They Saved Our Lives: California Redwood Fire of 2017
documentary photography // human interest
On October 18th, 2017, Ciege Lucero invited me to join him on a visit to Redwood Valley, California to document the destruction and to talk with victims of the Redwood Wildfire that ravaged the area earlier in the week.
October 18, 2017
Redwood Valley, California
Photo: Denise and granddaughter… Victims of the Redwood Wildfire on Fisher Lake Drive.
Our first stop was on Fisher Lake Drive, a small retirement community at the base of this mountainous area, east of the Mendocino National Forest.
While walking along the driveways of the ruined homes, Denise, a resident of the community along with her granddaughter, pulled in to survey the damage [featured in image]. Initially she assumed we were with the insurance company, assessing damage, but when we let her know we were not, she quickly became very protective and direct regarding our presence. Now, bear in mind, this reaction was fully expected, especially with the potential for looters in the area. So as professionals, it was our duty to approach and explain ourselves more clearly and to ease the stress we may have caused.
Thankfully, we were able to do this and let her know that our primary goal here was to document and record the experiences they have went through, in order to do what we could to share their stories and spread awareness at the true reality facing the victims.
Once we were able to fully convey our intentions, Denise quickly opened up and began to share her account of the terrifying night the wildfire came to Redwood Valley.
Denise explained to us that the fire itself began to ascend the crest of the mountain at approximately 1:30AM and raged down into the valley, engulfing the area in less than 15 minutes. There were no alarms, no warnings. It was only through the heroism of her neighbor Katrina, a fifth grade teacher, and her husband Steve, a crane operator in construction, that the lives of most residents in this community were saved. Unfortunately and most tragically of all, two of the eight lives taken by the Redwood Wildfire – Roy Howard Bowman, 87, and Irma Elsie Bowman, 88 – were here on Fisher Lake Drive.
During our time with Denise, she also talked about her family and her previous experience with the area wildfires. She recounted that she had lived in the area for over 62 years and lost her first home, built by her late husband and herself, in the late eighties. At the time, it was a honey oil business and she recalled the horror of butane tanks exploding like a series of bombs. In 1992, she and her current husband moved to Fisher Lake Drive. [Audio Track Below]
Before we left her and her granddaughter to continue recovering whatever was left, she took a moment to show us a number of glassware heirlooms she had found the previous day: a series of aged mementos that help offer comfort, if even in the slightest, during an otherwise heart-wrenching situation.
Below is a video I took of the area to go along with the images in the gallery at the bottom of the page.
Short audio excerpt with Denise, a victim of the Redwood Fire
This was truly an event that can not be understood in words, nor can it be fully conveyed in video or photo form. Though we have tried with all our might to do so, it’s a sensory overload that hits with a physical and emotional punch.
From the burning smell and ash that lingers in the air, the crunch of scorched land beneath you shoe, the debris filled footprint of what was once a home, the fields of stripped and blackened trees, the eerie quiet from a thin wildlife population, the smoking cracks in the earth, the streams of melted aluminum beneath abandoned metal shells of bikes, cars and trucks… and most impactful of all, the complex pain, behind powerfully positive and still optimistic faces on the victims we met and the extent to which they are willing to help out neighbors and strangers alike.
Among many of the stories we gathered from our trip, we were also approached by local resident, Gizmo, who took it upon himself to stop on the side of the road and offer us water and snacks. Gizmo lived less than a mile away, a volunteer fireman and one of the lucky ones to have the fire stop at the edge of his property, sparing his home. However, his retelling of the event, where the fire raged down the mountainside and the waves of people he witnessed fleeing along the road, many in their pajamas (Evac Time 1:30AM)… was enough to weaken the strongest of knees.
Gizmo had been driving back and forth along Fisher Lake Drive and the adjacent Tomki Road every day since the wildfire, offering whatever he could to the victims and first responders he comes across.
The kindness he demonstrated, was beyond admirable and along with the heroism of Katrina and Steve, the heartbreak but high hopes of Denise and her granddaughter, as well as the come-togetherness of countless unnamed neighbors… are a testament to the granite-like fortitude and unyielding kindness of the human spirit.
It’s truly depressing, that only in the worst of times… do we find the best in each other.
The second video above, was taken high up in the mountains of Redwood Valley.
Following our survey of Fisher Lake Drive, we ventured across the street to check out the still operating Frey Vineyards Winery. The main lodge had been destroyed, as well as most of their heavy equipment. However, the wine silos were mostly unscathed (tough structures) and the owners informed us that even though they were incredibly saddened by the losses, they wanted to assure their customers that the Winery was still operational. At the time, they were in the process of repairing the bottling apparatus and were getting ready finalizing their product. An impressive site to see. [images below]
We spent approximately an hour at the winery, awaiting the arrival of Tucker, a high school friend of Ciege’s, who invited us to join him on a trip to the land share he co-owned on the side of a nearby mountain peak.
Without question, we jumped in his truck and moved along the needle thin road they had built themselves over the course of the last 12 years. Charred trees and sticks littered the area, a stomach-churning cliff hung ominously to our left, smoldering roots of trees bellowed smoke from cracks in the ash covered ground and juxtaposed against this dreadscape, was a magnificent vista offering visibility for miles along the valley… Needless to say, we found the setting eerily haunting and naturally beautiful.
Upon reaching their main living space, we immediately discovered the extent of their loss. With the exception of a couple of large water bladders, a few salvaged products and his motocross tracks… their homes, vehicles, trailers, material possessions and most of their equipment had been destroyed and left as a burned shell of what it once was.
Tucker noted that in his area, he was the first to witness the red glow creeping over the crest of the mountain. From the moment he first dialed 911, the Redwood Wildfire had marched from crest, to valley and back up the next in less than an hour.
Again, similarly to Denise and Gizmo, Tucker displayed a sense of steadfastness and positivity that was beyond commendable. Speaking with these individuals instilled in me a feeling of faith in the human spirit, proving that, through perseverance and the help of neighbors and strangers alike, this too can pass and life for those remaining will eventually carry on.
But that message is not without a warning to all who read this post… Preparation and awareness is paramount in potential disaster zones… when fire attacks, do not delay… drop everything and FLEE! No material item in the world is worth risking one’s life… A fire can blanket an area with unbelievable speed and power.
An out of control inferno – like that of the Redwood, Tubbs, Nuns and Atlas, as well as numerous others out here in California – acts more like a living organism, hell bent on consuming everything in it’s path… and when you hesitate, it will track and take you, without mercy.
All I can say is, please do not forget. Please help where you can and above all, please… PLEASE, double check your smoke detector batteries regularly, always water cleanse your campfire, never throw spent cig butts out the window and, well, you get the point…
My heart breaks at the devastation.