Diablo En Fuego
Stepping out into the summer sun in Central California feels like it should be accompanied by a movie sound effect. A piercing death ray noise would be appropriate. Ella and I are on our way to the pool. What else is there to do when it’s 101 degrees?
After a couple blocks the car’s air conditioner is finally giving us some relief. Ella is fidgeting with something in the back seat. She says, ”Dad, why do all my toys say ‘Made in China’? Not just some of my toys, like every single one of them says ‘Made in China’. Doesn’t like anyone make toys other than in China?”
I struggle for an answer and at the same time wonder why my five year old is using the word “like” like a 1980s valley girl.
“Well Ella, it’s because Chinese factory workers don’t get paid as much money as American factory workers.”
“Why?” I knew she would say this and then I am saved.
“Hey, look Ella! There’s a huge plume of smoke. There must be a brush fire. It looks like it’s coming from Mount Diablo.”
“Duhh Dad, like why else did you think that fire truck just passed us?”
“Do you want to drive by the fire? We could take a look at it before we go swimming?” I am hopeful that she will answer yes. Gawking at wildfires has become a family event since moving to the East Bay suburbs last year. Plus, I have my camera. I was planning on getting some photos of Ella swimming before the season ended. Maybe I can get some fire photos this afternoon too.
“No Dad. I’d prefer to go swimming instead,” she says dropping the valley girl accent.
The swim-club pool has a Bad News Bears 1970s aesthetic. Whenever I go looking in the sheds for diving toys for Ella, I always expect to find Buttermaker working on a corroded pump and sipping a Shlitz Tallboy.
Those aren’t clouds in these photos. Ella counts eight fire trucks passing on the street while we swim.
By the time we get home from the pool, it looks like the end of the world behind our house.
After we’re done eating dinner, Ella and I head out to find some photos. Lately, she has become very interested in taking pictures with my iPhone. It’s a school night and we’re working against a strict bedtime. On the way to the trail Ella notices all the news trucks. We park on a dead end street where a trail leads up into the hills.
“Dad, if this is such a good spot for pictures why aren’t the news trucks here?”
This one I can answer easily, “Because we’re smarter than the reporters. We live in this neighborhood and know all the best places for pictures. They only know the main streets.”
“Well dad, if the fire is up there, and we are here, what’s stopping the fire from getting to us? There is nothing but trees and grass in between.”
Now, I’m stumped again. “Ella, the fire is still really far away, and it’s on the other side of the mountain, and we’re not going too far. We’ll be pretty close to the car actually.”
“But dad, I thought you said we were going on a real hike. If we’re staying near the car then it’s not a real hike.”
“Hey, look Ella! A bunch of deer!”
Once again nature saves me from Ella’s relentless questions. A group of five deer, startled by our talking, dart in all directions. Three of them bound up a golden hill. Ella is fast with the iPhone and takes a few shots. By the time I get my camera out of the bag the deer are already gone.
We make it home in time for bed. After Ella’s lengthy goodnight ritual, I find both dogs are waiting for me in the hallway. They know it’s dog walk time. I want to go out and get more photos but the dogs put on their best sad act. They huff, sigh, and slump on the floor. I have to take them. We head out into the night. It’s well after sunset but it’s still hot. I catch glimpses of the burning mountain between houses. The dogs get let loose at the soccer complex. From there, we follow a dry creek up to the next neighborhood. This is our familiar route. The dogs are on the lookout. They are equal opportunity chasers. Deer, rats, foxes, coyotes, and stray cats are all fair game.
Finally, I get the dogs home. I am free to chase photos. It’s already 9:30.
I go to the obvious place first, Mitchel Canyon Road. At the end of the road is a nice open view of Mount Diablo. I set up my tripod in the brush next to a barbed wire fence. Cars, one after another, make their way down this ordinarily quiet country road. Above the black mountain is an ominous tower of glowing smoke. The photos are coming out even more dramatic than I had hoped (see the first photo of this post). It dawns on me that this might be a once in a lifetime photo opportunity. How often does one have a massive wildfire burning right in their backyard? I have to do better than the obvious location. I want to make a photo of this fire that is uniquely mine. There is a spot Ella and I found last year that has a perfect view of Mount Diablo but, the park entrance is blocked by a police cruiser tonight. Where can I go? And then I remember a walk I took with my dogs last winter. We were late getting off the trail so we cut through a cattle gate to get back out to the road faster. The police might have closed off the park, but there’s no way the police will be blocking that cattle gate.
It’s now 11:30 pm and I’m climbing over a cattle gate with my camera and tripod. The trail I’m following runs behind a very exclusive neighborhood. I am hesitant to turn on my flashlight and expose myself but at the same time I have a healthy fear of stepping on a rattlesnake or cow pie. This hill is the most snake infested place in all of east bay. Here, the ground squirrels number in the thousands. It’s a furry buffet for the local coyotes and rattlers.
Here is the photo I came for. In this view of the fire you can also see the town of Clayton. It takes some experimenting to get the photo right. Each exposure is at least 30 seconds and some are well over a minute. I play with different ISOs to see which setting renders the smoke plume best. Standing around waiting for these exposures forces me to take my time and think. Is this really the photo I want? Here I am trying for a picture that makes it look like the fire is menacing a sleepy little town but that isn’t how I really feel about the situation. This fire is actually quite beautiful. Standing there on the dark hilltop listing to the crickets, the fire looks like just another benevolent force of nature. In the distance I can here gentle whooshing noises as the flames creep up the around the summit.
As I hike up to the next rise, I think about what I want to capture in a photograph. I remember how when I hiked to the summit of Mount Diablo last summer, the entire mountain felt ripe for a fire. It was like a giant tinder box in the sky. I believe forest fires are a natural phenomenon. Maybe Mount Diablo needs this. Maybe it’s time for the mountain to freshen up a bit? That’s what I will try to photograph: the fire as an active participant the landscape and, I’m going to photograph it in the most non-judgmental way possible.
I set up my tripod again. My heart is pounding from the climb. It’s now well after midnight. My eyes are adjusted to the dark. I can see the cloud of smoke curled above the landscape. It’s much too dark to see through my camera’s viewfinder or use live view mode for that matter. It takes some trickery to frame the desired composition. I use bright lights just outside the frame as my guide. It really helps that I’m well practiced at picturing the world around me sliced up into 3×2 aspect ratio rectangles. Now, I’m satisfied. This photo is the best I can do. I hike back down the hill. It’s time for bed.
*David is an California Photographer . You can order prints of the photos featured on this blog by clicking on the image or visit our website at photos4u2c.com Support this site by using one of my links to Amazon.com. Thanks!