I was in the Daily Press newsroom when a tone out came across the scanner for a fire. “Should we go?” our new reporter asked. “No, I got this” I told the reporter. “This won’t be a big deal.”
We had just got done covering the Pilot Fire, and if there’s anything I’ve learned in my 25 years as a photojournalist, it's that the second fire is never as big as the first.
When I arrived on scene the first report was the fire was between 12 and 25 acres. I looked across the landscape and as Phos Chek poured over me I figured well they’ll use Cajon Boulebard as a fire line. No, OK they’ll use the creek, no the railroad, no Swarthout Canyon Road. The Bluecut Fire jumped every natural line I thought would help contain it.
Soon after I found myself standing at the Interstate 15 and Highway 138 interchange and noticed there was fire on all four sides of the exit. That’s when I realized I was covering the largest fire of my career.
The Bluecut Fire consumed more than 36,000 acres, burned dozens of cars, more than 200 outbuildings and 105 homes.
When I’m covering fires like these it gets a little crazy. We all get caught up in excitement of the action, the awe of the moment, and the dazzling dancing flames. Sometimes it’s like being in your own action movie. But this time I found myself standing on a smoke-and-flame-covered freeway interchange thinking that I want to do something else with my photography, I want to offer the viewers something a little more.
Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate all the views of my galleries, likes on my Facebook Live videos, and Twitter retweets. I sincerely want to thank all you readers for that. Now I want to take images that will stick in your memory for months and years later rather than getting 1,000 likes today and they're forgotten tomorrow.
In the months following the fires we covered a variety of aftermath and recovery stories. On one story I met the Choi family in the West Cajon Valley. Their orchard was saved, but they had lost their home. Sarah Choi was devastated. As she sorted through the rubble that was once her home, I spotted a teapot. I asked her If I could keep it and she agreed. I took that teapot home and converted it into a pinhole camera.
Why would I do that when I have a perfectly good 12-megapixel camera built into the phone here in my pocket? Because this camera takes photos that cannot be duplicated by any app or Photoshop action. Every image from this camera is its own, unique, original image. A “one off” as it’s called in the fine art world.
The images are permanently imprinted with the effects of the fire. The flat paper of these images was literally punched into the bottom of the teapot. It was present at the scene. The silver in that paper was darkened by photons of light coming off the sun, bouncing off the subjects, and into the camera. And because it’s a pinhole camera, it didn’t even pass through the glass of the lens.
This is what digital photography does not offer the viewer. Every time we turn off a digital camera phone or computer those cease to exist. That’s why we call them memory cards. They are only memories of the moment rather than artifacts of the event.
Every wrinkle, crease and distortion, all the highlights and shadows, were somehow affected by the teapot which was affected by the fire. There is no closer way to view the damage of the fire other than being there. This is what I hope to leave in your minds: memories of the loss and destruction these fires created rather than the superficial awe and excitement images of the flames create.