As I stood among the quiet, blackened remains of Santa Rosa's Coffey Park neighborhood, the first memory to come back to me from Oakland's firestorm twenty-six years earlier was that of destitution, both sudden and untethered.
I spent two years photographing those Oakland ruins. And now standing in someone else's disaster on a bright clear Fall day, it all looked familiar, as if I'd stepped through a time portal ––the mottled, steel hulk of the family van in the driveway; a baked file cabinet rising above the distilled remains of the garage; carbonized patio furniture; children's toys on a lush, green lawn.
Where were these families now, I wondered? In a relatives spare bedroom? A hotel thirty miles away? An apartment and, if they were lucky to find one close by, at what price?
Striving for normalcy, they would be energized to contact city and county officials, relief agencies, and insurance companies. Businesses and community organizations would step forward with donations. Change would come slowly.
Everything would be different. The retired couple next door moved away to be near their son. The middle-aged man down the street also lost his job in the fire and was anxious to settle with the insurance company and move on. Those that would choose to return would build as big as their insurance payouts allowed. And, of course, the construction would go on for years –the kids sooner off to college. The coming year would bring the realization that this was no longer their old, familiar neighborhood but an emotional and physical entanglement that would devolve into a residential development.
Further away from town in the wooded hills, the fire damage was less striking. The golf course was thriving, freed of its suburban corset. The destruction on the larger view lots was camouflaged by California's resilient, and largely intact, native oak groves. In large part, it was not the trees that drove the worst of the fire, but the houses among them.