Cleaning Up: Life after Fire

Untold Stories from California's 2017 Wildfires

On October 9, 2017 a downed telephone pole lit aflame a redwood in Potter Valley. Soon after, the neighboring town of Redwood Valley and much of Mendocino County was engulfed in flames. It would come to be known as the Redwood Valley Complex fires, and would destroy over 36,000 acres of land. Within days, several others would break out to create a series of 250 wildfires burning across the northern half of California. Fierce winds served to stoke the flames, producing the worst fires northern California has ever seen. It's estimated that approximately 250,000 acres burned during the October fires, which spread across nine counties, tearing a hole in wine country. Nearly 9,000 structures were destroyed, including residential homes, ranches, and vineyards. Though Mendocino county was one of the hardest hit, its news coverage took a backseat to the devastation in Napa and Sonoma as those counties receive higher television ratings.

This photo essay serves to pay tribute to the communities in Mendocino county, and in particular, Redwood Valley, as they rebuild after the Redwood Valley Complex fires - the most devastating to ever hit the region. Here are their stories.

Leon of Redwood Valley looks on at the devastation next door. He and his wife were lucky to survive the Redwood Valley fires that swept across Tomki Road as nine residents in the surrounding area were killed. Photograph: © Kate Schoenbach, Redwood Valley, California, November 22, 2017. 

On October 9, Leon was woken up in the middle of the night by a friend calling to alert him: the fires were at his doorstep. He and his wife fled without any belongings, stopping only to wake up their next door neighbors. While the fires miraculously spared Leon's house, his neighbor's house was destroyed. He says the cleanup process is arduous and delayed due to bureaucratic red tape, with officials tending to members of "the club" first: the wealthier vineyard owners.

Photograph: © Kate Schoenbach, A child's toy survives the fires, Redwood Valley, California, November 22, 2017. The devastating Redwood Valley fires destroyed a resident's house along Tomki Road. The only belonging to remain intact was a child's wooden toy.

Photograph: © Kate Schoenbach, Tricycle, Redwood Valley, California, November 22, 2017. 

Photograph: © Kate Schoenbach, Redwood Valley, California, November 22, 2017. 

Photograph: © Kate Schoenbach, Looters will be shot, Redwood Valley, California, November 22, 2017. 

Photograph: © Kate Schoenbach, Redwood Valley Health Clinic, California, November 21, 2017. Julia Landis, who suffers from chronic lyme disease, receives intravenous Glutathione injections at a clinic in Redwood Valley. Her illness causes increased sensitivity to her environment, and Glutathione helps to detoxify the liver and clean the blood. Since the onset of the wildfires in Mendocino County, she has suffered from increased pain she believes is due to the increased level of toxins in the air. The devastation does not stop with the fire: household hazardous waste materials and heavy metals debris abound in the wreckage. Many believe waste material is easily carried by the wind and rain, serving as pathways for the toxic material to spread. See CNN's Toxic ash, debris from California wildfires pose risks during cleanup

Photograph: © Kate Schoenbach, Redwood Valley debris cleanup, Redwood Valley, California, November 21, 2017. Julia Landis, a resident of Mendocino County, drives to the health clinic in Redwood Valley to receive Glutathione injections.

Photograph: © Kate Schoenbach, Wreckage, Redwood Valley, California, November 22, 2017. Charred vehicles lay strewn about along Tomki Road in Redwood Valley. This destroyed truck overlooks the Frey Vineyard, which was also hit by the fires.

Photograph: © Kate Schoenbach, Grass begins to grow anew amongst the charred Vineyard trees, Redwood Valley, California, November 22, 2017. 

Photograph: © Kate Schoenbach, Ukiah Fire Station, Mendocino County, California, November 21, 2017. 

Photograph © Kate Schoenbach, Ranch worker Lily talks with Mendocino County cleanup crew, Redwood Valley, California, November 21, 2017. Lily Miremont, who works at a ranch and vineyard in Redwood Valley, talks with Mendocino County cleanup crew members Bill and Scott about the longevity of the cleanup process.  They estimate it will be at least 2 years before the cleanup is complete, and attribute the cause of the Redwood Valley Complex fires to a downed telephone pole in neighboring Potter Valley.

Photograph: © Kate Schoenbach, Sprite can, California, November 21, 2017. 

Photograph: © Kate Schoenbach, Washer & Dryer, Redwood Valley, California, November 22, 2017. All that stands from a house along Tomki Road are the charred remains of a washer and dryer unit.

Photograph: © Kate Schoenbach, Charred pickup truck debris, Redwood Valley, California, November 22, 2017. 

Photograph: © Kate Schoenbach, A charred pickup truck covered to prevent hazardous materials from further leaking into the environment, Redwood Valley, California, November 22, 2017. 

John, the owner of this vehicle, fled from the fires in the middle of the night on October 9 with his family. Driving frantically to keep up with his wife, who was driving their second car ahead of him, he lost sight of the vehicle and feared he'd made a wrong turn. Trying to catch up with them, he swerved and hit this tree. He continued on foot, running from the fires, before he came across a fire truck and was saved. It took hours before he located his family, who was thankfully spared from the fires.

Photograph © Kate Schoenbach, Lily with a mare, Mendocino County, California, November 21, 2017. Lily Meirmont, who works on a ranch in Redwood Valley, tends to a horse that narrowly escaped the Redwood Valley Complex Fires. 

Photograph © Kate Schoenbach, Lily at the tack room, Redwood Valley, California, November 21, 2017. Lily Meirmont explains that hundreds of acres at the Redwood Valley ranch and vineyard where she works was burned in October. The ranch's horses had to be relocated, but luckily they survived the fires.

Photograph © Kate Schoenbach, Lily, Redwood Valley, California, November 21, 2017. Lily Meirmont, like many other residents of Mendocino County, fear that higher temperatures and drier weather in recent years have led to increased risk of wildfires in northern California.

Photograph © Kate Schoenbach, Tack room, Redwood Valley, California, November 21, 2017. 

Photograph © Kate Schoenbach, American flag, Redwood Valley, California, November 21, 2017. 

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