thought I could save it. I ran to the backyard and turned on the garden hose, but when the fire came up the hill, the heat from the flames almost knocked me over. It scared me. So I hurried back to my car and drove away. I didn't have time to grab anything. I didn't even think about it. I was scared....

"I wasn't going to come back. I had a pretty good idea the house was gone. But my family made me come. They said I had to see it to make sure. I saw it. I've lived here for 18 years. Since I retired. That house was full of things. My mother's things. My grandmother's things. All gone. All burned or melted. I'm 75 years old. I can't start over. I can't rebuild. Rebuild with what? My whole life was in that house."

 Truck and horse trailer that ran off the road and burned during The Valley Fire.  Horse Trailer had three burned dogs inside.

Truck and horse trailer that ran off the road and burned during The Valley Fire.  Horse Trailer had three burned dogs inside.

 Half-burned dog in horse trailer destroyed during The Valley Fire

Half-burned dog in horse trailer destroyed during The Valley Fire

 Half-burned dog in horse trailer destroyed during The Valley Fire

Half-burned dog in horse trailer destroyed during The Valley Fire

"We lost just about everything. But the garage up the hill didn't burn, so I've been living in there. This whole area is supposed to still be evacuated, but I heard people have been up here looting, so I stayed. I have a gun....

"I got water back this morning. Water that's drinkable from the spring down the hill. The creek is fouled. It's running black and full of dead fish. I've been eating whatever canned food I can cook on the camp stove. My mom wants me to come down and stay with her at Grandma's, but I'm not leaving. Too many looters running around. All of Dad's guns were in the house. All gone. But I saved his motorcycle. After the head of the fire passed I drove it into a clearing that'd already burned and threw his leather jacket over it. Some of the plastic melted but it made it. It's about all we've got left of him now. Just that and the jacket. So I'm not leaving."

 Home on Cobb Mountain destroyed in The Valley Fire - four months after the fire

Home on Cobb Mountain destroyed in The Valley Fire - four months after the fire

 Destruction on Cobb Mountain from The Valley Fire - four months after the fire.

Destruction on Cobb Mountain from The Valley Fire - four months after the fire.

"Since the fire I haven't slept well. The oak trees that didn't burn are dropping their acorns early and when they fall they bang off the metal roof of the barn. I can hear it at night. It wakes me up. During the fire, trees were falling all over the place, popping and crashing all around us.  The falling acorns wake me up every time. When they hit the barn roof it sounds just like the falling trees. And every time I wake up in a panic thinking that the fire has come back and that the trees are burning and falling all over again. But it's not just the acorns. Even in the silence when I close my eyes I see flames in the darkness. Like the world is on fire all over again in my mind."  

Down in The Red Rock

A Few Notes From a Weekend in The Desert:

Last month, while visiting Utah, I went camping down south with some old friends and rediscovered the magic of Escalante.  I'd been all through Southern Utah before, to Moab and Bryce and Canyonlands, but I had never properly explored Escalante.  I'd driven through it several times, and while the views from the roadside lookouts and pit stops along highway 12 are spectacular, even otherworldly, I wouldn't describe them as magical.  

But that's because the magic of Escalante doesn't exist at the edge of a blacktop.  It exists mostly in the places that you can't see or wouldn't see---the places deep down in the fissures of the rock where the roads won't go and the trails barely touch.  If you want to experience it, you have to walk to it, sweat for it, feel it against your skin. 

From above (and from the road), Escalante appears mostly as an immense, rolling, fractured stone landscape.  All of it baked red and barren in the dry heat of the desert. But within those fractures exists unexpected beauty.  You see it in the symmetry of the curves and lines that appear randomly in the eroded rock, and in the quality of light (the many shades of blue, red, and purple) that filters down through the cracks in the plateau and into the bottom of the slot canyons.  To be in those canyons, to see those colors and touch that rock, is the magic of pure discovery.

Escalante can't boast the grandeur of its more prominent neighbors---the monumental expanse of Zion or the crooked majesty of Arches.  But it shouldn't.  It's not that kind of place. Escalante refuses to be defined by a single iconic picture postcard or a famous license-plate landmark.  It is instead an endless collection of hidden gems---little masterpieces of wilderness carved straight from the red rock of the Colorado Plateau, each one as striking as the most impressive works of art on earth, and all of them made with the invisible hand of nature's perfect eye.  

Night at the Meadow Barn (A first draft)

 

I love night photography.  There's something magical in the the solitary experience of the photographer as he tries to trap starlight in the camera and stamp it onto the frame.  From my first star photo almost six years ago to the random nights driving around looking for dark spots in the dead of winter, the thrill I get from photographing the world at night has never dimmed.  So, during my most recent trip back to California, under the brilliant Lake County stars, I got that old familiar feeling and found myself shaking off sleep and heading out into the night with my camera at midnight.  Almost on a whim, I drove past my usual spots in the hayfields and headed for the Meadow Barn.

You might remember that three years ago I set out to shoot night photos of all four barns original to my family's ranch.  That project got a little sidetracked when I moved away to Hawaii, but the Meadow Barn (the third of the four barns) was always next on my list.

The Meadow Barn is probably the most primitive of the four original barns.  It has never had electricity, and was built mainly to store the winter hay for the cattle.  It sits at the center of a long valley surrounded by low rambling hills and the big open sky.  No electricity means no lights, and no lights means no way to illuminate the barn in the middle of that big darkness.  The stars, numerous as they were, were not bright enough to throw light on the barn and without the added light of the moon the barn structure in my first few shots ended up as just a dark outline on the horizon.  To overcome that, I flashed the face of the barn with a spotlight. Just for one or two seconds.  This worked, but it also gave the barn a kind of blue tint that I didn't care for.  That, combined with the fact that I had to ramp up the ISO which made the photos a little grainy, made we want to regroup and try again properly another night.

IMG_9310.jpg

Eventually, I'm hoping to haul out a generator and rig up a string of lights inside the barn, take a few really long exposures (my longest of these was ten minutes), and play with different angles.  But on the night I shot these photos I didn't have the time or the help for that kind of work.  Instead, I tried to test out different perspectives and exposure times and get a feel for how I might shoot the barn in the future.  Overall I was pleased with how the photos turned out.

I'm looking forward to getting back and having a second try--set up for a few hours, take my time, maybe shoot with a couple of cameras.  But mostly I'm looking forward to getting back under the stars, opening up the shutter, and seeing what appears out of the darkness. That's the true magic of night photography.

Dawn At He'eia Kea Pier

In Cannery Row, Steinbeck writes about The Hour of The Pearl, or "The interval between day and night when time stops to examine itself." This is the time just before dawn when the streetlights on The Row go out and the world is silent and empty except for an old Chinese fisherman "flip-flopping" in from the shoreline with his basket, and few cats who "drip over fences and slither like syrup over the ground to look for fish heads."  Last weekend, I woke up early and went to He'eia Kea Pier to watch the sun rise over Kaneohe Bay, hoping to catch a bit of that brief, magic interval with my camera.  

These photos seem to do that.  The light was perfect, dramatic, powerful, vivid.  The world appears frozen in a kind of still brilliance.  But the photos are misleading, as sunrise photos usually are.  The actual world of the pier in the hour before sunrise was nothing like Steinbeck's Hour of the Pearl.  When I arrived (at 5:45am), the sun was still almost an hour from rising, but in the darkness, the pier was already overrun with activity.

Fishermen, with their boats and trucks and trailers, were all lined up waiting their turn to launch.  Headlights swept back and forth as the trucks jockeyed for position at the ramp and the air was filled with the constant drone of back up beepers and revving diesel engines.   

Despite the fact that this wasn't quite the same as Cannery Row, I did find cats.  But they did not ooze through the silence as in Cannery Row.  These cats were the lost and the haggard, stalking suspiciously through the chaos of the early morning rush.

There was also a fisherman, and he happened to be Chinese.  But instead of a dripping basket and a pair of flappy-soled boots, he had a cooler and wore rubber slippers.

That morning wasn't quite the hour of the pearl, though it would be wrong to say it wasn't magical in its own right.  It's true there was no magic silence or calm before the breaking of the day, but He'eia Kea Pier is not Cannery Row, and expectations based on fictional novels rarely translate to real life anyway. Instead the hour before dawn at the pier was something else, something more invigorating and raw.  It was the hum of human life in the darkness at the water's edge.  It was the hour of the fisherman.

In The Skinning Room

In the old barn down the hill from the ranch house where I grew up, there is a room that once, a long time ago, was used to milk cows.  The floor is concrete and has a long low trough that runs down the length of the room to a drain, so that everything could be hosed down after the milking was through.  Along the side of the room there is a row of stanchions, which were used to lock in the heads of the cattle as they were milked.  

But it has been fifty years since a cow has been milked here.  These days the stanchions serve as a convenient rack on which to hang several years worth of deer antlers, and the trough has, for as long as I can remember, only drained blood from the many bucks my family has skinned here over the years.

In my family you could say that deer hunting isn't so much a tradition as it is a rite.  Some ancestor of mine has been hunting the hills of northern California ever since my great-great-great-grandfather first came over from Kentucky in 1840.  And similarly, some member of my family has been skinning bucks in the disused milking room of the old barn since the early 1940s, when my grandfather first came to live at what is now our family's ranch.

So, when I grabbed my camera the evening after my older brother shot this forked horn, I knew I wanted to try to capture something of the timelessness that we feel when we set about skinning a buck and getting it ready to butcher.  It's hard, dirty work, but it also feels natural.  At least, it feels natural to me.  

There is something primal in the act of skinning an animal you've just killed--something bloody and horrible but also necessary and correct.  Every year that we kill a buck and bring it back to the skinning room my dad tells us how, when he was still too young to hunt and his father and uncles would bring home a buck, he'd run to the skinning room and start skinning the buck for them while they had drinks up at the house.  I can remember myself standing in the skinning room as an eight year old, watching in awe as my older brothers peeled the skin from off the deer, transforming it from animal to meat.

With these photos I wanted to show that this is what my family has done for generations, and we continue to do it year after year.  It is something that I can count on, something that connects me not only to my past, but also to the natural world that I live in.  It is the liturgy of the California Deer Hunter.