The business of photography can sometimes be fairly cutthroat, but it can also be a community full of great people who care and support each other. This is precisely the experience that one photographer shares after losing everything to the recent wildfires in California.
The following story is one that is both frightening and inspiring. I had the chance to talk on the phone with Erin Babnik about a week ago for a lengthy conversation about her experiences escaping the wildfires in California. I had come across her story through the referral of a friend and was instantly inspired to reach out to her. For Babnik, November was a month that began with excitement, anticipation, and progress. All of that, however, changed within a matter of days. Many of you are likely already familiar with Babnik's work as a landscape photographer and as an educator. Not only is she an incredibly accomplished landscape photographer and mentor, but she hosts incredible workshops led throughout some of the most beautiful locations on the planet. A recent move to Paradise, California was supposed to be the next big step into allowing her to take her career to new heights, help her students more effectively, and to allow herself to flourish creatively in a more inspiring workspace.
After much planning and preparation, she finally was able to move into the new place on November 1. Her move to Paradise was a very meticulously calculated one, a move that positioned her in a beautifully unique area of California landscapes, while also giving her the office and living space needed to further her passions and her business. Everything about the transition was going to be an investment for the future. On November 7, she finally had the home set up to produce educational videos, had enough space in her library for researching and writing books, and was set up with plenty of space for printing and preparing shipments to customers. For the first time in weeks, she was able to pull out her camera to capture the golden hour views surrounding her new home.
November 8 became a dramatically different day. In the morning, Babnik awoke to some of the most fantastic pink-red light shining through her bedroom window. After admiring it for a short moment she got up, grabbed her camera, and headed outside to photograph the scene from her porch. Happy with how her day had started, she headed in to begin fixing breakfast. After a few minutes had passed, she noticed that the light was becoming more intense over time instead of evening out like most sunrises as the day progresses. A tip-off from a neighbor warned her that the light was actually from a wildfire burning nearby. A text from her landlady, Laura, and a quick online search confirmed that there was a fire but that there was no evacuation advisory for their residential area.
What started out as fire only 10 acres in size over 30 miles away from her town grew rapidly at a rate of roughly a half a mile per minute and was on the edge of the town not long after she had initially gone out to photograph the sunrise. The fire moved so rapidly that she never actually got an official evacuation message. Around 9:30, Laura had received a call from a neighbor with the message to "get out now!" He had done his own investigating a few blocks away, had spotted flames, and shot right back insisting that everyone needed to leave immediately. She barely had time to send out a couple quick emails postponing podcast interviews that had been planned for that day and the following morning, grab her backup hard drive, a couple personal belongings, and her camera backpack before hurrying into the car and away from the area.
It took three hours to travel the mere 15 miles from Paradise to the city of Chico, a drive that ordinarily takes roughly 25 minutes. But gridlocked traffic through the rapidly expanding inferno made for slow and terrifying travel conditions. Walls of flames consumed the land in every direction, as she kept having to change lanes to avoid burning debris that had fallen on the road. There was even a point when a powerful heat wave pushed its way into her car, raising the temperature inside to a frightening level for several seconds. Now, when she told me this part of the story, I was particularly relieved to hear how she had made it through. I'm a trained firefighter, and details like this told me exactly how hot the ambient temperatures were outside when she was driving through the flames. I can tell you this: she really did narrowly escape with her life.
She did make it out, with little more than the clothes on her back and the few belongings she had with her in the car, and ended up safe at her mother's house. News kept pouring in, updating numbers of those who had died in the fire, more neighborhoods that had been consumed, and more towns being threatened. She fought against facing the possibility that she had just lost everything. Meanwhile, a supporter began a GoFundMe campaign, and it began to gain traction among other followers and supporters. Days dragged on, hundreds of emails and private messages kept coming in from all directions from people concerned for her wellbeing. Ultimately, she got the notification that her new home, and everything in it, had been completely consumed in the fire.
At this point, countless supporters, many who only knew her because of her photography, started reaching out to offer their support. The original GoFundMe campaign was still in motion, and her six teammates in the Photo Cascadia team reached out and offered to start a second GoFundMe campaign because of the greater chance of reaching more people with the team's high profile. The campaign gained incredible traction from supporters from all over. With the town of Paradise having been burnt to the ground, seemingly simple things like mail in transit became a logistical nightmare, particularly, since she had a much-needed check headed her way from work done in the summer. Another photographer contact asked if he could help, and he ended up coordinating with a private pilot to fly to Chico, collect her mail, and forwarded it all to her all out of the kindness of their hearts.
More support flooded in from other members in the photography community who offered temporary accommodations as she worked to stabilize her life. Others mailed in donations to her mother's address, even individuals at Canon USA reached out independently to offer help, one writing: "your Canon family is here to help however we can.” Even when talking to someone at the main 800 number for Amazon's call center, and after the usual base exchange of information for the call, the representative added at the end of the call: “and one more thing, if I may say so, ma’am. I’m a big fan of your photography.”
This particular part of her story is what I found to be so inspiring. Photography can be a ruthless business. It can feel like there are always more competitors than friends and that it's always a fight to establish your place in the world. But it is also so much more than that, it really is. It's all a matter of choice and perspective. The photography community really is a community for those who choose to see other photographers as friends and allies instead of competitors. Stories like this, for me, are beautiful proof of this. When things really hit home, we all can empathize and care for another in ways that go beyond what we do with cameras. We really do have the opportunity to participate in a much bigger family, and I love that it was the photography community that reached out to help her make it through such a terrible ordeal.
I, for one, am grateful to have had the opportunity to speak with Erin one on one and to hear her story personally. It gave me the chance to connect some of the deeper human emotions that surround such stories and to allow me to reflect on such things in a stronger way. Stories of such terrible experiences are often accompanied by the incredible stories of support that follow. Surviving a natural disaster is something that not every one of us will ever completely understand, but we can all relate to having a family outside our family and finding strength and support in others who share our passions. It's never too late to strengthen your connections with fellow photographers or to network with more people who can relate to you in ways that others can't. I'm glad to live in a world where our humanity goes beyond ourselves and caring for others is a very real drive for many.
To read her full account of the evacuation from the fire and subsequent experiences both positive and negative, you can find the full story on her website. Also, if you aren't already familiar with her incredible work as a landscape photographer, you can follow her using these links to profiles on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.
All images used with permission of Erin Babnik.