Sonoma County fires

Burn Mama

The story is always in the details. You can drive by the neighborhoods that burned in the October fires, as I did with my sons who have been visiting from back east. I wanted them to get a feel for this epic event that changed so many lives. But when you sit down to stay a while and sketch the scene, pieces of the story start to creep into your heart and get stuck there.


This property, like so many others, had passed inspections and been partially cleared. The insurance company was involved. The holiday spirit had been noted in stray decorations. The straw batting was arranged to keep the soil and pollutants from flowing into the street when it rains. And the lot is for sale. Like many property owners now, these folks will be moving on, and new owners will build, and in a few years this night of fires will be history, though never forgotten.


I confess that I had a few moments of despair on that street and wondered why I was still sketching the fire story. So many lives upended.

But then I saw this marvelous burnt-out tree and did a detailed pen drawing of it. When I got home, this creature looked out at me. We’ll call her Burn Mama. She got her hair singed and her lungs full of smoke, but she’s still standing strong in that what’s your problem honey things are going to be OK way.

So when my heart fills with despair, about the fire losses or the sad state of affairs in our country and injustices in the world; when I take stock of things on the turn of the calendar year, I’ll stand with her. She can handle it and so will I/we. Sonoma Strong!


December Issue: Imagine with Art News

Sending holiday greetings here in a newsletter with articles about my post-firestorm reportage, sketch workshop news and more! Get your copy here.

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The Botany of Fire

As the fires now rage in southern California those of us in the north watch with compassion and relive the terror of those days in October when we watched our city burn. In the interim we’ve had good bit of rain to green things up here and to begin the clearing of properties. Yesterday I turned my attention to some of the strange and, dare I say, wonderful vegetation that survived the burn on a property where the dwelling sadly burned to the ground.

AngelaRd2pen and w/c with white gouache in 9 X 12″ toned Stillman and Birn sketchbook

A palm tree, blackened and charred but possibly not all the way through. These plants hold secrets within their cells that we could learn from.


Trees don’t bleed like humans, except metaphorically.  These palms are relatives of the grasses with fibrous material to the core. I’m rooting for them to shed their outer layers and come back with fronds greener than ever. The hillside above and below here was already vibrant with luxurious new growth fertilized by the ash.


But for now these ghostly figures tell the story of the raging fires. Quan Yin silently witnessed it all and now watches over the restoration. She stands serene and unwitting of the worry that this artist has placed on her brow in the art here. This is after all my telling of the story, with hopefully enough of the recognizable to touch some place in you.


Beauty among the ashes

Exploring yet another burned out neighborhood in the path of the October 8 Tubbs fire I drove out Mark West Springs road. While walking down a street of flattened homes this antique car rose out of the ashes and stared at me like a giant beetle. The squashed garbage cans seemed to be having a dialogue with it, so I sat down to listen to what they had to say about the event.


pen, watercolor and gouache in 9 X 12″ Stillman + Birn toned Nova series sketchbook

The constant drone and thunking of the bulldozer down the street and conversation of workers kept me company while I followed the lines with my eyes, unencumbered by knowledge of familiar shapes I’d drawn before. Squashed circles and wavy/sharp edges and broken pieces set the brain free to engage in a pure effort of drawing as it should be, without distractions of the mind.

A couple of workman stopped by to ask me if I had lost my house here. People are always ready to offer condolences. A supervisor with a company on contract with FEMA or OSHA or, I wasn’t quite clear, engaged me in conversation. He had come from Miami, where he lives.

“I was there in the middle of the hurricane destruction,” he said, “and it looked a lot like this does” waving his hand over the flattened neighborhood they were clearing.


Continuing up Mark West Springs way and out Reibli road and other country lanes, I traced more of the fire destruction and found a peaceful spot by the side of the road. It was a typical scene with layered colors of alternating lush vibrancy and dark, burned areas with debris, like the trees above, still green at the tops with browned scorched leaves and black charred trunk. The human habitation was leveled and peppered with white and black ashes, and the grasses were surging back encouraged by recent rains. Even here the cranes and bulldozers droned on in their clearing jobs around every corner in the road.

Barbeques are the Survivors

A lot of mobile homes burned in the Tubbs fire last month. And some next door did not. One tries to imagine the fire burning through one property and not crossing the street to burn another. What stopped it at that point? These are the questions that run through your mind when you look at the burn.

One thing you see lots of is barbeques standing intact among the rubble. They are the survivors of the firestorm. They look like you could light them up and grill a steak on them as is. By the end of the summer season I know our barbeque doesn’t really look so different from the ones I’ve seen in the burned neighborhoods. I guess their “species” already had lots of experience with fires and heat, so they took the Tubbs Fire in their stride.

barbequepen and watercolor and gouache in Stillman + Birn 9 X 12″ gray toned sketchbook


Visiting the Burn

The roads through neighborhoods burned in last month’s devastating fires are finally open again. Over 5100 homes burned and an additional 1000 buildings. This past week I was drawn to take a better look, by a complex mixture of compassion, curiosity and my own need to heal in the way that comes easiest for me, through art making.


pen, watercolor, gouache in 9 X 12″ Stillman + Birn Nova Series Grey toned sketchbook

In the Mark West Springs area: rubber melted off tires, steel girders collapsed/bent,  while on the same property trees retaining full foliage.  Across the street roses blooming, and farther down, beautiful homes untouched by the flames. But that night of October 8 the fire didn’t stop there. It twirled like a Dervish and raced on for miles. In the bright light of a sunlit day, there was no sense to make of its crazy drunken path.

Yet here I sat on a lovely fall day, listening to the Mariachi music and mellow voices of the workers nearby. Pink ribbons flapped in the breeze on mailboxes indicating that a hazardous waste inspection had been done.


Metal, cement, bricks, rocks, some glass and ceramic tiles and statuary remain, though not always in the original place. In these neighborhoods there are so many stairs to nowhere now. And this goddess arising from the shell, having also risen from the fire, seemed full of despair in one moment. . .and full of hope in the next. The metal sculpture on the right (once a heater perhaps?) tilted empathically at the same angle as the goddess. So much beauty in all this loss, shining paradoxically through the sadness.

roundbarn The Round Barn had stood on the hillside in Santa Rosa for 119 years before it burned in the Tubbs fire. I wanted to see it, and pay homage with a sketch, but although we knew where it was supposed to be, we couldn’t find it. On the blackened hillside above Mendocino Avenue leaned a small, leafless tree. I assumed at first that because the Barn was such a beloved landmark, the usual fire debris had already been trucked out.

But as we caught sight of the stone pilings, arranged in a circular fashion below, we realized we had reached the spot. Piles of rusty nails and bolts littered the ashy ground and green shoots of grass, bright and vibrant were already beginning to lend a healthy glow to the hillside.  Such was the contrast to the mountain of gray debris left behind by the fire that consumed the K-Mart and others businesses.

A walk on the burnt hillside restored my vision of nature as flexible, yielding to disaster, bending and springing back so ardently on this hillside meadow where an old wooden barn burned to the ground. Who knows what flowers will decorate the hillside this winter and spring?

It was time to choose which of the fire art I would render in my sketch. A few sheets of metal curled up in sculptural beauty, kissed with colors of flame and oxidation? The big oak which split in two in the fire, making a kaleidoscope of sky holes in the trunk and a stretch of trunk curling down to meet the ground and opening up future homes for many creatures? I chose the bench to sketch, for the story it told of the fire’s unique artistry.


Staying on the outskirts of the burned areas, not wanting to get in the way of recovery efforts, not wanting to see the devastation of our beautiful Santa Rosa neighborhoods, parks, vineyards. But the images are already burned into our minds and hearts.


Muse Group demo: acrylic, gesso, fabric collage on w/c paper, 10 X 11″

Crow lands on a burnt out tree, ponders as he watches ash float down.

Nothing familiar here. In the ashes nothing looks the same, a world upended.

And yet, shapes of people’s lives, of things one time possessed, then not. Shards of things, zippers without the pants. Paper gone, words gone.

Yet in someone’s yard five miles away a restaurant menu piece floats to the ground and a bill as yet unpaid.