RED DAWN IN PARADISE
A Photographer’s Survival Story,
In Gratitude to All Who are Helping
By Erin Babnik
RED DAWN IN PARADISE
A Photographer’s Survival Story,
In Gratitude to All Who are Helping
By Erin Babnik
One week after moving my home and photography business from Berkeley to Paradise, California, my new rental house and everything in it burned to the ground. I escaped with the clothes on my back and a few other items. At the time of writing, 88 people from Paradise are confirmed dead, 25 are still missing, more than 19,000 buildings have been destroyed, and all 27,000 Paradise residents have lost their town. Every survivor of this tragic and traumatic event has a story. This is mine.
Escape from Paradise
Walls of flames ravaged the land in every direction when I hit the first stretch of open road since leaving my house. As I changed lanes to avoid burning debris, a powerful wave of heat pushed its way into the car, raising the interior temperature dramatically within seconds, an unforgettably scary sensation. The air in every direction was a constantly evolving maelstrom of thick smoke and swirling embers, but seeing hints of open sky in the distance brought great relief after hours of evacuating through the pitch black world that existed beneath the fire’s shroud.
Although this last part of the escape was frightening, it was an enormous improvement over the two and a half hours that had preceded it. At least with the traffic finally moving, reaching safety was a matter of exercising control rather than being at the mercy of circumstances. Years of wilderness experience and medical training have instilled in me a certain level of confidence that kicks in whenever I find myself in emergency situations, but that frame of mind comes largely from knowing that I have the power to do something effective. Participating in two mountain rescues and surviving numerous scrapes with danger has shown me that I almost instinctively remain calm and focused so long as I know that my actions can make a difference.
During the majority of this ordeal, however, I had no control over the situation whatsoever, and it was a uniquely terrifying experience. The closest that I have ever come to panicking under pressure was during those initial hours spent helplessly stuck in gridlocked traffic as the world gradually disappeared into layers of thick, orange smoke and then finally into complete darkness. The sky ultimately became as black as night in the late morning hours, when it should have been a bright, sunny day. A myriad of headlights and taillights glowed all around me, while the wind whipped pieces of branches against my windshield and tall trees swayed in the high winds overhead. As traffic inched along in agonizingly infrequent spurts, buildings consumed by flames came into view in every direction, each one a home or a business that was obviously a complete loss. The entire area looked downright apocalyptic. For most of the morning, I was very clearly in grave danger, and there was absolutely nothing that I could do about it.
The entire period of time that I spent evacuating the town of Paradise lasted about three hours, but it seemed like an eternal nightmare. There was an enormous shift in my consciousness when I emerged out from under the miles of black clouds and saw blue above me at long last; it was a moment of distinct relief combined with the horrific realization of just how massive and catastrophic the wildfire had become.
One Week Earlier
November 1 was a day that I had worked towards for years. After living in a 300-square-foot converted garage in Berkeley for a full decade, I was finally loading up a U-Haul truck to begin a new life in a comfortable home. Preparing to move all on my own had been a monumental task, especially while trying to get everything packed inside of such a tiny space. The cramped “cottage” had to serve as both a home and an office when I was between trips in the United States, and it had grown so crowded with office and outdoors equipment that it was not possible to cross from one side to the other without stepping over suitcases and piles of camping gear. Preparing the contents of the cottage for moving pushed the situation there into the realm of sheer absurdity, with towers of boxes jutting toward the ceiling from whatever little nooks and crannies might allow a thin woman to squeeze through in order to move around. The place looked ridiculous, but I was giddy with excitement knowing that a spacious house awaited me on the other end.
Moving Day ended with me sleeping on the floor of my new home in Paradise, a final night of discomfort before my new bed would be delivered the following day. I had camped on that floor previously for about a week after first gaining access in mid-October, using my sleeping bag and a camping mattress in an otherwise empty house long enough to get each room measured for the most essential furniture orders. The few items of furniture that I had in my old cottage were at best embarrassingly shabby, and at worst were held together by duct tape, so I resolved to fill the new house almost entirely with new acquisitions, whatever items could be delivered to me quickly.
As a bonafide workaholic, what mattered to me most was creating a space that would allow me to take my career to the next level, to better serve my students, and to unlock whatever higher creative potential I held that might blossom in a more efficient and inspiring workspace. Since I would be living alone in the house, I planned to furnish each room with my professional and artistic goals in mind. Finally, I would have space to produce educational videos and to have efficient access to my photography library for researching and writing books. I would have plenty of room for printing my photographs and for preparing the prints to send to customers and to hang in exhibitions. Even better, I would have an inspiring view outside every window to put wind in the sails of my creative efforts. Situated near the edge of Lassen National Forest, Paradise was surrounded by stunning scenery that was a continuation of the volcanic geology of the Cascadia region. My home in particular was perched on a volcanic butte with a panoramic view of undeveloped wilderness, a densely vegetated series of canyons with rivers running through them that captured my heart at first sight. Everything about this move was going to be an investment in my future, allowing me to spend more time on important creative projects rather than traveling nearly 300 days per year just to earn my living.
The first (and only) week of being moved into my new home was a flurry of shopping, assembling, unpacking, and setting up—all done as quickly as possible so that I could get back to running my business and living my life. I bought new appliances, crockery, cutlery, bath towels, carpets, networking and home audio electronics, a patio set, bedding, lights, bathroom accessories, wastebaskets, cleaning products, a surveillance camera, tools, organizers, and countless other odds and ends that complete a home. And, of course, I filled the house with all of the furnishings that I would need to transform each of the home’s five main rooms into functional spaces. I had been saving and planning for years to make this move, and I was not going to waste any time in reaching the finish line. If I could get it all done quickly enough, then I would have the final three weeks of November to enjoy my new home and office before hitting the road again for months of workshops and other engagements.
After a marathon of shopping, assembling furniture, and taking carloads of packing material to the recycling center, it was time for a celebration. On the evening of November 7, I threw open the doors of my dedicated gear closet and pulled out my camera backpack with a little squeal of excitement. In the old cottage I had no closets at all, and now I had so many closets that I could dedicate each one to perfect organizational themes—the formerly repressed neat freak in me was utterly euphoric. It was already late in the afternoon that day, and sunset was less than an hour away, but there was a great viewpoint into the canyon behind the house that I could reach in about ten minutes. Arriving with plenty of time to set up, I photographed the last of the golden hour light raking through the steep terraces of beautiful trees and then turned my camera towards the layers of backlit volcanic buttes at sunset. Finally, after losing weeks of time to the move, I was getting a taste of being a photographer again.
The Red Dawn
On the morning of November 8, I awoke in a state of pure bliss. It was going to be the first day of living normally in the new house, with everything unpacked and in place, aside from a few minor items that were still yet to be delivered. A small couch for my office, a lamp for my living room, and a duvet cover were all due for delivery in the coming days, but the house was more or less furnished and fully functional. I could now take inventory of my many new personal belongings, research my options for insuring it all, and then take care of loose ends such as making my new address known to everyone who needed it, including the company that was already insuring my photography gear.
Most important to me, however, was what I had planned to follow this initial morning of busywork: getting back to my photography business. I was woefully behind on all things related to my work due to the lengthy process of securing the house and moving. November was already likely too late in the year to start listing and promoting all of the remaining workshops that I had hoped to offer, but if so, at least I was now set up with a proper space for producing videos and books that could compensate for any lost income.
Before climbing out of bed on what would be my final morning in the house, I took a moment to reflect on my new situation and the incredible potential that it held for me. I first checked my phone for messages and ticked off my daily morning reminder that reads, “Health, Accomplishment, Service.” Those three words greet me every morning as a reminder of my core values. Feeling inspired, I reflected on how this new situation would enable me to pursue each of those values more fully than ever. I distinctly remember looking around the new bedroom with an immense sense of satisfaction and excitement, and then closing my eyes, stretching out my limbs, and relishing the sensation of sinking into the memory foam of my new mattress. No more lumpy, thirdhand futon mattress for me! This was heaven! I took a deep breath and opened my eyes again.
This time the room looked different. The most exquisite, intense, pink-red light was suddenly beaming through the louvers of the bedroom window and reflecting off of the shiny surface of a dresser beneath it. After gasping in awe at this impressive development, I snatched my phone up off of the nightstand to snap a photo through the window. I then went straight to the kitchen, where I kept a real camera handy on a countertop. What a glorious sunrise, I thought. I had not lived in Paradise long enough to know what quality of clouds and light could develop there, so it was an exciting chance to get outside and watch the sky in action. Shuffling out onto the porch in my slippers, I marveled at the vibrant colors of an incredibly low cloud right in front of the house. After photographing the scene and recording a quick video of it, I went back inside to start some coffee brewing and to boil an egg.
Some minutes passed before I headed to the bathroom and noticed that the intense red light was as strong as ever in there as well, reflecting brightly off of the shiny painted louvers and faux marble countertop. I was impressed that the colorful light was not yet waning as the sun rose, so I went back outside with my camera. I began a new video from my front porch just as the neighbor across the street started backing out of her driveway, presumably on her way to work. When she reached the street, she rolled down her window and shouted to her husband who had come outside to collect the newspaper.
“Honey, just so you know, there’s a lot of fire smoke out here. It doesn’t look good.”
Fire smoke?! What makes her think that this beautiful sunrise is fire smoke?! That cloud is gorgeous! Filled with denial, I went back inside and decided to do a quick search on the internet just to be prudent. At that moment, a text came in from my landlady, Laura, who lived in a separate unit on the property. She communicated what my quick search had confirmed, that there was a small wildfire to the north of us. She added that there was no evacuation advisory for our zone, and so long as we kept the windows shut to keep out the smoke, then we should be fine.
As the World Burns
The initial report online described the fire as being thirty miles away and only ten acres in size, but when I checked a second time just minutes later, the fire was already at the edge of my town. I now know that the fire tore across the region at a rate of a half mile per minute, and that it probably consumed my house not long after I evacuated—but at the time I was in staunch denial that it would ever reach my new home in Paradise.
The idea of packing up any substantial amount of my belongings for an evacuation was inconceivable after just having spent a full week unpacking and getting the house in order. Optimism ruled my mind. As the text conversation with Laura continued, I took to heart every bit of positivity that she had to offer. She made two calls to the town of Paradise, about fifty minutes apart, and each time she was told that our zone was not under evacuation. When she reported back about the second call, she related a town official’s assertion that the sheriff was “causing a problem” by recommending evacuation, reportedly because mass evacuation would risk unnecessary gridlock for the people who really did need to get out of town. Laura also assured me repeatedly that our house was on the safe side of Paradise, where fires never reach. Indeed, there were homes in our neighborhood that were built in the 1950s, and our property dated to 1975. We had good reason to believe that we were safe, but I did set a few partially packed bags by the front door just in case we got an official evacuation message.
Laura and I conversed with text messages for a total of about one hour and forty-five minutes, sharing information and considering whether or not to evacuate. The last message that morning was from me at 9:32 a.m., saying, “Hmm. Tough one. I have so much work to do.”
A few minutes later, our neighbor called Laura with the message to “Get out now!” He had driven off a few blocks to do some investigative scouting and had spotted flames, so he shot straight back, insisting that we needed to evacuate immediately. This time she contacted me with a phone call rather than a text to express the urgency of the situation. Suddenly, I had no time to think, to pack, or to notify, but I tried to do all three at once. I dashed into my office and hastily fired off a few emails. I was scheduled to be interviewed by two different podcast shows, one interview planned for that afternoon and one for the next morning, so I wrote to postpone both of them and also to reschedule a telephone meeting with one of my sponsors. Before leaving the office, I unplugged a back-up hard drive and took it with me. I then went to where I had my favorite jewelry all laid out neatly in a drawer and randomly removed a few items close to the front. I went to my ‘Gear Room’ and stared dumbfounded into the closet that held my collection of down jackets, Gore-Tex layers, and fleece jackets. I might need a warm fleece as an evacuee, I thought. I grabbed one to wear.
When I drove away from the house, I had the clothes on my back, my camera backpack, my laptop, and two overnight bags, both of which had room to spare inside. The trunk of my car was not even half full, but the idea of dying a fiery death was distinctly unappealing, so off I went.
Out of the Fire and into the Frying Pan
Three hours elapsed as I traveled 15 miles through a seemingly endless inferno and finally reached Chico, a drive that ordinarily would take no more than 25 minutes. Laura had left home shortly after I did, but she managed to get out of town in a little more than an hour and quickly secured what was apparently the last hotel room in Chico. She had guessed rightly that a car heading in the ‘wrong’ direction to leave our neighborhood would lead her through the one maze-like route out of town along backroads, and they made it out before the worst of the gridlock had developed. After making a wrong turn one day, I had discovered that route, so the option of evacuating through it had come to mind when I departed. I decided to play it safe, however, and I opted to take the main roads out of town instead. In retrospect, I’m fairly certain that the window of opportunity for the back route was very narrow before that side of our butte was engulfed by fire, and I’m glad that I didn’t try to navigate on my own through a maze of little avenues while fire was enveloping the area.
After Laura had checked into her hotel room, she called me with an invitation to join her there. The room had two beds, she had it reserved for three nights, and I was very welcome to share it with her, she said. Stuck in traffic without any plan of my own, I accepted. Soon after she called, all phone and data connections went down, surely due to nearby towers succumbing to the wildfire. The ensuing hours of darkness were even more worrisome with a communication blackout leaving me unable to receive or to share information, and I was unable to find any radio stations that were covering anything except politics.
As I rolled into Chico at long last, my phone and iPad regained their signals. Messages and calls started coming in from worried relatives, and I gave what quick assurance I could that I was unharmed. The scene at the Oxford Suites was surreal. Displaced residents of Paradise filled the common areas, most of them glued to the many large television screens mounted in each corner of the restaurant and bar. The hotel’s employees seemed genuinely empathetic and had ordered in piles of complimentary pizzas, along with cookies and drinks. They had also reached out to people who had reserved rooms prior to that day to request cancellations in order to accommodate more evacuees. As someone who spends the majority of each year in hotel rooms, I was both impressed and touched by this hotel’s thoughtful and timely response to the crisis. I have no affiliation with Oxford Suites at all and had never even heard of the chain before November 8, but I hope that anyone reading this story will consider sending business their way.
Laura and I were both still tense and trembling when we met at the hotel. We reeked of smoke, and our eyes burned, but we were very happy to be alive and decided to sedate ourselves with some dinner and drinks. We walked across the street to a restaurant where we took stock of our reasons for being optimistic about the house: it was on a ridge high above town; the lawns had been watered thoroughly just the day before; the wind was blowing more south than west; and we had heaps of good will between us to convince the universe to be merciful. The house would be fine, we concluded. It might have some smoke damage, and our town might be missing a lot of stores for a while, but really all we needed were our utilities and basic services. Soon enough, the town would be back to normal again, surely.
As we finished our meal, a man in a booth opposite us erupted into a profanity-laced tirade upon being asked to pay his bill. We later learned that he had been sitting in that booth for four hours after escaping from his home in Paradise. He had no credit cards with him, so he was waiting for his wife who had evacuated in a separate vehicle. It was now well after dark, and he still hadn’t heard from her. Clearly the poor man had exceeded his stress threshold and was inconsolable.
Upon exiting the restaurant, we were reunited with the intense stench of smoke outside, now even stronger than ever. Worse still, the news stations had just announced evacuations reaching all the way to Chico, and on precisely the side of town where we had taken refuge. The fire was still growing! The hotel’s front desk confirmed that the area of our hotel was under an evacuation recommendation, but it was not yet an order, and they would sound the fire alarm if evacuation became mandatory. Exhausted and slightly tipsy from the wine that we had with dinner, Laura and I weighed our options. We started calling hotels as far as three hours away, only to learn that everything was completely full. Should we evacuate again and drive four or more hours away? At night? After having been drinking? We decided to try sleeping for a while but first prepared our suitcases for a speedy evacuation in the event that the hotel’s alarm sounded.
Nightmares tormented me most of that night as I attempted to sleep, stewing in the same, smoke-infused clothes that I had been wearing since I left the house. I did eventually fall into a deep slumber and was surprised to see that it was nearly 8:00 am when I awoke the next morning. Laura had gone down to breakfast, so I trudged over to the window to open the thick blackout curtains that are so typical of hotel rooms. Out of habit, I averted my eyes to avoid the usual blast of light that fills a room when opening heavy draperies. I grasped a curtain rod in each hand and spread the curtains wide open, but there was no sudden flood of bright light. On the contrary, the world outside was a nebulous pall of thick, orange smoke so dark that all of the street lamps and security lights were on. It was about then that Laura returned to the room to say goodbye. It was time to evacuate again.
The Darkest Hours
On November 10, I awoke in my mother’s guest room groggily trying to remember where I was. A furry throw pillow on the bed had a soft texture similar to the pillows that I had just purchased for my new couch, and the sensation of that fabric against my arm gave me a brief moment of comfort in thinking that I was back in my home again. Then consciousness fell over me, and a new waking nightmare commenced. For the third day in a row, I put on the same set of clothes, still reeking of smoke. Yearning badly for my awesome new home, I felt robbed that I couldn’t just plop down in my office chair and go through my usual morning ritual of sipping coffee while answering emails and preparing to be productive.
The next four days of waiting for information about the house were nothing short of agony. Each hour seemed to bring news of a higher death toll, more destroyed homes, more acres burning, and more towns threatened. My optimistic outlook was under assault from every direction, making each waking minute a constant struggle to stave off thoughts of financial ruin. I refused to accept the distinct possibility that I had just lost everything and immediately protested a GoFundMe campaign launched by Nancy Holsten, an incredibly kind and well-meaning supporter who wanted to get aid to me right away. I made a public statement that I was remaining hopeful about my house and asked everyone to give their donations to the people who knew for certain that they had lost their homes. As far as I knew, I still had a home, and I needed to believe that it had been spared. Nonetheless, goodhearted supporters continued to share the campaign, and I soon gave up on the whack-a-mole project of stopping it. I felt trapped between hoping for the best and preparing for the worst, painfully aware that each possible outcome would require a completely different approach going forward. I desperately wanted to know which direction it would be.
As the days dragged on without any concrete information, I grew fearful of each new message that I received, worried that it might contain news that would give fuel to my worst fears—or worse still, that it might confirm them. Hundreds of emails and private messages were pouring in from concerned family members, friends, colleagues, and supporters, and most of them piled up in my inboxes. I was without a good internet connection, so opening a message was usually a lengthy process of waiting for it to load, making simple communication both time-consuming and frustrating. Moreover, the added paranoia of receiving bad news caused me to be even less inclined to endure the long waits.
Ultimately, my positive resolve eroded completely, and I had descended into the depths of utter despondency by November 13. As dark as those hours had been under the fire’s black cloak, this period was far darker. The bleakest space in the world is that hopeless realm where dreams go to die, where the soul feels broken, and light completely fails to penetrate the dense walls of misery. My mind’s demons had dragged me into that space as I realized one piece at a time just how much I had to lose. It was not simply material possessions and sentimental items that hung in the balance; it was my very identity and my hard-won career as a landscape photographer. For better or worse, my career is my life. Creating photographs, along with teaching, writing, and speaking about the art of landscape photography is what gets me out of bed each morning eager to begin the day. Landscape photography is the oxygen that I breathe.
My new home and office in Paradise amounted to a massive investment in my goals, all made possible by the fruits of my labors over the previous fourteen years. In 2004 I had willingly divested myself of most of my worldly possessions, leaving a beautiful house in the Bay Area that was full of nice furniture and belongings in an effort to escape an unhappy life. I left that situation with three suitcases of clothes, emboldened by romantic ideas about freedom and self-discovery. What I found was just how challenging it is to move forward when your standard of living has been reduced dramatically. I suffered a huge loss in dignity as I took up residence in one depressing space after another, going from a dreary studio apartment with cinderblock walls, to a minuscule room in a house where I caught the owner trying to spy on me in the shower, to an attic room that I had to reach by climbing a ladder, and finally to the “cottage.” The latter move was a big improvement over the previous ones, but it left me feeling like a potted plant that needed more room to grow.
Fourteen years after voluntarily eschewing a comfortable life, I had finally built myself back up again to where I could live a life of choice rather than of necessity. And then? Could everything that I had worked so hard to achieve through all of those years really be taken away from me in a single day? Not possible! Maybe possible? Quite probable? No, not possible! Possible. Probable. Very, very probable. The mental torment was maddening.
Gone with the Wind
By November 14, the winds had died down, and a large area of the fire had been contained. Thousands of acres were still burning, but Paradise had stabilized enough for emergency crews to make substantial progress in surveying the damage there. I awoke exhausted from one of the worst nights of my life, succumbing hard to an extreme bout of anxiety about the fate of my home, its contents, and my life. Before I had even swung one leg out of bed that morning, I heard the sound of an incoming text message on my phone, and I felt a wave of nausea come over me in apprehension of what the message might say. And indeed, this was the message that I had most feared receiving. It was Laura.
“Erin, I am sorry, but the house was destroyed. I got the news from a neighbor. Sending you hugs.”
The protective mechanisms of shock took over to induce complete numbness long enough for me to reach my mother’s living room, where I sat quietly on her couch and stared at the wall. She walked past, and I calmly told her the news. Then she sat down beside me, took me in her arms, and we wept together.
We are Everywhere
At the time of writing this story, three weeks after the fire broke out, I am still deeply mired in complications related to losing my home and everything in it. I am still unsure how much my income will suffer from lost time and lost resources, and I have absolutely no idea where or when I will be able to find a new home. By any measure, I am still in the beginning stages of this crisis, but already there are many reasons for me to be hopeful.
From the very beginning of this ordeal, I have gained great strength from the countless people who have reached out to express concern, to share kind words, and to offer support. Some of those people are family and good friends, but many know me only from my photography. Messages started coming in from worried photographers before I had even left Chico, and they are still coming in regularly more than three weeks later. If ever anyone needed proof that the photography community can rally around one of its own in a time of crisis, I can certainly provide it.
One of the greatest sources of support for me has been the Photo Cascadia team. My six teammates are like brothers to me, and I have turned to them repeatedly for guidance in my lowest moments. After they learned that my house had indeed been destroyed, they offered to start a second GoFundMe campaign, one that would have a greater chance of reaching people due to the team’s high profile. I originally balked at the idea, saying that my losses greatly exceeded what I imagined those sorts of campaigns to be capable of accomplishing. To my great surprise, the campaign is nearly halfway to its goal of replacing my lost possessions, and I have been overwhelmed by the incredible generosity and kind messages coming from the people who are donating.
More astonishing proof of the photography community’s superpowers came about through a heroic mission to unite me with my mail. As the town of Paradise now lies in waste, all mail for its residents is being rerouted to a post office in Chico, which is nearly a 14-hour round trip away from my current location and is in the opposite direction from my upcoming workshop. With each day already full of frustrating and draining tasks, the prospect of having to make that trip solely to collect my mail was truly overwhelming. A substantial check in payment for an appearance that I made over the summer was among the items of mail languishing in Chico, and I could not afford to let it get away from me. When my friend Scotty Perkins asked if he could be helpful in any way, I wondered aloud if he might have any ideas for resolving my mail dilemma. Lo and behold, he somehow connected with a private pilot from the Bay Area who was willing to fly to Chico on a stormy day to collect my mail and forward it on to me, all out of the good nature of his heart. Thank you, Scotty and Sean Todd for being the exceptional human beings that you are.
Further proof comes from the fifty or more people who reached out to offer temporary accommodation as I try to regain stability in my life. Another half-dozen people have sent donations in the mail to my mother’s home, and the women’s landscape photography group that I founded got together to organize a clothing drive. In addition, I have received numerous kind messages from the good people at Canon USA who each reached out independently to let me know that they were there for me. “Your Canon family is here to help however we can,” one of them wrote.
A very unexpected moment of encouragement came one day when I was calling retailers regarding purchased items that I never received, all items that were in limbo with various shipping carriers because the delivery address had ceased to exist. Some large items such as a couch and a lamp were among those showing as having shipped, and I had been charged for them. Of course, being newly homeless, I had nowhere to put those items even if they could be delivered somewhere. Calling one company after another revealed a distinct pattern of customer support, where each representative would follow some approved script in robotic fashion, often without even acknowledging the tragedy of my situation after I explained it. Therefore, I was very surprised when a call to the main 800-number for Amazon.com’s call center ended on a very heartening note. After the usual impersonal exchange of information, the Amazon representative asked if there was anything more that he could do for me, a typical question. I replied, “Not today, thank you,” and then he had one more bit to add.
“And one more thing, if I may say so, ma’am. I’m a big fan of your photography.”
We are everywhere.