The Wildfire: Has Climate Change Killed the California Dream?
by Michael Shaw
Disruption is intrinsic to California. It was ground zero of America’s consciousness movement. Birthplace of the light and space art movement. The incubator of post-modern architecture. The rich soil for Hollywood and Silicon Valley. California thrives on upheaval and tension, prioritizing the creative kind. Fire? Earthquake? Drought? Cultural and physical volatility has always been part of that equation.
The historic fires in Northern California have been more than grievous, they have been demoralizing. They have not just ravaged the wine country, a paramount industry and a popular tourist destination. If you look at the photo coverage of the fires, especially from the photo departments of the San Francisco Chronicle and the Los Angeles Times, they seem to undermine California’s psychic landscape. I’m feeling it acutely having lived in the state most of my life.
Start with the photo above. This is subject matter for a postcard or a real estate brochure, not a crisis photo. In California, palm trees are framing elements.
This image actually isn’t all that distinct from scenes of the state’s past fire catastrophes. The azure blue of the swimming pool is a counterbalance to the horrific destruction suffered in Santa Rosa. California prospers and California suffers. But other aerial shots are more unsettling.
Here, the incredible and almost instantaneous devastation in Santa Rosa is defined by a shocking visual symmetry. As if California has gotten too far ahead of itself, one can imagine this section of Santa Rosa was on a computer chip or a circuit board. One that somebody put a match to.
A wonderful documentary photographer, Scott Strazzante shoots a lot of sports for the SF Chronicle and he has a sizable following on Instagram for his street photography. One commenter on this Instagram post was reminded of a volcano. To the extent California’s environment has become supercharged by climate change, I was actually thinking of an apocalypse beyond Pompeii. It looks like California has become radioactive.
Many of the fire photos play on the state’s connection with technology. Some do so more literally. The power lines in the foreground not only bring a digital California to mind, the scene also vividly illustrates how these unprecedented fires moved like electricity.
In other photos, the firestorms assaulted more nostalgic elements of California culture. Here, it’s car culture. In what could be taken as an act of cultural violence, the assault rages on a Camaro SS.
I can’t tell you how many photos of burned out cars I’ve seen over the past week. But this one, featuring a former white beauty, is really a classic. It’s as if the policemen, dressed in black, are attending a funeral, passing by an open casket. The look of the guy closest to the vehicle, as he lingers in the shades, conveys that car culture love.
This photo is certainly pushing the artistry. Again, a hallmark of California. It was taken at the fatefully named “Journey’s End” mobile home park that was destroyed early on in Santa Rosa. In it, the orange canisters are like stand-ins for the firefighters who used them up to try to slow down the firestorm. And now, they’re like the remains on a battlefield.
There were dozens of fires these past two weeks up and down the state. But none were as terrifying and disheartening as the ones in Napa, Sonoma and the rest of the wine country. The most painful photos are those of vineyards lost to the fire. In the light of the blaze on the hill, it’s hard to tell the vineyard from a cemetery.
These vines have been meticulously tended for generations. Sure, wine is a commodity. But its role and importance goes far beyond its economic value. These fields and their yield, with their tradition and history of excellence, have practically a bodily connection to California.
Finally, this shot was taken as smoke from an Orange County fire came in range of the Magic Kingdom. Like the palm tree photo, the destruction shows no deference to the state’s culture, high or low. Climate change pays no heed to mystique, to resilience or to creative tension. As much a state of mind, it’s hard to know how California will respond.