Covering my first fire

I never lived in a fire zone since working as a news photographer until moving to Northern California where fires seem to come more often than rain. So I wasn’t surprised to get a call on a recent Sunday morning from The Press Democrat assigning me to photograph what would be one of the worst days of the recent Clayton Fire that scorched through downtown Lower Lake, California. I hadn’t worked a fire before, so I had to pick up fire-protective clothing, a helmet, goggles and an emergency fire shield from the newspaper. They have a senior photographer Kent Porter who’s a real pro at fire coverage and he gave me good advice. Brings lots of drinking water he said, which I did; along with a couple of peanut butter sandwiches.

The view from property that was burned last night on Lake Ridge Road in Lower Lake, California while the Clayton Fire raged. August 14, 2016. (Photo: Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat)

The view from property that was burned last night on Lake Ridge Road in Lower Lake, California while the Clayton Fire raged. August 14, 2016.
(Photo: Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat)

When I arrived I was driven by fire officials and State Senator Mike McGuire into the fire zone. I wasn’t crazy about spending time with the officials, I wanted to roam on my own, but I took their offer because I felt unprepared and I thought they could help me wrap my head around what this fire was all about. They took me to this view (above). A view that normally looks peaceful and quiet looked dystopian to me on that morning. I had a feeling I was in for a very long day. I should have brought more sandwiches I remember thinking.

A deer runs from flames near Bonham Road in Lower Lake, California while the Clayton Fire raged toward downtown Lower Lake. August 14, 2016. (Photo: Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat)

A deer runs from flames near Morgan Valley Rd. in Lower Lake, California while the Clayton Fire raged toward downtown Lower Lake. August 14, 2016.
(Photo: Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat)

The first thing that caught my eye was seeing wild life like this deer (above) racing around. They appeared to have no idea of which way to run and throughout the day I often felt the same way. After I took this shot, the smoke quickly shifted and I couldn’t see my parked car idling by the side of the road. I asked a firefighter if he thought the fire would cross the road and he said, “If I were you, I’d figure out some way to run through that smoke and find your car if you ever want to see it again.” So I did just that. I ran blindly down the side of Morgan Valley Road with my t-shirt covering my nose and mouth until finally the smoke thinned out and I could see my blue Honda CRV with the engine still running and the AC on.

Residents Daniel Reneker, 72, left, and homeowner Phaedra Phelps, 35, were holding out to try to save their home and several animals on their property on Bonham Road in Lower Lake, California while the Clayton Fire raged around them. August 14, 2016. (Photo: Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat)

Residents Daniel Reneker, 72, left, and homeowner Phaedra Phelps, 35, were holding out to try to save their home and several animals on their property on Bonham Road in Lower Lake, California while the Clayton Fire raged around them. August 14, 2016.
(Photo: Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat)

No doubt I did my best to show fire fighters battling this blaze, but what felt most important was showing ordinary people and finding a way to convey their feelings about the possibility of losing everything or of the reality that they would be returning to a town that would never be the same. This woman (above) named Phaedra was set on staying put. She had about a dozen farm animals and told me she just couldn’t leave them. She put it in simple terms, “This is my home and I can’t just walk away,” she said, then began to cry.ClaytonFire_06a

Lisa Watson, right, helps Joyce Juneteeney, 82, out of a wheel chair and into a truck at they evacuate from Main Street in Lower Lake, California while the Clayton Fire raged around them. August 14, 2016. (Photo: Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat)

Lisa Watson, right, helps Joyce Juneteeney, 82, out of a wheel chair and into a truck at they evacuate from Main Street in Lower Lake, California while the Clayton Fire raged around them. August 14, 2016.
(Photo: Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat)

Later in the afternoon I drove to downtown Lower Lake to essentially photograph it while portions of it burned down. Helicopters were hovering low and dropping loads of water on Main Street when I met the Watson family attempting to get their wheelchair-bound family member into a pickup truck. They made a great effort, but after a few minutes I had the feeling they were failing at the task, so I dropped my cameras and put the woman in the car myself. I had a professor at UT Austin tell me once that sometimes you have to be a human first, then a photojournalist second. I had that thought in my mind during this shot (above). I also thought the scared dog was going to bite me.

A home engulfed in flames on the 9600 block of Lake Street in Lower Lake, California Sunday evening. August 14, 2016. (Photo: Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat)

A home engulfed in flames on the 9600 block of Lake Street in Lower Lake, California Sunday evening. August 14, 2016.
(Photo: Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat)

Power lines down on the corner of Lake Street and Orchard Street in Lower Lake, California Sunday evening. August 14, 2016. (Photo: Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat)

Power lines down on the corner of Lake Street and Orchard Street in Lower Lake, California Sunday evening. August 14, 2016.
(Photo: Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat)

Nick Allan Griffen shows where his home at 9775 Lake Street survived after he fought off fire with a garden hose to save his and his neighbor's home in Lower Lake, California Sunday evening. August 14, 2016. (Photo: Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat)

Nick Allan Griffen shows where his home at 9775 Lake Street survived after he fought off fire with a garden hose to save his and his neighbor’s home in Lower Lake, California Sunday evening. August 14, 2016.
(Photo: Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat)

As the sun set, I took these 3 images (above) on Lake Street just off Main Street in Lower Lake. It looked like a bomb had landed. Power lines were strewn everywhere. I was told they were dead lines, but it was still unnerving to crawl underneath them to get these photos. I met Nick Griffen (above) when I started walking down this street. He came running at me telling me this incredible story of how he saved his neighbor’s house with his garden hose. He looked exhausted from the adrenaline rush of his fire fight, but he also seemed relieved to be telling his story to a stranger. I did that a lot that day, just listened to people vent or tell me their grievances or sometimes I just stood quietly with them like I did when James Anthony (below) told me he had just moved to this town 8 months ago and now his house was essentially ashes. I gave the Press Democrat Nick’s cell number to interview him about his story of battling the fire, but my editor said he never answered his phone. Who does answer their phone anymore I thought?

James Anthony, right, walking away after finding out his home on Lake Street in Lower Lake, California was completely burned down during the Clayton Fire Sunday evening. "I just moved her in January," said Anthony. August 14, 2016. (Photo: Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat)

James Anthony, right, walking away after finding out his home on Lake Street in Lower Lake, California was completely burned down during the Clayton Fire Sunday evening. “I just moved her in January,” said Anthony. August 14, 2016.
(Photo: Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat)

Cal Fire fighters battle a fire raging behind the Lower Lake School House Museum on Main Street in Lower Lake, California. August 14, 2016. (Photo: Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat)

Cal Fire fighters battle a fire raging behind the Lower Lake School House Museum on Main Street in Lower Lake, California. August 14, 2016.
(Photo: Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat)

I photographed from about 11am until around 10pm, then filed my final photos from my car. Everything I had, my cameras, my clothes, my leftover pieces of food, reeked of smoke and my car was covered in small dots of pink fire retardant. It had been parked on Main Street most of the day. I learned a lot that day. A ton of things I’d do different next time. This job is always a work in progress. I also appreciated my colleagues a bit more, especially PD writer Christi Warren for bringing me a few bottles of waters late in the day when my supply ran out.

I felt like things were a little over my head in the morning, but by dusk and as I drove back to Santa Rosa late in the evening I felt like a different photographer after that experience; perhaps a little wiser. In the end, I kept wondering how fire fighters can stand it. Not so much the smell, or even the heat, but the idea of breathing in burning trees, melting cars or flame-engulfed buildings all day, day after day. That’s the part that stuck with me. The way a massive fire feels like it covers your whole body inside and out.

-Erik Castro, Aug. 26, 2016

HARVESTER a photo series

Harvester-PostCard-WEBI started this project during summer and fall of 2015. The idea was simple. Photograph grape harvest workers the moment after they finish up a days work in the vineyards. I wanted their faces to be the narrative. Just faces after work.

I’ll be back in the vineyards again this year to keep finding faces to tell more of the story and eventually making their way into a book.

I’m showing 17 large prints from the HARVESTER project at Christie Marks Fine Art Gallery in Santa Rosa, California from August 5 to September 17. For more info: http://christiemarksfineart.com/event/79705/harvester-a-photo-series-by-erik-castro

Something Better – a short film for Social Advocates for Youth


<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/166591315″>Something Better – a short film for SAY</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/erikcastro”>erik castro | photojournalist</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

Hope you take the time to watch this short film. I’m very proud of the work and the stories that are told in this piece.

SAY, or Social Advocates for Youth, the non-profit that helps homeless & troubled youth has got to be the absolute coolest non-profit to work for. I’ve been making short films for them for a few years now and like this new one, Something Better, the films are basically snapshots into the lives of young people the organization is trying to help. This time we see two young working people: Naomi Lane and Cameron Vadnais. Naomi is working her day job at the Dream Center, a new center for helping troubled youth in Santa Rosa, and we follow Cameron on a recent job hunt. There’s a third subject, Kerry Rego, who tells an incredibly personal story of needing SAY’s help 20 years ago when she was a high school teen dealing with an abusive boyfriend.

Many people deserve thanks for their help in making this piece. Naomi, Cameron and Kerry were very generous with their time, emotions and thoughts. My 14-year-old neighbor Quincy Allen did an amazing acting job in Kerry Rego’s story and my nephew Vasco Cesaretti added his infectiously entertaining music. I also have to thank Cat Cvengros, SAY’s Director of Development, for her great advice while I worked on this project and for her support of what I do as a story teller.

-May 14, 2016

 

Mix bag of work

 

It’s been mix of work all year so far, and enjoying it; photos for newsprint, non-profits and personal projects along with video projects.

The evidence of dedication to dancing are seen in the feet of choreographer and dancer Nichele Van Portfleet during rehearsal for her SoCo Dance Theater performance titled, "This Way Up," at Sonoma State University's Ives Hall in Rohnert Park. February 6, 2016. (Photo: Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat)

I came across these feet during a shoot for The Press Democrat. The evidence of dedication to dancing are seen in the feet of choreographer and dancer Nichele Van Portfleet during rehearsal for her SoCo Dance Theater

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BI-Sonoma_1712This was from a shoot for a non-profit that helps physically and mentally challenged individuals live more independently. This woman was amazing to watch paint. I could have photographed all day.

Executive Chef Mike Selvera working the raw bar at Seaside Metal oyster bar in Guerneville. April 29, 2016. (Photo: Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat)

This chef and I were both punk rock skater kids in LA during the same era. He even had an old Siouxsie and The Banshees record in his cafe which album cover was on a t-shirt of mine in 8th grade. Executive Chef Mike Selvera working the raw bar at Seaside Metal oyster bar in Guerneville.


<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/166571801″>Lost Brother In Space</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/erikcastro”>erik castro | photojournalist</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

My kids got sick. So, we were home a lot. We made movies to pass the time. We did this space movie trailer using a glass salad bowl and a $2 dollar psychedelic light. My son played the astronaut, my daughter did the space center voice and I got to film it.

Seventh grade students exiting class near teacher Betty Paulukonis at Willowside Middle School in Santa Rosa. May 11, 2016. (Photo: Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat)

I really like this shot. I like it when kids don’t smile so much, they look cooler…and I love that translation on the girl’s shirt for “meow.” Seventh grade students exiting class near teacher Betty Paulukonis at Willowside Middle School in Santa Rosa.

A young couple watching the parade from a second-story window on the corner of Bodega Avenue and North Main Street during the 70th annual Apple Blossom Parade held in Sebastopol Saturday. April 16, 2016. (Photo: Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat)

The paper didn’t run this shot of a young couple watching a parade I was covering. They were checking out the scene from a second-story window. The paper ran everything I turned in but this image; which of course was my favorite.

Mobley0117 _ec_CARD02_1339I don’t use lights often, but I always have fun with them when I do. A shot of beer maker Nile Zacherle for the SF Chronicle. I though he looked a little like Anthony Perkins in this shot.04-2011_BaptismWeekend_032Been missing my mother since her death last year. This was a shot my daughter found while fishing through old family photos. Its a shot of my mom arriving at our home during the weekend of my son’s baptism. She would have killed me if I hadn’t baptized him. That’s his head at the bottom of the frame.

 

IMG_0130

IMG_0145These 2 are from a trip to Los Angeles. Been needing to go back more. My head gets foggy if I’m in Sonoma County too long. Sometimes just need freeways and time with my sisters. My son playing basketball and my daughter playing on a handball court.IMG_1143-1Wish I could use my phone more for my news assignment work. Here’s a recent one from a nature walk near Sebastopol with my daughter.

SR DJ

Easy going and very accommodating DJ Sykwidit in downtown Santa Rosa. He basically let me crawl around wherever I wanted to show what he loves to do.

DJ Sykwidit, 30, of Santa Rosa keeping the dance floor moving at The Lounge at La Rosa Tequileria & Grille in downtown Santa Rosa Saturday night. January 16, 2016. (Photo: Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat)

DJ Sykwidit, 30, of Santa Rosa keeping the dance floor moving at The Lounge at La Rosa Tequileria & Grille in downtown Santa Rosa Saturday night. January 16, 2016.
(Photo: Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat)

The dance floor during DJ Sykwidit's set at The Lounge at La Rosa Tequileria & Grille in downtown Santa Rosa Saturday night. January 16, 2016. (Photo: Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat)

The dance floor during DJ Sykwidit’s set at The Lounge at La Rosa Tequileria & Grille in downtown Santa Rosa Saturday night. January 16, 2016.
(Photo: Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat)

DJ Sykwidit, 30, of Santa Rosa keeping the dance floor moving at The Lounge at La Rosa Tequileria & Grille in downtown Santa Rosa Saturday night. Sykwidit has been deejaying for about 15 years and can be heard twice a month at La Rosa Lounge. January 16, 2016. (Photo: Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat)

DJ Sykwidit, 30, of Santa Rosa at The Lounge at La Rosa Tequileria & Grille in downtown Santa Rosa Saturday night. Sykwidit has been deejaying for about 15 years and can be heard twice a month at La Rosa Lounge. January 16, 2016.
(Photo: Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat)

Jack London piece for Sonoma Magazine

Here are a few images from my shoot for the January 2016 issue of Sonoma Magazine about some of the living heirs to the Jack London State Park. It was a great week of shooting in both soupy fog and blazing sun. Also loved that Sonoma Magazine ran the shot of Brian Shepard in his car. I love shooting subjects in their cars especially ones that spend so much of their time in the driver’s seat.

A row of eucalyptus trees near the entrance to The Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen. December 6, 2015. (Photo: Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat)

A row of eucalyptus trees in thick fog near the entrance to The Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen. December 6, 2015.

Iris Jamahl Dunkle, a professor of writing and literature at Napa Valley College during a visit to the Wolf House in the Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen, California. Dunkle is currently co-writing a biography about Jack London's wife, Charmian London. November 30, 2015. (Photo: Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat)

Iris Jamahl Dunkle, a professor of writing and literature at Napa Valley College during a visit to the Wolf House in the Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen, California. Dunkle is currently co-writing a biography about Jack London’s wife, Charmian London. November 30, 2015.

Chuck Levine on his horse Buzz during his volunteer park patrol at The Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen. November 20, 2015. (Photo: Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat)

Chuck Levine on his horse Buzz during his volunteer park patrol at The Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen. November 20, 2015.

Jack London heir and VP of Walsh Vineyard Management, INC. Brian Shepard parked in his truck at The Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen. November 20, 2015. (Photo: Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat)

Jack London heir and VP of Walsh Vineyard Management, INC. Brian Shepard parked in his truck at The Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen. November 20, 2015.

Muriel Williamson has been volunteering at The House of Happy Walls Museum for 22 years at The Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen. December 6, 2015. (Photo: Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat)

Muriel Williamson has been volunteering at The House of Happy Walls Museum for 22 years at The Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen. December 6, 2015.

Middletown – Post Fire

A few favorite moments from a recent shoot in Middletown, California for The Press Democrat; first time the town held a home football game at their high school since the Valley Fire.

Gracie Pachie, a Senior at Middletown High School who lost her home to the recent Valley Fire, prepares to ride her horse before the start of Middletown's first home football game since the Valley Fire held Friday evening. Pachie is Miss California High School Rodeo Queen 2015-2016 and she recovered her charred crown from the remains of her burnt down home,

Gracie Pachie, a Senior at Middletown High School who lost her home to the recent Valley Fire, prepares to ride her horse before the start of Middletown High School’s first home football game since the Valley Fire.

The Middletown High School football team gathers for a quiet moment on Friday evening before the start of their first home game since the recent catastrophic Valley Fire. October 9, 2015. (Photo: Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat)

The Middletown High School football team gathers for a quiet moment on Friday evening before the start of their first home game since the recent Valley Fire.

Sydney Brownie, left and Gracie Pachie, pause for a few moments before they ride their horses at the start of Middletown High School's first home football game since the recent catastrophic Valley Fire Friday evening. October 9, 2015. (Photo: Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat)

Sydney Brownie and Gracie Pachie at the start of Middletown High School’s first home football game since the recent Valley Fire.