The Dixie Fire Stories Project – a photographer’s experience capturing her community’s recovery
A volunteer firefighter. A pair of sisters who evacuated just in time. A couple from a town called Canyondam, which was nearly destroyed in the fire. A photographer who lost a lifetime’s worth of darkroom negatives. A first responder standing in the ruins of the town’s fire station.
Joanne Burgueño captures Dixie Fire survivors through portraiture for the Dixie Fire Stories Project. The project is a social media and storytelling presence on Facebook and Instagram that’s been likened to the popular internet staple Humans of New York, which also publishes photos and interviews of subjects.
But Burgueño’s subjects are closer and more personal.
I met Burgueño at Plumas Arts art gallery in Quincy. I’d heard the Dixie Fire Stories Project was having its first physical exhibition on the anniversary marking a year since the Dixie Fire reached — and subsequently destroyed — Greenville and its surrounding communities. It was the first time Burgueño had really viewed her exhibit, despite her intimate relationship with her subjects.
She pointed out one portrait — John Banks — a man who’d lost almost everything in the Dixie Fire.
“When I got my first DUI in town, he was my DUI instructor. So I met him years ago,” Burgueño said.
We moved onto Ann Newberg, a subject Burgueño said comes back to mind with particular frequency.
“I used to live with her. There's a whole other connection there,” she said.
Burgueño used to date Newberg’s son when she lived in the Plumas County community of North Arm. The two had also been neighbors. Newberg was one of the few North Arm residents of the community who lost a house to the Dixie Fire.
“Hearing her story and her resiliency through that was heartbreaking. But also triumphant,” Burgueño said.
Triumphant, Burgueño said, because Dixie Fire survivors are helping each other recover.
“The neighbors helping neighbors, helping each other do these things, that's what they do. They get up and they keep going,” she said.
Burgueño and her co-founder Sara Gray live in Quincy, a few miles away from the fire’s burn scar. Both Burgueño and Gray have deep ties to a swath of communities in Plumas County’s Indian Valley. The Dixie Fire tore through that area before becoming the largest single wildfire in California’s history. The fire devastated nearly 70% of Indian Falls, 76% of Greenville, and almost all of Canyondam.
Those communities were still burning when the Dixie Fire Stories Project was published in September 2021. Burgueño said she and Gray started the project to fill a news gap. She said it felt like while the Dixie Fire was consuming their community, the world had stopped paying attention.
“We were noticing that Greenville was getting lost in the news. And that was around the time that the Tahoe wildfire came out. [The Dixie Fire] was immediately yesterday's news,” Burgueño said. Adding, “We were just like, wait a minute. We're still here and we're still suffering. There's still people here who need help.”
But when Burgueño — who owns a photography business — signed up as photographer for the project, she said she came in unprepared. She had no journalism experience.
“I had no idea what I was doing,” Burgueño said.
Burgueño learned on the job. Photojournalists Gideon Mendel and Federica Armstrong collaborated with her for three series of photos, including one of her most beloved series, Levi Frank Mullen. The experience was invaluable.
Nonetheless, Burgueño said she still gets nervous interviewing sources.
“You're asking people to trust you in telling their story. And a lot of times that story has pain and sadness and anger,” she said.
Hearing the experiences of disaster survivors comes with a dose of vicarious trauma. A year ago, Burgueño said, she didn’t know the toll the work would take. Now, it’s gotten easier.
“When we first did these stories, it was a lot harder for me to listen to the stories than it is now. Now it's more like, not that you're used to it, but you understand that the stories are gonna be hard,” she said.
Burgueño is a former domestic violence victim advocate, volunteer firefighter and medic. She’s come to expect secondhand trauma, she said. She sees the interviews as her work. And managing the accompanying emotional toll is part of that work.
“It just comes with the territory, you know, like if it wasn't me, it'd be somebody else. But it's me,” she said.
The emotional strain of her work is not slowing her down, Burgueño said, because her community’s stories need to be told.
“My response, my weight of what I carry with them is tiny compared to that. They feel like it's a cathartic experience for them. They need to talk. They need to speak,” she said.
Burgueño doesn’t just post stories, she said. At the request of the community, Burgueño started a GoFundMe for Levi Frank Mullen, who lost his uninsured home in the fire and was denied a rehousing claim from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The Dixie Fire Stories Project also posts about the deaths of community members, and tries to conduct interviews that serve as resources — like an interview with fire scientist and The Lookout founder Zeke Lunder about the scale of the wildfire problem in California and the fire intelligence communications work he did during the Dixie Fire.
“Some of them aren't gonna be as personal. They're just going to inform, for the sake of the public,” Burgueño said.
I asked Burgueño about her previous photography experience. She said the Dixie Fire Stories Project encapsulates the kind of work she’s always wanted to do.
“I guess I've always kind of been a photojournalist. If you wanna look at it that way. I’ve always just caught people in their moments,” Burgueño said.
Burgueño has taken photos for most of her life. She inherited a camera from an older brother who passed away when she was 16. Her father claims she’s taken photos since she was 8.
Joanne Burgueño, co-founder of the Dixie Fire Stories Project, views her work at Plumas Arts in Quincy, one year after the fire destroyed Greenville and its surrounding communities. (Jamie Jiang / NSPR)
When Burgueño viewed her work for the first time during our interview, she said the experience somehow confirmed her new identity as a photojournalist.
“I just take pictures. I take photos. That's what I do. I've just done it for so long, and I know I'm good at it, but some of these photos. They really tell a story all by themselves. It's kind of cool,” she said.
The Dixie Fire Stories Project has come a long way. The exhibition was funded by a grant from the California Arts Council. Burgueño and Gray are now taking it on the road. They also have a book deal.
I asked her if she was feeling proud of her work.
“I try not to let my ego get in the way. It worries me. I have a fear of my ego rearing up and being like, I'm amazing. But yeah, I'm proud,” she said.
I told her she reminded me of a quote from Once I Was You: A Memoir of Love and Hate in a Torn America, the memoir of Futuro Media Founder Maria Hinojosa. Journalism calls for a “delicate dance between ego and humility,” Hinojosa wrote.
Burgueño agrees that her work requires that delicate dance.
“You're reaching inside of this sacred space for them, you know? So you have to also be conscious of that and respectful of being in there with them,” Burgueño said.
That’s where it helps that Burgueño is connected to her subjects in some way.
“You can't just walk up to somebody and just start photographing. You have to get to know them. You have to give them a piece of yourself too,” she said.
That’s what separates the photojournalism Burgueño wants to do from more detached kinds of photography.
“It's not the same when you just start photographing them. There's no story. There's no lifeline. There’s no window. You take a picture of a guy walking down the street, but then you go up to him and you talk to him and you get engaged in a conversation. You realize he doesn't have any shoes and he's running away from something, going somewhere … The whole picture changes. The whole idea,” she said.
Scrolling through the Dixie Fire Stories Project, that picture keeps changing, interview after interview. And every once in a while, a word from the photographer herself, talking directly about her community, to her community.