A home where families once celebrated holidays and played with their kids is now nothing but a lone wall, barely standing amidst the chaos that surrounds it. An ocean of debris and devastation flows outward, burying the skeleton of a car beneath it.
These are among the powerful images emerging from Northern California’s wine country, where 22 wildfires have taken eight counties hostage since Sunday night, in what’s expected to be among the worst disasters the state has ever experienced.
Seasoned news photographer Noah Berger has been working in California for more than two decades. For the past six years, he has put a heavier focus on documenting fires. Berger, who typically shoots six to eight fires each summer, says he’s never seen devastation in California like this before.
“By far the scale of destruction eclipses everything else that I've shot before,” Berger says. “The estimate right now is about 1,500 homes [destroyed]. I can't remember anything since I’ve been covering these in California that’s been like that.”
The worst fire in recent history was the Cedar Fire in 2003 that ripped through San Diego, ravaging more than 270,000 acres of land, destroying 2,820 homes and claiming 15 lives.
But this week’s events have already surpassed that death toll, with 23 lives lost and another more than 600 people missing. Nearly 170,000 acres have burned, razing nearly 3,500 homes and businesses.
And the fires are still going. Firefighters on Wednesday were bracing themselves for heavy winds. Compounded by low humidity, these environmental factors make battling fires all the more difficult. Uncontrolled blazes fuelled by weather, wind, and dry underbrush, wildfires can burn acres of land—and consume everything in their paths—in mere minutes.
The fires started Sunday evening, taking residents by surprise and forcing more than 20,000 people to evacuate their homes. While the cause of the fires remains unknown, firefighters attribute its spread to heavy winds, low humidity, and dry vegetation.
As firefighters are battling the blazes, some residents are returning to the ashes that remain of their homes, searching for what—and who—is left of the lives they once lived. In the wake of these fires, they find the embrace of those around them, offering unity, support, and strength to one another.
Image: A wall stands at a Chanterelle Circle home destroyed by the Tubbs fires in Santa Rosa, California, on Tuesday. Tubbs fire is the sixth deadliest fire in California history. PHOTOGRAPH BY NOAH BERGER, SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE