In just four hours on November 8, 2018, the gigantic Camp Fire completely destroyed the small town of Paradise, north of Sacramento. The toll was heavy – 86 dead, 18,800 buildings destroyed – and many families were pushed to the brink of poverty. Since then, wildfires have threatened the region every year. In the summer of 2020, the North Complex Fire burned just a few miles away. From July to October the following year, the Dixie Fire, the largest in the state’s history, consumed 963,309 acres of land. Worse still, this latter blaze started in the same wooded hills crossed by the power lines that started the deadly Paradise inferno.
Paris-based documentary photographer Maxime Riché visited the region twice to tell the story of a tragedy that has left the local population in disarray. He wanted “to meet those who have decided to rebuild their ‘paradise’ in a place that now seems brutally inhospitable,” he says. “Some still cling to a personal mythology specific to the pioneer cultures of the American West, while others are paralyzed by the trauma they experienced and are unable to escape it. Everyone is gradually coming to terms with this new reality, caught between preserving the place they once cherished and building a new relationship with a landscape cut to the quick.”
To capture the beauty and fragility of this town, chosen for both the resilience of its inhabitants and the symbolism associated with its name, the Frenchman opted for an infrared film that transforms colors. When developed, white clouds appear yellow (a nod to the wildfire smoke) while the green trees turn red (like flames). This creates a metaphor for the impact of fire on nature, and for the threat of fire that continues to lurk around the surviving vegetation. In the past, several others have experimented with this technique, which was once used by the military for reconnaissance missions. In 2010, for example, New York-based photographer Richard Mosse documented the civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in his Infra Series, a spectacular work defined by his use of Kodak Aerochrome III Infrared 1443 film, which lent the conflict a pinkish hue.
Ten years later, on the first day of the lockdown during the Covid-19 pandemic, French photographer Antoine d’Agata took to the streets of Paris with a thermal camera to record, in his own style, how the virus had turned the city into a strange theater of wandering souls, bowed heads, and fleeing bodies. The creative process in Maxime Riché’s series echoes the emotions felt by the men and women inhabiting the landscapes devastated by the California fire. “Flamboyant colors punctuate the tenuous normality of a life they are trying to rebuild,” he says. Additionally, the black pigments in his images were created by applying a mixture of resin and pine ash, which the Frenchman collected while in Paradise: “These photographs act as suggestive flashbacks to the hell that the inhabitants of this fallen Eden endured. They help to recall the memory of the flames etched into the retinas of the survivors as they rebuild with the persistant fear of a future disaster.”
A Paradise Lost
This work is also the result of an in-depth investigation. The many testimonies gathered by the documentary photographer are dotted throughout his forthcoming book, due to be published in July and already available to preorder from André Frère Editions. They recount the distress felt by survivors like Amanda: “Survivor’s guilt was accompanied by a lot of intrusive thoughts. I had flashes of the fire and the burning trees and the screams of people who couldn’t get out.” And Mary: “We had to prove that we lived here. But we had no papers to prove it. Everything had burned. It’s a mess here and nobody gives a damn.”
Maxime Riché also photographed Paradise to condemn our dysfunctional relationship with the natural world, to reveal our ability to adapt to climate change, and to document the changes to our lifestyles imposed by these new conditions. “My series invites us to reflect on the original meaning of the word ‘apocalyptic’; the story of Paradise gives us a glimpse of the next place – Hawaii, Australia, Brazil, Siberia, Greece, Turkey, or elsewhere – that will have to go through this healing processes following a catastrophe whose causes are increasingly human. It shows our growing disconnect from nature, our hubris, our arrogance in wanting to control it no matter the cost.”
It is worth remembering that these “megafires,” as they have been known since 2013, are not unique to California, although the American state has seen the most spectacular examples of the phenomenon. The unprecedented temperatures recorded in 2022, and the devastating wildfires that followed, particularly affected France. That summer, gigantic fires burned almost 30,000 acres of forest in the Gironde département. Brittany’s Broceliande Forest and the island of Corsica were not spared, either. We are entering what Stephen J. Pyne, professor emeritus at Arizona State University, calls the Pyrocene – the Age of Fire.