Pock pock pockata pock pock pock….
I had been dreaming of helos, hovering.
I awoke to the stacatto rhythm of rain on the roof. In the dark, I figured it must be around 3 am. I was wide awake and thinking about the events of the last few days. Deep breath. Hmm wow, first time I have been able to take one of those in awhile. Funny what we may take for granted. Little things like breathing. My wife lay on her back next to me, I could hear the faint rattle in her chest as she slept.
We both came home from doing an editorial shoot for our little local publication, Deep, and realized we had caught a bug. As is sort of normal for me, the viral infection had rapidly spread to my lungs. So in the two weeks since that night, almost to the day, I had been sort of laid up and battling a mild case of Pneumonia. It was now gone. Pretty cool.
Four days prior, my phone had rung at 7 am. Hans Rathje was on the line with a surf report and something else. “Hey we have another fire, and it is doing some strange things to the light. Swell is pretty big. Wind is hard offshore some places. What are you doing?”
“Ah I have been laid up for awhile now. Let me finish what I am doing, and I will wander out and find you. Maybe a swim will do me some good”
A couple hours later as I wound my way towards Coast Hwy 1 through the Oxnard farm fields, I saw the smoke blossom. Pulling off to the side of the road, I shot an Instagram image, posted it, them shot a commercial file with my 5DM2. Wind was 30 knots steady ENE, a hard Santa Ana blow right down the central wind corridor, which runs from the high desert to the sea, at the Southern edge of the coastal plain in which we live. All of this was quite unseasonal. Being the beginning of May, we were a ways off from what we call “Fire Season” here in So Cal. Yet there it was, and I knew in a minute’s time the conflagration was headed for the water. If the Santa Ana wind condition did not relent, nothing would stop the flames from meeting the watery finish line we play in almost daily.
Fifteen minutes later I had checked the surf at a few places, found Hans, and we looked at a back wind hacked, largish SSE swell. This is a very unusual direction and size for May. I have only seen it a few times in my life. The swirling wind had sufficiently decimated surface conditions that we wrote off looking further. Close but no cigar, never works with the bar of work we produce. Conditions need to “be there”.
So up a coastal canyon we know well we went, where we could have an aerie view of our coast. We had a long talk, as we watched the fire billow up in the Santa Monica Mountains which lie between our deserted stretch of coast, and the densely populated valley beyond.
“Here we go again” The Rathje’s home up valley from us and the current fire starting point, had been surrounded by flame more than once. The FD had saved their home and those of their neighbors. Their fires had started from arcing power lines. The incident had eventually wound up in court as both the homeowners and the FD endeavored to prove liability-foreknowledge of the existing hazard by the utility company. They had recently won a judgement against the company. It was being appealed. No one fights a massive utility conglomerate without risk and expense. They tend to not play nicely.
I had photographed the power lines. Looking through 1800 MM of lens, the melted arc points on the lines were quite obvious to me. What they said was both a sad diatribe against the utility company, and a warning about the infrastructure our society has in place in areas prone to high risk natural disasters. Stupid. Maybe worse ( intentionally negligent)
So we talked about a lot and watched. Looking across the canyon we could see a sole home on a ridge line. It has always sort of been our dream home, with the combination of it’s remoteness and view, being something every surfer would aspire to in some ways. The fire would cross over it most likely.
In short order we both headed home. Hans headed up valley past the conflagration and I returned to West Ventura and my own home on a coastal valley foothill.
This photo is a satellite image from NASA. In it you can see the geography-topography of the venturi which regularly funnels hot desert winds down to our coast when a High Pressure locates in the four corners region of the Western US. This is the blow dryer zone. Amazingly they had a great image taken of our fire and it was online and available. We do indeed live in a remarkable time.
Later that day I rang Hans from my office. No answer. My gear was still in the car, and I had been monitoring the blaze and the weather. The wind was still blowing, the fire inexorably moved towards the coastal canyon vents. I figured I had better go be where I need to be. But as I woke early this day and took that first clear deep breath, I realized an explanation was in order for what I am about to describe. This is why.
People tend to follow what others do, when what was done brings any critical acclaim-success. That can be hazardous to public safety. So I want to predicate the images with a bit of information about myself.
I am a professional in many respects. More than being “a guy with a camera”, I have worked and shot in a wide variety of exceedingly high risk scenarios all over the world for a variety of editorial and commercial concerns which run the gamut of uses from News through Art. In process of acquiring both my equipment and multiple skill sets, came the acquisition of a detailed understanding of weather and natural disasters. In addition I am a highly trained first responder through my affiliation with K38 Rescue where we are regularly exposed to and tutored in risk assessment and management.
In what I do both in the water or out, very little is left to chance. You learn early on to watch your exits and to not ever encourage people to do what you do, lest by your example, you put them in harm’s way. The short of it is that I know in every circumstance, the risk must be worth a certain potential benefit, in order for me to pursue a shot.
So with that in mind, the short description and imagery which follow, illustrate what I saw that evening. First responders have a job to do in Natural disasters. If you have not been trained in Ops as one, I strongly suggest that you stay away. The situation may likely not benefit by your presence. Something to consider. (I always engage this thought process)
This is what I saw as I headed back in. Hwy ready to be closed. Fire billowing over Laguna Peak, which has had it’s radar installation burned out before.
I checked all the canyon vents and figured out where the fire would come down. Chatted with a CHP officer who stood at his post at a road block to that Canyon I had been up in with Hans earlier that day. I told him what I was doing, and what I knew. I did not envy the guy. Embers were beginning to fall, and it was getting smokey. You could see what was happening.
I worked my way through an image series and went down on the beach and shot from where I had been doing our little magazine swimwear shoot. A thick plume churned up beach. The sky flowed with crimson, various orange tones, and deep blacks and rich greys. The diorama which exists in a fire near water is a rapidly shifting one due to a number of things.
I was very conscious of the proximity of the fire and knew that the up coast exit could be shut off by flame in a relatively short time, so I got my gear back in the car and with the southern exit clear and under no threat, headed back west up Hwy 1 and collected a few more images. As I stood atop a roadside sand dune, 600 MM lens in hand, I saw a stream of lights coming down coast highway in the rapidly deepening gloom. There they were, the emergency fire service responders.
I cannot adequately express what this is like to watch. A cavalcade of vehicles of all types and from various divisions of service, lights flashing, headed back down to where I had just come from. I knew they would likely begin to stage there. I thought about our dream house on that canyon ridgeline. I knew they would likely save it, in spite of it being mid chimney.
Proceeding back up to Point Mugu, that landmark known so well for the myriad number of films and car commercials shot around it, I collected a few more images as emergency services shut down the Hwy a few miles upcoast. A Sheriff parked behind my car as dark fell, and rather than talk to him, give my media credentials and stay, I simply waved, got in my car and left. This place really did not need me there any more. None of the rest of my ability to be there mattered. Not one bit.
Half an hour later, my wife and I were sitting in Mai’s having steaming bowls of spicy chicken pho on Main St in Ventura. My lungs ached a bit and I thought about what lay ahead. The winds would change soon. Weather was headed in. Everything would be okay. I had simply witnessed the natural cycle and man’s endeavor to manage living in a high risk environment for episodes like this.
Later that evening I posted one photo from my favorite beach, to my personal Facebook page (I do not have a photography business page) and later learned that the image went viral when Jon, who manages some of our other company web endeavors, called to tell me about it. In a few hours over 250k people had gotten to see what I had. By the next day the number had doubled.
Last night before bed, an e mail had dropped into my business address. It was from one of the fire engineers who had been in the air. He had seen the photo and asked for a copy for his office. I think almost more than anything else from this day, I was very honored by that. In everything we do as Artists, our work should come down to serving others. That matters to me a lot.
Awhile ago a scientist, my wife (a designer) and I founded a company after a very unique event called Sea-Space Google birthed the concept for it. It is called OceanLovers. It is a for profit company, which drives Science and Education based change with the intention to fund people and organizations who are making a positive impact on the Oceans. It connects people, and provides accurate information about our blue marble. It actually creates change. Pretty neat.
So I made a collection of imagery for Oceanlovers called the Springs Fire collection. Part of the proceeds for all Art sold through Oceanlovers goes to each Artist. (The collections and list of people waiting to contribute, grows daily, look in a week and it will all be different) but 50 percent of all sales goes towards developing new technology and projects and support for the Blue Voices around the world which architect sustainable change. It is a hopeful concept.
When someone supports Oceanlovers, in effect, they are voting for some tangible change and living hope.
You can find the Springs Fire Collection here.
The Oceanlovers Facebook page is a place where you can find educational and entertaining, art centric Ocean culture daily, and connect with a growing tribe of like minded individuals.
Aloha oe. A hui ho.