A palm tree is engulfed in smoke as the Tubbs fire tears through the Journey’s End mobile home on Mendocino Avenue in Santa Rosa, Calif., on Monday, Oct. 9, 2017. Photo: Gabrielle Lurie, The Chronicle

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.

An aerial view of the Coffey Park neighborhood destroyed by wildfire in Santa Rosa. Photo: Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times

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.

Homes leveled by the Tubbs fire line a neighborhood of Santa Rosa, Calif., on Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017. Photo: Photo: Noah Berger, Special To The San Francisco Chronicle.

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.

Flames moved through the vineyards as a fast moving wind whipped wild fire raged though the Napa/Sonoma wine region in NAPA, CALIFORNIA, USA 9 Oct 2017. Multiple fire that erupted in Napa, Sonoma, Calistoga and the Santa Rosa area have burned homes and wineries. Mandatory evacuations have be displaced hundreds of residents through out the area. Photo: Peter DaSilva, Special to The Chronicle

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.

The Wall wildfire consumes a vintage Chevy yesterday, October 10, 2017 Photo: Noah Berger/Special to The Chronicle

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.

Police officers search for signs of Karen Aycock, a Coffey Park resident who has been missing since the Tubbs fire roared through her neighborhood, in Santa Rosa, Calif., on Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2017. Photo: Noah Berger/ Special to The Chronicle

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.

October 11, 2017. The Wine Country fires made swaths of the North Bay look like a hellscape. Fire extinguishers sit empty near the park. Photo: Gabrielle Lurie/The Chronicle

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.

A grove of trees near Trinity Road glows as it burns near a vineyard after a mandatory evacuation was called in the area of Glen Ellen, Calif., on Wednesday, October 11, 2017. The Napa and Sonoma valleys continue to be under threat from several fires not yet under control and growing fears that strong winds might worsen the situation. Photo: Carlos Avila Gonzalez, The San Francisco Chronicle.

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.

Property owner Chris Schrobilgen stands in his neighbor’s burned grape vineyard in Calistoga, California on October 11, 2017. More than 200 fire engines and firefighting crews from around the country were being rushed to California on Wednesday to help battle infernos which have left at least 21 people dead and thousands homeless. Photo: Josh Edelson/AFP Photo

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.

Disneyland is seen as wildfires rage in Anaheim. October 10, 2017 Photo: INSTAGRAM /@KENNYA.BOULTER/Kennya Boulter via REUTERS

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.

Originally published by Reading The Pictures, the only site dedicated to the daily review of news and documentary photography. Sign up for the Reading The Pictures Week in Re-View email. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

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