Amongst the Ashes in Paradise, California

Words by Charles Smith, photos by Sye Williams

Certain shifts in perspective find you.

You don’t ask for it, you can’t plan for it, it just happens. It doesn’t have a schedule and you can’t make reservations, but on a long enough timeline, it will find you.

For California, it arrived in fire and smoke. A destructive tour de force of that did not let up, and is still very much active. Some people’s lives were ended, others were changed forever. It left behind charred husks of the inanimate objects that so often become the default physical evidence of people’s hopes and dreams, but it also left behind a new way of seeing the world.

People became accountable, dependable and compassionate for one another. For once, a ‘neighbour’ meant something other than someone to fight with over two inches of a disputed property line.

The pictures are shocking, and why wouldn’t they be? California’s “deadliest wildfire” that continues to rage is about as newsworthy as they come. Numbers and stats are constantly shifting, multiplying daily as a way to somehow quantify the disaster.

The most popular of references, dropped into casual conversations goes something like: “Did you hear that the fire was moving at a rate of 80 football fields a minute?” It’s a comparison that immediately calls to mind images of yourself and your loved ones trying to outrun it, or even outdrive it, in almost zero visibility conditions. It’s a way to frame an event that really doesn’t make sense from a distance. But having the luxury of the frame itself means you can look around it, close the laptop, fold the paper, lock the phone and go back to whatever it is you were doing before reading this. The people in Paradise, CA never had that luxury.

I had my own version of the fire panic down in Malibu, but I was assured by multiple firefighters it was nothing like what they saw up north. Standing there, I could feel the heat on my skin from a half-mile away. The thuds of my quickening pulse thumped in my chest and throat. I made irrational decisions to keep things I didn’t need and obsessed about what I could have grabbed, but I was lucky enough to even have that choice. The window of time that allows for such choices became narrower with each minute that passed—I wasn’t sure if that made things easier or harder.

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Houses began to pop, groan and hiss as pieces of roof flew up and disappeared into a tornado of fire. The light changed swiftly but surely; peach, then burnt amber, then black. And then came the smells: garages full of paint, eucalyptus trees, home insulation, and melting cars all morphed into a black cloud that stained whatever it touched, including your skin and throat. It was eerily quiet and still, with most of the wildlife already having fleed the looming threat.

The intuitive centres of the brain began to activate. Flight or fight kicked in, but fight no longer seemed like an option when faced with a 1000-foot high column of black smoke creating its own weather system. Doubling over on itself, turning inside out and spitting out smouldering remnants from the violent flames. Only once I was far enough away from the threat did it feel ok to stare back at the abyss once more. But, the nagging voice remained… ‘Am I out of the way of the fire? Am I even safe yet?’

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