'It Never Stopped Coming': Photojournalist Reflects on the North Bay Fires One Year Later
Whether it was the photo of the man jumping off his home or the sign reading “The love in the air is thicker than the smoke," many images from the North Bay Fires have stuck with people even one year later.
Getty Images photojournalist Justin Sullivan covered the fires last year and took some of the most memorable images of the event. A year later, he went back and photographed the same locations to see how they had changed over the course of a year.
KQED talked to Sullivan about what it was like to cover the devastating fires, how fires have changed since he started covering them and what it's been like covering ones so close to home. You can hear the interview by clicking the play button above, or you can read a transcript below, which has been lightly edited for clarity.
Going back to those first days covering the fires in the North Bay, are there any impressions or feelings that have stuck with you over the year?
I think that the overall scale of the fire was the thing that stuck with me the most. I've been covering fires for nearly 20 years, and the fact that a fire grew that fast and devastated a community that wasn't in the middle of a forest or in the middle of a field of dry brush or typical places where you do see destruction from a fire. The Coffey Park community, in specific, that lost the most homes wasn’t anywhere near that stuff. The weather and the winds just pushed it right into that area, and I'm sure those people never expected that. It never stopped coming. That's the crazy thing about how these fires are continuing to grow bigger and bigger each day.
In your photos last year, you captured a lot. You captured the destruction—I remember images of the Hilton Hotel in Santa Rosa being in flames, totally destroyed. Also images of people consoling each other, images of firefighters. I'm wondering if there are any particular photos that you remember capturing that have stuck with you since last year.
There was one. I met a guy named Mike. This was near Glen Ellen, and he lived in a small little house that was, it was kind this little cul-de-sac, and it wasn't like a traditional street, and it was just like this little development that had maybe three or four houses on it. Three other houses around it had been burned down, and he was trying to save his little house—running around, the fence was on fire. He's trying to do all he can to keep it away from his house. And at one point he climbed up on top of the roof so he could just sort of get an overview and to see what he was dealing with. And there’s a picture I took of him jumping off the roof back down on the ground as he was like frantically, you know, trying to rush around and extinguish all the flames that were encroaching on his little house. I think at the end of the day, he managed to save his house, and it was the only one that was saved in the area. The immediate area around his house, everything else burned down.
Have you kept in touch with him in any way? Or do you keep in touch with any of the people that you photographed last year? Are there people or personalities who you met who have stuck with you or who you've continued to photograph and speak with?
I spoke with him for probably a month or so after the fire, and then we lost touch. There was another guy that reached out to me because he saw a picture that I had taken of his house while it was on fire. He had just moved into the house probably six months prior, or maybe a year prior, and we ended up meeting. I gave him some photos of his house. At first when I got that email from him, I thought, "He's going to be upset that I took a picture of his home on fire." But at the end of the day, I think he was just more interested in saying, “Look this is what happened, and I'd like to have something that shows, you know, where I once lived.”
Is there any difficulty in deciding what to photograph during such a tragic event?
I think in the case of that particular fire—or fires, because there are three or four that were going on at the same time—is the amount of stimulus that was happening. I mean, there were things happening everywhere. There were moments with people. There were moments not with people— and landscapes of whole ridges on fire. I honestly started my day, the day that the fires started, in Napa County, and then I slowly started to move toward Sonoma. I didn't even get to Santa Rosa until probably the afternoon. I didn't even know about the Coffey Park neighborhood until maybe two days later when I went over in a helicopter, and that was the first time I had seen that widespread devastation and was completely blown away. There was just so much going on. I think on that very first day, I drove from Marin County, where I live, to Sonoma, all the way up to Calistoga, down in Napa, all the way to Santa Rosa and back. And it was just—the area was so huge that there was just so much to see and do.
Living in Marin County, being so close to where this tragedy struck—did that make it different from the other events you’ve covered? Did this feel different at all because this massive destruction was so close to where you live?
It did in many ways. For the start, I woke up in the middle of the night, and my girlfriend woke me up and said, “Hey, I think there’s a fire in our building.” And sure enough, I woke up and it smelled like smoke. I looked outside, and there was smoke everywhere. And this was probably maybe two or three hours after the fire started—that's how strong the winds were blowing. It just blew. Marin County was just socked in with smoke. And then, in the days to come after the fact, I got more phone calls and emails from people that I know in the area saying, “Hey, can you go take a look and see my cousin's house and my brother's house, or my house? We can't get in. If you're in that area, can you take a look?” And I've never really had that on fires. A lot of the fires I cover are in remote areas or in Southern California, and I don’t necessarily know many people in the area in Southern California or rural California. So it kind of hit home that people, you know, identified with me being there and just wanted peace of mind to know, “Hey, is my property OK, or is my brother's property OK?” And I ended up going and looking at maybe six or seven people's homes that I've known for many years just to make sure it was still there.
Seeing some of your photographs a year later of new construction in these burns zones, it's pretty striking to see new homes in areas surrounded by destruction from the fires. I'm wondering, what are your thoughts, one year later, on how the community is rebuilding, from the perspective of an observer, somebody who's capturing images of it?
Well, I was sort of struck by that as well because I've never gone back to an area that I photographed in a fire because typically areas don't have such a wide area that burned down. That Coffey Park area in particular, where literally hundreds of homes were just gone. To go back and see, you know, a fraction of them popping up, but there's still a lot that's not being built. There are "for sale" signs on some of the pieces of land. There's just pieces of land that are just empty. You know, they've taken everything out, they’ve cleared all the toxic debris out, and it's just an empty lot now. But there are some neighborhoods that I went to that there were probably maybe 50 or 60 homes in there, and now there are only two that have come back. It's a slow progression, and hopefully it does come back to the vibrant community that once was. But I think at this point, it has a long way to go.
There's one image that we’ve published here at KQED, and I've seen in a number of other publications of a sign that some residents of the North Bay had made that said, “The love in the air is thicker than the smoke.” I'm wondering if you remember when you first saw that sign and how the motto it's sort of become for the Sonoma and Napa areas, whether it rung true to you and whether you've thought about it at all over the past year.
It definitely rung true at the moment. I remember seeing it maybe like on the third day, driving back up to Napa just to continue the fire coverage, and passing by in the morning and completely doing a U-turn, just going back, because I think it spoke for that region. And you did see people, and you still to this day see people, coming out for each other regardless of who you are, what you do, what color you are. The community really came together. Almost immediately, you could see it, and I thought that was a perfect motto for the situation at hand there.
You mentioned that you've been covering fires for a long time, and one thing that keeps coming up here in California is that there is no more fire season and that now we're seeing fire years. And it's taking a toll on people who are constantly exposed to fires, people who are losing their homes. Is it taking a toll on you at all, as somebody who is going out to these fire zones and photographing?
Yes. It's an exhausting task to go to cover these fires. A lot of the times, like I said before, they're in areas that are rural. You know, it will take you hours to get there. Once you’re there, there are no resources available anymore. You're kind of self-sufficient for as long as you’re up there sometimes. You'll cover one of these fires between three and seven days, and you’ve been sleeping in your car, or you do camping when it's available, and it's exhausting. The size of these fires has grown tenfold in the past ten years. I mean, they grow so fast now. I was talking to a friend recently about fires that we covered 10 years ago and how we thought at the time, “Wow! That was a huge fire. It was 35,000 acres!” Now, 35,000 acres happens in a matter of hours. And then they explode into these 400,000, 500,000 acre fires. I don't know that I ever thought I would see that. And it's exhausting that in months like December, where you don't expect this thing to happen here, you’re out there still covering fires.