Sonoma Strong

Fire Restoration

The northern California fires of last October left us all feeling vulnerable. The devestation and loss of peoples’ lives, homes, livelihoods, and more is not even close to being put in the past. I’ve been going back out to some of the burned neighborhoods I sketched a few weeks or months ago to observe the physical changes.

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fountain pen and watercolor in 8 X 8″ hand.book trav.e.logue sketchbook

After the fire you could always find the “steps to nowhere”, only then they were covered with the considerable debris of people’s homes that had burned down. Now almost 90% of the lots have been cleared and scraped and are theoretically ready for rebuilding, though little construction has yet to get started. Here you see a cleared lot, no longer blackened. All around one sees the irrepressible greening of nature. So many of the burned trees are now blossoming or budding out!

fountaingroveburn1 Here’s another lot which perches on the edge of the canyon with a jaw-dropping view. The cement foundation of the upper story stands clear and ready while a giant tractor claw rests in the green grass rusting. One wonders if the holdup is the post-fire discovery of toxins in the water system that must be remedied before construction gets underway? The lay of the land looked eerily familiar to me.

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It was the same lot I had sketched (on gray paper) last December when part of the house was still standing! All the homes seen across the way had also disappeared!

Then last week I met Peter Phibbs, the sculptor who works at the Paradise Ridge winery that burned in the fire. I had the opportunity to see some of his creations made from burned wood and grapevines. My favorite was his “Wave”, an on site installation which took my breath away!

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It was late in the day with not much time to hear Peter’s fire story or do more than one sketch. On October 8 he was busy at work building a stage on the property when the fire came roaring toward him and he just escaped in time, leaving all his tools and car to the flames. Since then he’s “rescued” a treasured oak tree by turning it into a sculpture that will last for ages. And he was just in the process of loading up and delivering a large burnt wood sculpture to a family who lost their home in Coffey Park (made of wood reclaimed from their property!).

Peter

While he was talking I snapped a picture and sketched this later. Here you see one of the phoenixes of the Tubbs Fire!

The much loved Paradise Ridge wines survived and the winery will be rebuilt. Visit their website to read their touching story. I hope to go back soon to capture more of this scene. The land is still laced with dramatic sculptures and llamas and more! And the vines are thriving.

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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.

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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.

Mr.Ashes

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!

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.

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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.

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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.

 

Coffee Park Apocalypse

We finally made it out to Coffee Park in Santa Rosa to see the scene where 1000 suburban homes burned to the ground in one night when residents had little or no warning beyond neighbors pounding on doors to alert each other to flee.

Our mission, if we could articulate it, was to take in the scene with open eyes and hearts and to report on it through our on-location sketches.

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pen and w/c/gouache in Stillman + Birn grey toned Nova series sketchbook, 9 X 12″

The scene was devastation of the apocalyptic sort as far as the eye could see. It defies belief, not to mention description. The expected blackened trees and burnt wooden siding, yes, but melted glass and mangled cars?

I chose this car with its guts hanging out like a soldier wounded in battle and started to draw, realizing that I could not begin to identify the make or model or to imagine what all the wires must have been connected to. On the one hand it was a powerful piece of abstract art, stunning in its bright orange color (courtesy of the oxidizing effects of fire). On the other, it was a lure to coax the mind down a dark hole of death and destruction. One imagines an alien force with a ray gun.

The intensity of the fire as it hit Coffee Park made it unique in history. Fueled by winds that clocked in at 90 mph, the convection forces were powerful enough to create tornado-like vortices and even flip over cars. From a resident who had lost her home that night in the area where we were standing we learned that temperatures of 2000 degrees Fahrenheit had occurred that night, easily melting the glass of a windshield down onto a car’s dashboard.

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Meanwhile I was not prepared for the level of activity going on in Coffee Park yesterday, about five weeks after the fire struck. Bulldozers and backhoes and cranes were busy everywhere, clearing the lots to ready them for reconstruction. In fact this car was sitting on a piece of plastic on a lot completely cleared of detritus. I sat while the bulldozers roared about me, and the inspectors, encased in white with their bug-like masks and cameras and ribboned markers, surveyed the property next door.

Every little nail and bolt of this former-car called out to be drawn. I might still be there if my knees had held out. Did I think that the drawing would somehow help me to make sense of it all, if only I could get it right?