As California wildfires intensify, survivors struggle to pick up the pieces

Sculptor Gilham Erickson holds the shriveled leaves of his late mother’s hibiscus in his hands. He sifts through pieces of broken artwork splayed across the ground — the remains of what’s left after his home of 20 years was destroyed in October 2017 by a wildfire that devastated whole neighborhoods in Sonoma, Calif.

—AR produced by Henry Keyser and Rebecca Corey

“I’m just consumed with trying to get into my new space and get going again,” Erickson says. 

In 2017, 21 wildfires erupted across Sonoma and Napa counties, burning nearly 95,000 acres, destroying 7,000 buildings and resulting in 40 deaths. It was the most destructive fire season on record in California, until the following year, when a new record was set: The Camp Fire, which began on Nov. 8, 2018, killed 86 people and destroyed 14,000 residences while scorching an area the size of Chicago. 

And yet, Erickson has stayed. 

“I belong in Sonoma,” Erickson insists. “With all of its charm and all of its troubles.” 

He’s one of three Sonoma Valley residents featured in After the Fire, the first release from the new documentary initiative "Short Stories," from Yahoo News and RYOT Films. Directed by Derek Knowles and Spencer Seibert, the film follows Erickson and fellow Sonoma residents Maribel Guido and Chris Berger as each struggles to find their place in a community that has been transformed overnight by disaster. 

Gilham Erickson is a stone sculptor and 20-year resident of Sonoma who was drawn to the area for its natural beauty and small town charm.

“What really drew us to this story was a chance to show a portrait of a community that a lot of people know, but they often only know the postcard image of Sonoma,” Seibert told Yahoo News. “It’s wine country, it’s very affluent, it’s a tourist destination — and that all is true, but we felt that this film was a really good chance to show the nuances of the community and that when a national disaster like this fire rolls through, it’s not a thing that is occurring in a vacuum.”

Guido didn’t lose her home in the wildfires, but as the town struggled to deal with the disaster, the mother of two children soon found herself unemployed. 

“I spent a month after the fires without working, because there were no customers,” she said of her restaurant job.   

Guido immigrated to the United States from Michoacan, Mexico, and has lived in Sonoma for eight years. As she speaks, she is overcome with emotion, covering her face with her hands as she describes how La Luz Center helped pay her family’s rent. 

"One word that we found ourselves using a lot in the context of the film is ‘intersectionality,’” Seibert explained. “For someone like Maribel, who’s an immigrant and an hourly restaurant employee, she already is one of the most vulnerable members of that community. So when the fire comes through and puts her out of work, it’s more devastating to her than it might be to someone who’s very financially secure.”

Maribel Guido is an immigrant and mother of two young girls who brought her family to Sonoma Valley for economic opportunity.

This year, wildfires have continued to batter California. The Kincade Fire in Northern California and the Maria Fire in Southern California have burned a total of nearly 88,000 acres. And with no rain in sight, the California wildfire season is expected to last into December

Climate change is in part to blame for the increase in wildfires, with warmer temperatures fueling dryer conditions and making brush more flammable. The California Department of Forestry & Fire Protection, or CalFire, described the environmental changes in its 2019 Fire Season Outlook.  

“Warmer spring and summer temperatures, reduced snowpack and earlier spring snowmelt create longer and more intense dry seasons that increase moisture stress on vegetation and make forests more susceptible to severe wildfire,” CalFire said. 

Many state leaders, like former California Gov. Jerry Brown, blame the Trump administration’s environmental protection rollbacks for exacerbating the problem.          

“California’s burning while the deniers make a joke out of the standards that protect us all,” Brown said last week while testifying before the House Oversight Subcommittee on Environment.

Trump slammed back, and the California wildfires are the source of an ongoing feud between the president and current California Gov. Gavin Newsom. On Monday, Trump tweeted that Newsom “has done a terrible job of forest management,” to which Newsom replied, “You don’t believe in climate change. You are excused from this conversation.”

Seibert and Knowles acknowledge the wider climate change battle in their film, but chose to focus on the more personal stories of what Knowles calls “American climate refugees.” 

“We really wanted to stay away from a statistic-based approach to telling the story about fires and climate change,” Knowles explained to Yahoo News. “I think we all know that this is happening — it’s so obvious. And so Spencer and I were much more interested in exploring emotionally what that looks like to be on those front lines."

Knowles is now working on a new documentary about the residents of Paradise, Calif., which was leveled by the Camp Fire, and, as a result, has lost 90 percent of its residents. Embedded in a local high school, Knowles focuses on two high school seniors — one who has decided to leave Paradise and escape the memory of the fire, and one who has chosen to stay and rebuild. 

“Their PTSD is very real, and it’s appropriate to refer to it that way,” Knowles said of the students’ trauma in the year after the wildfire. “There’s a lot of parallels — and a lot of these students actually brought it up themselves — to places like Parkland [Fla.] and other high schools that have dealt with mass shootings.” 

One of the jarring parts of life in Paradise, Knowles said, are the scenes of ordinary life alongside reminders of the horrific wildfire that these young people have lived through.  

“You just walk around, and on the walls next to the prom posters are pamphlets for trauma counselors and ways to get help if you need it,” Knowles recalled. 

It’s a scene that’s all too familiar for Sonoma residents, where picturesque small-town life was abruptly upended.   

Chris Berger is a lifetime resident of Sonoma and father of two who runs a small but successful pool servicing business.

“People really viewed it as this untouchable paradise,” Berger said of Sonoma in After the Fire. “And then when that fire rolled through, they all realized...”  

Seibert hopes that After the Fire will provide some level of comfort for other victims of environmental disasters.

“Ultimately, I think that the film is a pretty straightforward portrait of one town that is facing the same fate that all towns will face in some way as the effects of climate change become more and more pronounced,” Seibert said. “I’m not sure if I would call it a cautionary tale exactly, but I really hope for people who have been through these types of events that the film provides some sense of solidarity — to see people onscreen who are going through a similar process that they’ve gone through.” 

“And understand that they too are being seen,” Knowles added.