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The North Bay Fires (Sonoma County)

Mima Cataldo | United States

Backyards of Coffey Park in Santa Rosa: Five Trees

Exhibit Statement- Mima Cataldo

I have been a documentary photographer recording social life and political changes over several decades. As a Petaluma, California resident, I was safe from but deeply touched by the devastation that engulfed my county of Sonoma during the North Bay Fires of October 2017. I began by photographing at Coffey Park in Santa Rosa, a community of over 1000 people, almost all of whom lost their homes. My images focused on showing artifacts and other backyard reminders of how people had once lived in these suburban homes. All the structures of the historic Stornetta Dairy and Creamery were also destroyed, and after weeks of raging fires, 44 lives were lost and over 8000 buildings were damaged or destroyed. I documented the aftermath of the fires around the county over the course of several months.

Artist Statement- Mima Cataldo<>

I have been a social documentary and street photographer for more than forty years, focusing on the intersection of political and cultural events affecting social change. With a PhD in Social Science and MLS in Library Science, I have maintained academic careers teaching sociology, psychology and visual sociology and later, school and district librarian for several school districts in New York and California.<>

Throughout these careers and motherhood, my artistic practice in photography allowed me to strike a balance in life, showing viewers what my “take” on society has been while exploring changing social norms. My recently published book “Witness to Change: A Visual Memoir” is a retrospective look at early documentary projects and contemporary street photography. To see additional photographs from the fires series of 2017 and 2018, please visit my website at www.MimaCataldo.com .<>

When I first learned about the North Bay fires on the morning of October 9, my thoughts and feelings initially focused on those who were being evacuated and displaced. As news of deaths from the fires mounted over the course of the week while fast moving and uncontrollable fires were blackening thousands of acres, I realized that something quite unusual was taking place. Was this the consequences of climate change finally knocking on my back door? Until now, I had always felt safe and removed from the forces of nature that could change the course of my life, but now I was beginning to wonder if those thoughts and feelings were becoming obsolete and outdated.<>

As the fires continued spreading into the second week, I witnessed an immense outpouring of support from the Petaluma community. Neighbors took friends and complete strangers into their homes and they staffed shelters and makeshift encampments in the county. I found myself wondering what I would save “if I only had five minutes to get out” and over the course of those weeks, I knew I was experiencing a life-changing event that touched me in ways I had not previously known.<>

I decided by the end of the third week that, as a social documentary photographer for some forty years, I needed to see for myself what life must have been like for those who lost everything. I began at Coffey Park in Santa Rosa and then continued to photograph throughout the county for the next several months. I documented not only the rubble of lost homes and other structures, but in doing so, I kept thinking about the people who had once lived or worked at these sites. I photographed remnants of what remained in backyards such as outdoor furniture, a child’s playhouse, lawn chairs, teacups and tomato cages, objects that told a story about people who lived in these homes. And as difficult as it was to witness and document what remained, I found that the process, also in fact, became a kind of healing one for me.<>

In the weeks that followed, I began to explore the causes of these fires, reading what I could and talking with those who had been directly affected by the fires. The combination of years of severe drought, along with extremely high winds and unusually high temperatures were the primary factors. Later, PG&E would also be held responsible for failing to maintain an adequate vegetation management program which would have cut down tree limbs too close to power lines and which ignited many of the fires in the first place. As one resident told me “it was like raining fire”.<>

Finally, it is important to recognize that those who fought the fires were not only trained firefighters and other first responders from affected communities, but also prisoners. Many were women and people of color who were enlisted to assist in fighting these fires. Sonoma residents have expressed their gratitude and appreciation for everyone’s heroism and selfless work, and for many months, they dotted the countryside with signs and messages of thanks throughout the county.<>

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