Firestorm: A Time to Heal


[By Richard Sheppard in Santa Rosa, California]

Since October of 2017, we have a saying here in Sonoma County: “The love in the air is thicker than the smoke.” And with all the fires we’ve had here in California, I can confirm first hand that the smoke is pretty thick. Sure, there are those who use the tragedy to finger point and blame, but after repeatedly witnessing communities pulling together to help others since last year’s devastating fires, the saying still rings true.

It’s been just over a year since the Tubbs, Nuns, and Pocket fires ripped through Sonoma County, killing 25, burning over 110,000 acres, and leveling nearly 7,000 structures. Recovery has been slow but steady, and I’ve been busy recording fire stories and sketches ever since that first deadly night.

But just last week, I stepped outside our home and was concerned to see gray clouds in the sky above the hills. An hour later, a smoke-filtered orange haze enveloped our town, making it difficult to breathe outdoors. I learned from the CalFire website that a fire near Camp Creek east of Chico—over 100 miles away—was creating the smoke.

Within the next 24 hours, the Camp Fire destroyed over 90,000 acres, leveling the town of Paradise (population 27,000), and killed 42 people. As of this writing, 200 people are still missing as the fire continues to threaten surrounding communities. Our utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, told state regulators on Friday that a high-voltage power line located in the area had had a problem just before the fire started.

High winds, low humidity, and abnormally warm weather have created the perfect conditions for these devastating fires to proliferate. Adding to the lethal cocktail is a high-pressure ridge sitting off the coast of California that is pushing our seasonal autumn rains into Oregon and Washington. It’s a pattern we’ve seen happen repeatedly the past few years. Without these seasonal rains that had been typical for our area, our parched landscape provides more than enough fuel for a single spark to ignite a firestorm.

The anniversary of last year’s fires was painful for many people who had to flee, resurfacing painful memories. But the new smoke currently blanketing the northern coast of California has brought additional anxiety to those in recovery.

Last month I spoke with Goyn Evens, who lost his wife Valerie. In addition, his entire property was burned to the ground, but somehow his bull miraculously survived. As I sketched Goyn at the Wildfire Anniversary Event: Community Healing Together at Shiloh Ranch Regional Park, he recounted his losses but kept a positive tone. “The hardest part is over,” he said. “I’m looking forward to rebuilding.”

During our discussion, I realized I’d already sketched Goyn’s property some months back. I pulled out my sketchbook and showed the drawing of two burnt trees supporting a crossbeam log that together form a monument at the entrance of his property. “Yup, that’s it all right,” he confirmed. “It sure brings back a lot of memories.”

Goyn is not the only person who’s been inspired to create monuments from perished trees. Earlier this year I spoke with sculpture artist Peter Phibbs, whose outdoor studio is located at Paradise Ridge Winery. Paradise Ridge was the only Santa Rosa winery destroyed in the Tubbs fire. In addition to delicious wines, the winery is known for its Marijke’s Grove Sculpture Garden that includes the LOVE sculpture first seen at Burning Man. The piece survived the firestorm and has since become a symbol of hope for the people of Sonoma County.

 

I arrived at Pete’s outdoor studio, high upon a hill overlooking Santa Rosa, with fellow sketchers Susan Cornelis and Carol Flaherty. There we found him loading a sculpture into the back of his pick-up, with Sonin Johnson assisting.

Peter had become a resident artist for the winery almost by accident. Walter Byck, the winery’s owner asked him to create a sculpture from a dead oak tree on the property. That project led to more work, and so it happened that Peter was there the night the fire blazed down the mountain. 

He told us, “I was in the process of building an outdoor stage and dance floor at about 12:30 in the morning when I noticed the tree was on fire next to where I was working. I turned around and saw a wall of flames moving towards me. I immediately got in my truck and sped away.” Recounting the events Peter says, “The hairs stand up on the back of my neck every time I tell the story.”

Within minutes, the entire property was up in flames, obliterating the wine cellar, tasting room, and other structures. Fueled by high winds, the fire continued to spread from Fountain Grove into Coffey Park where Gyn Evens property was destroyed along with thousands of other homes.

The next day, Peter returned to the estate to find many trees reduced to stubs and still burning. He used buckets of water, hand carried from a lake on the property to put out the flames. Thankfully, his sculpted oak tree was unharmed.

 Since the fires, Peter has spent much of the last year giving new life to charred tree stumps from the burned out properties of fire survivors, by carving the trees with with intricate designs. The resulting sculptures are then returned to the owners. It’s a healing process for both the artist and the property owner.

Over the past year, Sonoma County residents have used unique and creative ways of healing. Even those whose homes were spared have endured stresses and continue to deal with the threat of potential fires. As I write this, Sonoma County is currently under red flag warning, which indicates the conditions are ripe for yet another devastating wildfire.

But after hearing the stories from survivors and witnessing their recoveries first hand, I agree that both the love and healing in the air truly are thicker than the smoke.

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