Photographers shoot free holiday portraits for North Bay fire victims

Fire survivors in the North Bay are receiving family portraits, free of charge, to help them forge ahead after disaster. 

Various photographers and studios have offered the service during the holiday season, and this week, set up shop in the lobby of the El Dorado Hotel in historic Sonoma Plaza. 

"Do you know any good jokes?" photographer Mario Elias asked, as his subjects posed for portraits.

Then, Elias proceeded to rattle off some corny jokes of his own, triggering smiles and laughter.

Thomas and Keri Spain, who lost their home to the Atlas fire in Napa County, were among those saying "cheese" Wednesday night. 

"Starting new, that's what we're taking this as, like a phoenix rising," said Keri, clutching her framed portrait. "We're trying to move forward and make new memories."

The couple had time to grab few possessions as the fire advanced.

"This portrait is one of the few things we'll have to put in a new house, no matter where we end up going," said Thomas.  

A few dozen parties came for 15-minute photo sessions over the two-day Sonoma event. 

"I think this will be one of the first things we get in our new place, once we get it," said Noah Harris, alongside his wife and two 9-year-old daughters.

They lost their home in Santa Rosa's Coffey Park. 

Harris said the portrait doesn't begin to replace precious mementos and photo albums that were destroyed, but it's value also lies in the thought behind it. 

"For me, more than anything, I think it represents the kindness of our community," said Harris. is headquartered in Emeryville, and set-up the photo sessions, with an employee who grew up in Santa Rosa.

"We asked, how can we give people a sense of home when they don't have a home right now?" mused  Lee Decker, a social media coordinator for the company.

Decker has relatives who lost their own homes.

"A lot of people don't have anything personal right now, and they can choose the photo and pick the frame and walk out of here with something that's theirs," said Decker. 

There was fun on both sides of the camera, and photographer Elias calls the experience "unreal." 

"Just the hope everybody has, and how they're so positive," said Eilias, " ad the joy in their eyes is something I didn't expect to see but they're happy to be with each other and happy to be alive." 

A young couple, who moved from Los Angeles to Santa Rosa, one month before the fires, said the support they've received, is why they won't leave now.

"We lost our home and this portrait is just something that feels like a new beginning," said Gina Gulino, who lived in the Larkfield area. 

"We're hoping the new year, 2018, is  really good year, with less crazy stuff going on." 

A third day of free portraits has been added, Dec. 20, from 1 to 8 p.m. at the Vintners Inn in Santa Rosa. 

Drop-ins are welcome, but pre-registration is preferred. Signups are here.