#sonomastrong

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

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

Rescue and Now Restoration Beginnings

Our Sonoma County fires have reached nearly total containment now I think (hope!) and most of the neighborhoods that burned have been opened up for the owners to begin the process of sifting through the rubble for salvageable belongings. The air is clear and we have begun to venture out into Santa Rosa to see the damage and try to get our minds and hearts around the loss of property and so much more. Last week we walked the Sonoma County Fairgrounds where the evacuation center and fire rescue headquarters have completely taken over the grounds.

firerescueheadquarters2We walked through Grace Pavilion where evacuees were resting on cots and talking to counselors and FEMA and insurance reps and other volunteer helpers.  We sketched the soldiers and the tables with free towels and flip flops and mobile TV center and mobile laundry and mobile cafe.  We looked through the fence to see the fire trucks and a vast tent city erected for first responders,  an astonishing command center for fire rescue in Sonoma County.

And today we ventured out to familiar settings in Santa Rosa, now less familiar except as seen in news articles for the past two weeks as charred remains.

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At Luther Burbank Center for the Arts, Restoration Services vans and crews were everywhere restoring landscape around the performing arts center.  The building next door on the east side is now a burned out shell which had housed the Anova Center for Education. A hazmat team was cleaning and removing loose debris, and we spoke to two of the school staff in the parking lot. Anova Center for Education is a K-12 school and services for children with autism and learning differences. School is temporarily suspended while they await portable classrooms which will be erected in the parking lot until their building can be rebuilt.

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There’s a cruel irony to the pure white fire hydrant right outside the burnt out shell of a building. If it had feelings it would surely be unhappy that it couldn’t fulfill its one mission in life. Or perhaps I’m just projecting my survivor’s guilt onto it.