Documentary

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."  

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.

Cidering

For several years my oldest brother has been bottling his own signature apple cider made from the wild fruit of the Willamette Valley.  It is a dark, full-bodied concoction, never pasteurized and never diluted.  Since my brother first started making the stuff, I had taken many nips from the bottle, but I had never squeezed the mash for myself.  Last month, on a visit to Oregon, I finally got my chance to press the fruit of the valley.  (first two photos were taken with a phone camera) IMG_20131025_092012_369

To collect the apples needed for cider, my brother awoke me early on my first morning in town and drove me through a maze of foggy backroads and hayfields to a lone apple tree at the edge of an expansive rye grass pasture.  This wasn't necessarily a secret tree, it grew ten feet from the side of a two-lane highway, but with the valley around us shrouded in fog it felt as if he had lead me to the sanctum sanctorum of apple trees.

I asked him if it was legal for us to pick from this tree.  He shrugged and without blinking an eye backed the truck under the tangle of branches.  Getting out of the cab, he handed me a long-handled garden hoe.  "You want to beat the branches with this," he said.

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I was confused at first, but the logic of the garden hoe was quickly apparent as I hit the branches.  The tree had the appearance of a very large vine, and the apples were small and grew together in great clusters as would bunches of grapes.  Each stroke with the garden hoe brought down a shower of fruit.  Apples hit me several times in the face, one smashed me squarely in the mouth, and the dampness of the morning dew on the fruit soaked through my jacket and the front of my jeans as it descended around me.  We filled the bed of the truck in fifteen minutes.

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When we returned from the foggy labyrinth of backroads and highways we set about the real work of cidering.  For my brother's family, the task of cider-making has become so mundane, so commonplace, that it is considered a chore.  His youngest son bemoaned the work as he scooped apples from the truck bed and took them to be washed.  When your father insists on pressing sixty-five gallons of cider every year (one for each week plus thirteen for special occasions and to give away), the job must lose a bit of its magic.

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With the apples washed and sorted (bad spots were acceptable, wholly rotted fruit was thrown away), we prepared them for the grinder.  My brother does not core or peel his apples for his brand of cider.  We did not check them for worms (much to the horror of our mother), and we allowed for small sticks and leaves to enter the mash, something I opposed, though my brother told me that in traditional cider recipes, the presser will often add sawdust to the mash to maximize juice output.  The ground up sticks and leaves served us that purpose.

The masher itself is my brother's own invention and the product of many years of trial and error.  It is essentially a garbage disposal that has been rigged with a 1 horsepower farm-duty ag motor.  The stock motor on the regular garbage disposals was too weak and overheated. With the added power of the farm-duty motor the blades in the garbage disposal ate the apples easily and produced a thick mash that had the color and consistency of hearty oatmeal.

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As the mash sat in the open air and began to oxidize, it changed from its original oatmeal beige to a deep woody mahogany.  We readied the press and I sank my hands far down into the mash to scoop it into the press-basket.  Soon the skin on my palms was stained with rich color--the color of autumn and earth.

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This is my brother's apple cider.  He does not add water or spices, and yet there is always a hint of cinnamon and nutmeg in the drink.  Each year's pressing will be unique, depending on the tree that gave the fruit and the variety of apples mixed in.  This year we gathered the apples from a single tree, making the batch relatively uniform, though still delicious.  No matter what, the cider is always rich and always earthy, worms and leaves and all.

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Wedding in The Bayou State

IMG_0710 Ryan Cason and Charlotte Tateoka were married in Baton Rouge Louisiana on Saturday October 12, 2013.  They had one reception in Utah and one in Coushatta, LA - Ryan's hometown.  I've known Ryan since he was my roommate in college and I had the privilege of following him and Charlotte around through both receptions and the wedding.  These few selected photos are from the reception and wedding in Louisiana.

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More to come! 

Stonyford: Final Thoughts

IMG_8983 I took this photo just off of main street in Stonyford.  It is peaceful and serene - idyllic.  But what I have not written about (and what my photos do not show) is the wild and woolly nature of rodeo weekend.  Walking around town I saw people wearing official rodeo t-shirts that read "Do you remember last year's Stonyford Rodeo?"  and then on the reverse side: "Me neither."  Another had the classic Vegas motto: "What happens in Stonyford stays in Stonyford."  For the most part, they were right.

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During the rodeo I watched grown men stumble through the grandstand mouthing off to strangers, their faces red and glistening in an alcoholic sweat.  Fights and scuffles around the rodeo seemed to be ubiquitous; I witnessed young men brawling in the dirt, shoving and hollering slurred vulgarities at each other.

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In many ways it felt like the wild west - a place where the law had no hold.  There was a significant police presence, but it didn't seem to be nearly enough to counter the drunken mayhem.

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My focus in photographing Stonyford was the rodeo itself.  But if I were to go back next year,  I would put more emphasis on capturing the people of the rodeo and their drunken escapades.  I saw so many interesting people - like the old drunk man with the walker who putted around the rodeo with a small Jack Russell Terrier tucked in his shirt and two beers balanced in one hand; or the rodeo clown who got so drunk and belligerent at the bar one night that the sheriff had to come and escort him back to his trailer; or there were the seven or eight young men who stood in the back of their truck pounding Bud Lights and yelling at passing women for what seemed to be the entirety of the weekend - when they finally drove away on Sunday morning they left behind a veritable carpet of beer cans around where their truck had been.   Those people were the true spectacles of the weekend.

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But most of the rest of the year Stonyford is a very sleepy town.  From the turn off the highway it takes about twenty miles of dirt road, and then another twenty miles of patchy, rough, pot-holed blacktop, to get to Stonyford.  It is about as far off the grid as you can get in California and still have access to a bar, a store, and a gas pump (amazingly gas was cheaper in Stonyford than in San Francisco).  And yet, people live here.  They ranch, they wait tables and bar tend at the Timberline Bar, they ride in rodeos. To me Stonyford felt like stepping back in time, but to the locals it's just business as usual.

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