It had been seven months since the Bear Fire swept through Berry Creek in Northern California, but the door to the local schoolhouse still stood. Braced by cinderblock, it opened onto a pile of debris: blasted-out glass, rusted pipes, electrical lines. Somewhere in the rubble were the desks, heaped with soot and ash. The fifty-two-student Berry Creek Elementary School—which serves kindergarten through eighth grade—had toppled in September 2020, along with most of the town.
Photographer Kris Graves was immediately drawn to that door—the way it was washed in warm light, pitched against a pale spring horizon, sunshine cracking through a seam in its warped frame. The pine forest surrounding it was brown and crisped, though a single deciduous tree had erupted into green—markers of destruction colliding with the normalcy of what once was.
“Those few things in the background tell the story,” Graves said. “There’s a lot of subtlety.”
He was compelled by what came after the flames and the fury—after the wind, the heat, the smoke plume died out, after the spark went cold and the news crews went home. This was a new American landscape: a harbinger of what is to come—or rather, what has already come to pass.
“People have short attention spans,” Graves said. “I think that people feel like they’re distant from climate-change problems. Most people know it exists, but think they can’t do anything about it. For me, it was seeing it for myself. These pictures are the release.”
Graves has been thinking about wildfires since his wedding in October 2017 in Santa Rosa. He and his wife married the day after seasonal rains doused the Glass Fire, which had raged for more than three weeks, rippling across the mountain ranges and threatening people’s lives as they fled their neighborhoods. The blaze eventually merged with others, becoming part of a historic fire siege that razed thousands of houses and claimed dozens of lives.
Somehow, though, Graves’s wedding went on. The two hundred masks that he’d purchased for guests to breathe amid the heavy smoke weren’t actually necessary. The wedding photographer, who needed to be convinced to fly in, arrived on time. The orange skies cleared.
Three years later—his mind still on a project that he saw as “semi-ongoing”—Graves returned to Northern California to road trip through these places, which were no longer really places. The communities that had burned in 2017 were still hollowed, Graves said, “leaving once-bustling towns barren.”
In the Santa Rosa neighborhood of Coffey Park, where the clatter of drills and clink of hammers rang through the air, every eighth home was still a dirt lot. But to the northeast, in the affluent, hillside community of Fountaingrove, Graves found mostly overgrown brush and vacant residential streets. Concrete foundations latticed the slopes, ending at a scattering of newly constructed homes.
Graves followed State Highway 128 over the mountains, into Lake Berryessa and Spanish Flat, then onward to Paradise, Magalia, and Concow. The towns had borne the brunt of even worse wildfires, retopping state-records charts in 2018, 2019, and 2020. Graves photographed the black char on sequoias older than Jesus. The churn of earthen firebreaks, now abandoned. Tree carcasses like toothpicks, spiking an entire hillside. White rubble, blackened playsets.
“Walking up to the edge of a canyon and seeing the most beautiful landscapes ever in Paradise—and then realizing that people’s homes were there, where you’re standing,” Graves said. “It’s tough. You could drive for hours, for a long time, and see damage.”
I understand Graves’s fascination. As a local reporter at the region’s largest newspaper, I wrote about wildfires for many years. My job was to look when no one else wanted to, to pay attention when others had grown fatigued of disasters. I learned that recovery from a wildfire—if you can call it that—happens in a generational cycle. Often, as Graves’s photographs show, it looks a lot like nothing.
With each new cycle of rebuilding will come another cycle of burning—a new place wiped off the map, a new place striving to earn back its name. Part of the land that burned during the 2017 fires also burned in 1964 during the Hanly Fire—the footprints of the damage are almost identical. The people propped their lives back up, but it took a lifetime. It was their children who inherited their efforts, who were able to forget—for a little while—that it had burned. Until, fifty-three years later, the land burned again.
The places that Graves traveled to already look different. As of November 2022, the majority of the 1,400 houses burned in Coffey Park have been rebuilt, according to city data. In Fountaingrove, 1,130 homes—or about 70 percent of what was lost—have been erected. In Paradise, the population—once about 26,500—has risen from 4,600 in 2019 to 7,000. Though hard to see, a transformation is happening amid the stillness, the cycle is restarting. It is the door that opens onto destruction.
Part of the pull of Graves’s photos is knowing that, in some ways, it’s all futile. Fire will always prevail. We will rebuild, only to have it someday burn again.
— Lizzie Johnson