After the Fire Photo Essay

The day after we were let back into town I wanted to go out and shoot. I’m not the kind of photographer who gets excited over chasing a fire, or documenting the danger – I’m the first one out of town when it gets dangerous! But I am interested in other parts of the whole experience – and I felt a need to go out and make sense of it, with my camera.

The following series is what I got that day. The best of these images are in this week’s edition of the Village News, and one of them was on the front page of the for most of the week after the fire.

Fallbrook Fire
Modern fire engines were parked next to the Firehouse Broiler’s vintage fire truck, as the restaurant hosted the firemen.

Fallbrook Fire
Firemen at the Firehouse Broiler.

Fallbrook Fire
The Taylor family lost their home near Live Oak Park, but they called their meal with friends at the Firehouse Broiler a celebration. They were grateful to be alive and healthy and together.

Fallbrook Fire
The menu board at the Firehouse Broiler read “Thank you to all the Firefighters and Law Enforcement.”

Fallbrook Fire
Ron Johnson from Fallbrook Union High School helps to unload the 300 cots provided by the Red Cross, at the evacuation center at the school.

Fallbrook Fire
Cleaning up at El Parque Restaurant in Live Oak Park. The owners hope to reopen on Saturday.

Fallbrook Fire
The line for Disaster Clean-up Kits and Comfort Kits provided by the Red Cross at the Community Center on Heald.<

Fallbrook Fire
The Red Cross provided hot meals to those in need.

Fallbrook Fire
A hot meal, water, and desert.

Fallbrook Fire

Fallbrook Fire
At the Community Center, “Stromsoe Insurance Agency wants to help you begin the recovery process.” There were four insurance companies with representatives available to talk to home owners.

Fallbrook Fire
Phillis Mischke and Barbara Sacic, who both live in the Valley Oaks Mobile Home Park check to see if their homes are on the list of destroyed homes. Neither one’s home was listed, but Barbara’s home made another list a few days ago, so she was hoping the fact it wasn’t listed now was a good sign.

Fallbrook Fire
“House Doctor, Home Repairs at Disaster Prices”

Fallbrook Fire
Tom Baba of Fallbrook shows Lance Kramer of Laguna Beach that his home is not on the list of destroyed homes.

Fallbrook Fire
Tom Baba is happy to see that there is no red dot marking his property, which means his home in the middle of the burn area is most likely still standing.

Fallbrook Fire
“All American Red Cross Disaster Assistance is Free”

Fallbrook Fire
Red Cross Volunteers distributing Disaster Clean-up Kits at the Community Center.

Fallbrook Fire
The Red Cross handed out bottled water and flavored water to residents at the Community Center.

Fallbrook Fire
Red Cross volunteers outside the Fallbrook Union High School evacuation center.

An interesting note… I’d forgotten when I went out to shoot last Friday, that I’d had a similar reaction after the fire in 2004. That time I got to go back in the morning, and so as soon as I’d cleaned out my freezer and refrigerator – the power was out for a week due to the fire – so yuck! But after I’d cleaned up that mess, and unpacked my car, I felt compelled to go out and shoot. The landscape was blackened and there was devastation everywhere. I shot 3 rolls of film and I found beauty in the damage. I created beautiful shots of charred branches and burned fences. I spent a lot of time crying that day, but ultimately it made me feel better to create beauty from the ruins.

So it strikes me as interesting that I felt the same compulsion this time – to go out and shoot right away – but this time I was compelled to make happy, shiny, comforting images, and last time I shot the devastation. I think both approaches are valid, but definitely very very different.

After the Fires…

I used to love the Santa Ana Winds. It wasn’t so much that I liked the wind itself, but I loved getting a few days of really hot weather and bright blue skies in the middle of fall. Santa Anas cause the bluest, prettiest skies of the whole year. In Coastal Southern California, the beginning of summer is often overcast, so for me summer starts late, and I love it when summer seems to last well into fall. So yeah, Santas Anas were something to look forward too.

But in recent years when I hear the words Santa Ana my first thought is fire.

In 2004 I was forced out of my home for over a week, and the fire was so hot and furious that 100-year-old oak trees exploded from the intense heat. And the entire landscape was scorched – it looked like a blackened moonscape for miles and miles. And two months later, I moved. Before that I loved living out in the wilderness. I had a mother and baby Mountain Lion climb the tree by my front door. I saw foxes and raccoons. I saw a jack rabbit racing across the open field across the street once – have you ever seen a jack rabbit? It looked like a mini kangaroo! But my love for living in the wilderness changed after the fire. I was extremely lucky – people all around me lost their homes – and my home survived unscathed. But still, my feelings about living on the edge of civilization had changed. It was suddenly scary.

Since then I’ve lived in the center of Fallbrook, and I’ve recently moved into the very center of downtown. So I had to be safe now. Right? I mean, if a wildfire got to here, it would have had to have burned through thousands of other homes before it got here – so not likely, right?

But on Sunday night, when the wind started to blow, I was concerned. It’s not just about my home and my possessions, it’s about my town and all of San Diego county. On the TV news they were reporting fires in other parts of San Diego, including one just east of Escondido. None of the TV stations cover Fallbrook with any regularity – we’re just too far north of San Diego for them to know we exist, so I turned to the Internet and news sites and local bulletin boards. And there was activity. Lots of activity.

When there were reports of a fire in Fallbrook, just 2 miles from my home, I started packing my car. I’m a big advocate of having a list of what to pack in a situation like this. When an emergency hits, most people tend to make bad decisions. “Oh, I don’t need that photo album, I’ll just grab this one.” Or “Oh I don’t need enough clothes for a week – I’ll just grab some sweats.” But if you have a list, then you don’t have to think or make decisions. You don’t have to decide if Grandma’s china or your TV or the computer is more important – you’ll just follow the list! For me, after I get myself and my cat out, it’s about saving my art – which means my negatives and for more recent work, my digital files. Then next most important is getting the things I need to work – meaning cameras and computers. And then next comes the things I’d need to survive a week on vacation. If you can survive a week away from home, then you could survive forever. But if you can’t even brush your teeth or get dressed or have a pillow to sleep on, it’s hard. It’s hard if you’re evacuated for a week, or if you lose your home to the fire. Either way, you need to pack for a week. No matter what. Then next for me is sentimental things and the things that I love – my father’s baby book, old family photos, my antique sewing chest, and great-grandma’s gold thimble. If there’s something you can’t replace, that you love, and it would fit in your car, put it on your list! Don’t rely on your memory at the time – it’s tough to think of everything, when you only have a half-hour to pack and get out. And if you still have any room in your car after all that? Go grab your bedding and the rest of your clothes. If your house burns down and you have to go rent a new place to live, you’ll be grateful for the bedding, and replacing all your clothes would not be fun. So if you have room in your car, why not?

So I packed that night, and when the word came the next day that we under mandatory evacuation, I was ready to go. My family met here, since I was downtown, and I led a caravan of four cars through Deluz, to get to Temecula. At one point there was a car in front of us, and I could tell he’d never driven the road before – it’s a narrow little road through oak groves and there are a lot of sharp turns, so it wasn’t hard to figure out he didn’t know the road. And where it Y’s about nine miles out, I just knew he was going the wrong way, and I wanted to honk, because I knew! But I didn’t honk, because it’s silly to think I knew where he was going. How could I know? So I didn’t honk, I just kept going, and then a mile or so later, my mother started honking, and pulled over convinced that I’d taken a wrong turn, and I explained to her how often I take this road – it’s one of my favorites! And yeah, it’s a long way, but it’s absolutely beautiful and I knew exactly where we were. And while we were pulled over, a car came up behind us and just waited for us. And I wondered why they didn’t just pass us – until I realised it was the car that had taken the wrong turn! And he was waiting for us, probably because he figured we could lead him out. And then another car pulled up behind him and didn’t pass either. And I realised that people were just trying to get out of town, and they were taking roads they’d never taken before, and they didn’t have a clue where they were. It was a sobering thought – among many that day. Once we got to our destination, we heard on the news that the official evacuation route had been through Camp Pendleton, and that it had taken people four hours to get from Fallbrook to Oceanside – a trip that under normal conditions takes 20 minutes. So we seriously lucked out when we chose to go through Deluz. Before we started we tried to stop and get gas, but the line to get into the station was so long we gave up. And later we heard they ran out of gas. Can you imagine? Four hours in traffic to get to Oceanside, and no one could even buy gas. It just really proves to me that it pays to be prepared. I knew there was a chance we’d be evacuated the night before, and I got packed up then, and if I’d needed gas, I would have bought it then. But then again, I’ve lived though another fire…

We spent the next four days at my Mom’s house – she’s currently in the process of moving back to Fallbrook, so her house was half-empty, but it was a perfect place to stay while we were evacuated. And the day we got to come back home? Heaven! I’ve never been so happy to see my home!

And as for my thought that a wildfire would never reach my home in Fallbrook, because I was in the center of town, and it would have to burn through thousands of homes before it would ever get to mine, and that would never happen? Well I was wrong. I never realized how far embers can be blown. On the day I got back I saw a home in the center of town that burned. The garage was gone, and the burned shell of a car was all that remained. The embers flew for miles. I always thought of fire as a thing that surges forward in a line and burns everything in it’s path. And that was the case with the fire in 2004. But this fire was very different. I know that the main reason it was different was that Fallbrook was named the priority on the worst night – which meant we got more resources than the other fires around us. And it makes perfect sense when you realise how close the fire was to town, and how many houses were at risk, and how few roads out of town there are. But still with so many fires raging that night, it’s amazing that we were named the priority – but it saved our town. If you drive around in the burned areas, you can see where the firemen took a stand and stopped it. Fire doesn’t respect lines – it burns where it wants. But the firemen contained it, and diverted it away from structures. It’s a beautiful sight to see, when you start to realise why certain spots were spared. It wasn’t luck, it was hard work by the firemen.

We lost 200 structures. I say we, but as I sit here in my beautiful comfortable home, I realise that I got lucky once again. And my heart aches for those who lost their homes.

This image is from the fire in 2004, where I was also evacuated. It’s a long exposure with camera movement, on color film, of the smoke, with the hills faintly evident, and a tiny orange sun, in the sky.

Fallbrook at Night

Sometimes it’s more interesting to shoot after the sun goes down. The whole world looks very different at that time of day. The first image was created about an hour after sunset – it was 8PM, but the sky still had some lightness to it, and with a long enough exposure it almost looks like daylight. The wisteria was in bloom, and while it’s magnificent in color, somehow I like it even better in B&W at night.

Wisteria at Night // Photo: Cheryl Spelts

The next one was right at midnight, in downtown Fallbrook. Notice the car lights streaking by, behind the blooming tree. The exposure was only about 15 seconds, but several cars and trucks crossed through the frame during that time.

Mission Avenue at Night // Photo: Cheryl Spelts

The final image was shot at the old fruit packing plant, right after midnight. I’ve shot this building before – most notably for a CD cover for a local band. It’s been a charming eyesore for over a decade, but they recently began the big renovation to turn it into a trendy restaurant and office and retail space. If I was planning to stay in Fallbrook I’d be tempted to look into opening a studio there. It’s a great location, and the plans indicate it’s going to be a fabulous space once it’s done!

Old Fruit Packing Plant at Night // Photo: Cheryl Spelts


Photo: Cheryl Spelts

My nephew Nathan, wishing he could go down to Constant Creek…

A Driveway…

I live in a beautiful area. I’m very fortunate! The driveway is lined with oak, pine, and eucalyptus trees. At this time of year a weed blooms along the driveway, and the blossoms are bright orange and golden orange and yellow-orange. They really are amazingly beautiful when you get in close – like a wild orchid, and yet it’s considered a weed.

My Driveway - May 8, 2006

Orange Flowers - May 8, 2006

Orange Flowers - May 8, 2006

Further down are yellow daisies, calla lilies, and yellow irises…

Calla Lily - May 8, 2006

Yellow Daisy - May 8, 2006

The Fallbrook Enterprise

CHERYL SPELTS of Fallbrook, took several awards from the Del Mar Fair for her photography: second place – black and white print; second place – color print; second place – creative photography; and third place – photo essay/documentary. Spelts is a former Main Street Cafe waitress, and she is also Cheryl Spelts Photography, specializing in actors, models, and musicians.

I’m also mentioned in the sidebar article above about the Aloha Tailgate Party – the restaurant I worked at had just closed, somewhat unexpectedly, and so the employees organized a potluck tailgate party in the parking lot for our old customers, so that we could all get together one last time and say our goodbyes. I LOVED working at the Main Street Cafe!