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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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