A Wisp of Smoke
Not One, but Many
2011 marked the 20th anniversary of the historic Oakland Firestorm, which swept through the Oakland hills on October 20, 1991. At the time, I had recently completed a two-year solo journey around the world and was staying at my family home in the area. Having become well-adjusted to living out of a backpack and bouncing along mountain passes in fatigued buses, suddenly being left homeless was something for which I was oddly well prepared.
The greater impact, I would discover, was that of having the setting of my youth, neighborhood and all, cleared from the landscape. Even today, upon returning to the street where I grew up, the structures mean little, while a 40-year-old crack in the pavement will bring back a flood of memories. In the years that followed I dealt with that day with both camera and pen.
Looking back at the firestorm now, I realize how much that day has followed me. I am more attuned to the changes in the weather and seasons. A warm wind can put me on edge. I am more discerning when reading the land. What I once perceived as permanent — the forest, the hills, our homes and city — I now see as ever changing.
Most remarkable, though, is how I had failed to realize the extent to which our families, communities, institutions, and possessions insulate us, for good and ill, from forces beyond our control. The fire not only stripped the land, but also splintered families and communities. Those very institutions that we believe in so deeply that we become blind to them, seemed to have vanished. With the loss of our possessions also came a loss of identity and belonging. We were naked, adrift — and free. It was painfully clear that, all along, chaos had been just below the surface.
Immediately we were consumed with securing housing, cobbling together necessities, and negotiating with bureaucracies and corporations, all the while recapturing our familial and professional routines. A broader community of family, friends, old neighbors, and strangers immediately reached out to us. The fire survivors organized and leaned on one another. At times it felt as if we were rebuilding our very democracy.
That terrible day. This beautiful place. We have been blessed in the most poignant way.
From the first signs of smoke I began photographing the fire zone, both its destruction and rebirth. The early images were taken on the morning of the fire, before we realized the immensity of the catastrophe to follow. The aftermath photography recorded over a number of years depicts family loss and reconstruction.
A selection of this work:
Years later I chose to open my book of travel essays, A Vagabond World, with my recollection of that day. The fire seemed the perfect metaphor for the cleansing and renewal found in travel. I also referenced the fire in the foreword to Lake Tahoe: A Fragile Beauty, my monograph of Lake Tahoe. Our relationship with fire is an indication of how young our civilization is and, as such, how we have yet to fully grasp nature's change agents.
These essays can be found here: