Four months after the cruel and devastating Camp Fire ripped through the town of Paradise in 2018, “Joanne” was still living in a church shelter and had not been able to bring herself to visit the spot where her home once stood.
It wasn’t just that her house and all of her belongings were gone — gone too were the daily dog walks with neighbors, routine trips to her favorite hairdresser and casual meals with friends. The entire life and community she had once known had simply disappeared, scattered like the ashes that had been swept up by the wind and carried miles away.
Emotions were still raw at the Chico shelter where Joanne had been staying, and among those experiencing lingering trauma were the volunteers themselves, many of whom remained haunted by the horror stories and unanswered questions regarding people’s whereabouts. But as time passed, many clients and shelter volunteers became increasingly eager to share their experiences as a way to slowly begin putting pieces of their shattered lives together and start down the path of healing.
That’s when shelter volunteer Summer Duncan came up with an idea. Her parents, Jereé and Rick Waller of Alta Sierra, who have owned a professional photography business for more than 35 years, had recently begun offering free small group photography outings for people with disabilities, illnesses, PTSD and emotional limitations. Through the new project, “HeartWork Accessible Photography,” Jereé Waller was able to utilize the skills she had honed throughout her career as a social worker, supervisor of Adult Services, and the chief deputy public guardian for Nevada County. She was also one of the co-founders of FREED in the 1980s.
THE PATH TO HEALING
Finding tremendous reward through their new venture, the Wallers decided to turn their attention to victims of the Camp Fire, based on their daughter’s stories of those eager to find ways to heal. That’s when they met Joanne, who was in constant physical pain and had experienced trouble sleeping since the Camp Fire. Like so many suffering survivor’s guilt, she preferred to remain anonymous for this story.
“HeartWork was born as our way to help others,” said Jereé Waller. “Our daughter started putting us in touch with survivors of the Camp Fire who had an interest in photography. We began talking to people who were open to revisiting their homes as a way to heal through the artistic lens of their camera or smart phone. The outings resulted in several describing their day as a ‘Phoenix rising from the ashes’ experience.”
BRAVING THE FALLOUT
Among those who opted to bravely venture out to view the fallout of the epic fire was Joanne, accompanied by two shelter volunteers. She had lost her camera in the fire, but had been given another one by a friend to photograph the site of her former home.
“We shared tears, laughter and many stories from the fire,” said Jereé Waller. “The photography outing was also healing for the shelter volunteers who felt this was a way they could respectfully visit Paradise and hear Joanne’s stories.”
Through the lens of her camera, Joanne captured images of heartbreaking beauty and tragedy, including the top of her melted kitchen stove with the pots still on it and her husband’s tools. But there were also glimmers of hope in witnessing the countless people and groups working on-site who had traveled great distances to help. And there, among the ashes, were spring flowers in bloom.
THE EFFORT CONTINUES
The Wallers, along with other HeartWork volunteers have since taken more Campfire victims out to photograph the fallout of the fire. Sharing private, intimate moments, participants tend to be people who have lost loved ones, pets or homes. Others are first responders or shelter volunteers, all of whom continue to heal from the trauma.
“Creativity — artistic expression — kicks in the right side of your brain, which is the creative, spiritual side of your temperament,” said Jereé. “The right brain can help with healing in so many ways. Often when people go out and photograph, something clicks. Suddenly their tragedy is reframed. Some are not ready to see what is still standing, but many are.”
MANY VICTIMS NOW LIVE IN NEVADA COUNTY
Cognizant of the fact that many Paradise residents have relocated to Nevada County, HeartWork Accessible Photography’s volunteers say they are happy to continue to take more Camp Fire victims back to photograph the places they remember, free of charge, even if it’s only one or two people. Trips will be centered around each victim’s personal needs or requests. The Camp Fire has been reported as the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history. Named after Camp Creek Road, its place of origin, the fire started on Nov. 8, 2018, ignited by a faulty electric transmission line.
“Some of our volunteers are healing themselves,” said Jereé Waller. “We know this community of victims is still struggling, and we know that many of them are right here in Nevada County. Pray, donate and do what you can to help theses fire victims and survivors. If you are a victim from Paradise or lost a loved one in the Camp Fire, call us. We’re here for you.”
To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at Cory@theunion.com or call 530-477-4203.