Despite her lack of sleep, Sibylla Herbrich walked into SF State’s journalism department Monday afternoon with a smile on her face, ready to teach. Monday’s lecture included how to safely photograph fires by listening to emergency scanners, understanding the code and sticking with firefighters to get closer access to the flames.
But prior to the lecture, Herbrich had some heart wrenching news to share – she suspected her house had burned to the ground earlier that morning; a probable casualty of the massive Tubbs fire that began consuming Santa Rosa late Sunday.
The Tubbs fire, one of 14 fires underway in Northern California, has consumed almost 34,000 acres and is 10 percent contained as of Thursday morning, according to Cal Fire. SF Gate reported Thursday afternoon that 29 people have died in all the fires combined, along with 3,500 structures destroyed.
For Herbrich, her loss started with a random phone call Sunday night.
“I was getting ready for bed, then the phone rang and it was a recording saying evacuate immediately. It must have been around 10:30-11 p.m.” she said.
Several hours earlier, at 9 p.m., Herbrich and her husband began smelling smoke as they finished their last bites of dinner and last sips of red wine. But it was just a smell; no smoke, visual flames, or enough of a disturbance to throw the polenta down and run. They made some calls to neighbors, but decided to move on with their night. Then the call came.
“We just got the dogs, and rushed out. I grabbed some documents, hard drives, my computer, a couple pieces of clothing and a photo album,” Herbrich said.
That was it. A short warning, some belongings and their dogs. Everything that remained is now ash, including all her camera gear, her husband’s camera gear and their three prized chickens. Most of all, their self-customized estate, which included two vineyards, a camera studio and a freshly remodeled kitchen they built themselves disintegrated in the Tubbs fire that ran through their 3.5 acre estate starting Sunday night. But their night wasn’t over yet.
Herbrich and her husband drove 15 minutes away to their friend’s house. Soon after arriving, they settled in and began to relax. But before they got too comfortable, reality struck in the form of fire; lots of it.
“You could see it from their house, 3 fires enclosing in on [us], so we packed up again and we left for second time,” she said.
So once again, they threw their few belongings in the car and drove down to another friend’s house, this time in San Rafael. From there, Herbrich was able to catch a few hours of sleep before heading over the bridge to SF State the next day for work. For Herbrich, the weirdest part of Monday was not knowing 100 percent if her house survived. She knew it was most likely burnt down, but nobody was allowed up the hill to check to verify. Then, all of sudden, in the middle of her fire photography lecture, she got a call from her husband.
“My husband found videos from somebody in the neighborhood who went back and filmed the area,” Herbrich said. “By filming the neighborhood, we saw the devastation … we didn’t see our own house but everything was leveled.”
The phone call was enough for her to come back to classroom with tears, but she kept on with her lecture. After the fire photography lessons, she delved into the proper ISO levels for shooting pictures indoors. She was back to her regular self; joyful and undeterred.
“I love teaching … I pride myself that in 17 years I don’t think I’ve taken a sick day,” Herbrich said. “Life goes on … right now, I can still emotionally function, although I’m a bit shell-shocked.”
When asked about her lost belongs, including her thousands of dollars’ worth of photography equipment, she had an equally optimistic message: “It’s just stuff,” she said.