Capturing the Home They Lost in the Wildfires Is Helping This Family Heal
“Photography can make something that’s awful look beautiful.”
Published Oct 5, 2020 12:08 PM
Bela Fishbeyn and Spencer Wright named their very first home Escher, after their firstborn daughter. On paper, the structure overlooking the Santa Cruz Mountains was a tiny 300-square-foot house. In reality it was their whole world, the place where they became a family and started the blog Thisxlife, which turned into their full-time business. The space was also a relief from San Francisco’s grueling rental market and a bonus source of income (when the couple was away, they’d rent the place out on Airbnb). Today only the memories remain. Their home, and everything it offered, was reduced to ashes in the fires that burned in Northern California in August. “There’s this whole part of my life that has been erased,” says Wright. “I don’t think we realized how much we were connected to the house until it was gone.”
The couple learned of the destruction on August 19 from 2,500 miles away, at a birthing center in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where they were preparing to welcome their second daughter, Rumi. (In March, when COVID first hit, they made a move East to be closer to family and purchased a second home.) “We were in the delivery room and I noticed Spencer checking his phone,” recalls Fishbeyn. “I thought, What could possibly be more important right now?” Wright, who was tracking the movement of the wildfires through NASA’s satellite coverage, told her it looked like the fire might overtake their house.
“I could see the property was surrounded,” says Wright. “Then all of a sudden, it was all red.” With fire departments overwhelmed, the place burned freely. A couple days later, the land owners who rented the small plot out to Wright and Fishbeyn confirmed the tiny home, along with their own place, was gone.
One of the few downsides to living small was that Wright and Fishbeyn were never able to secure an insurance provider against wildfires. “In general, everything that’s normal for a regular house (a mortgage, financing) is complicated with a tiny house,” says Fishbeyn. People see these structures as an asset rather than a property, even if it is a standing structure that’s not on wheels. The destruction amounted to a total financial loss.
Still, they don’t regret calling the Santa Cruz Mountains home for all those years. The pair faced the risks head-on so they could expand their horizons and get outside. “We had the opportunity to engage in a lot of activities and learn in a ton of ways that we never would have gotten to otherwise,” Wright reflects. The couple hasn’t been back to see the wreckage for themselves. Although they have dreams of salvaging the foundation, the wound is too fresh—and they’ve got a newborn who needs their attention.
Rather than live with total uncertainty, the pair sent trusted friend and photographer Ryan Tuttle out to the property to document the damage. “One of my favorite things about photography is that it can make something that’s awful and terrible look beautiful,” says Fishbeyn, who was partially inspired by Sally Mann’s images of decomposing corpses in What Remains. The couple zoomed in on each photo to see what they could identify—metal remnants of the range, the grill, the washer-dryer. The oddest items had survived. “We found those stupid Illy cups,” Fishbeyn says to Wright, laughing. The melted dining chairs and blob-like outdoor lanterns are worthy of a Dalí painting. “At first, it looks like a stunning fall setting,” she explains, “but then you remember those trees never turned brown.”
The best medicine has been staying present, notes Wright. When tragedy is compounded with the sweetest gift—children—you don’t have much choice but to look forward. “Our 4-year-old is still living her life, still happy every day,” he says. Eventually they’ll go back to the mountains with their daughters for closure, but right now they’re focusing on settling into their house in Asheville.
“Losing a house is this ambiguous sort of loss, but there’s a grieving process for a home just like there is for a person,” says Fishbeyn, whose grandfather recently passed away. “It’s different, but you just allow yourself to feel it and go through it. Some days will be fine; others will be harder. And that’s okay.”
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