U.S.|Documenting a Wildfire When It’s in Your Backyard
POLLOCK PINES, Calif. — Last November, my wife and I joined a wave of Americans who left urban centers during the pandemic in favor of more rural areas, relocating from Sacramento to rural Pollock Pines on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada.
The truth is we’d been looking to move for years. We are outdoors people. We hike, bike, backcountry ski and backpack. We’re happiest in wild spaces. Because of the pandemic, my wife could finally work from home full time, so we moved to Pollock Pines. The Eldorado National Forest is not even 200 yards from our front door, and a short drive away, there is a lake surrounded by winding mountain biking trails.
We were not naïve to the dangers of living in the forests of the increasingly dry Sierra Nevada. I’ve photographed wildfires for The New York Times and other news outlets for 20 years. I covered the Tubbs fire in Santa Rosa in 2017 and the Camp fire in Paradise in 2018. Seeing the aftermath of the Tubbs fire was the real eye-opener. It jumped six lanes of Highway 101, burning through strip malls and destroying the Coffey Park neighborhood. To me, it showed that nowhere in the West is truly safe from wildfire. But for my family the trade-off was worth it.
So when the Caldor fire sparked just south of us on Saturday, we weren’t surprised. We kept an eye on it and made sure our essentials were packed, but otherwise went about our lives.
But it was a surprise when, an hour after our 9-year-old daughter boarded the school bus on Tuesday morning, I received a robocall from her school saying she would be back home shortly because of the extreme spread of the blaze. Not long afterward, I received a text message from the Sheriff’s Department announcing an evacuation warning.
My wife, Jen, and I tossed our essentials into one car; as soon as our daughter came running up from the bus stop, they left. I stayed a bit longer, doing a weekend’s worth of fire prep in a few hours: sweeping pine needles off the roof and gutters, scraping everything to bare ground within 10 feet of the house and soaking the deck and yard with sprinklers.
As I waited with my neighbors in the line of traffic inching toward the highway, I realized I am usually the one speeding by in the opposite direction. Within 40 minutes I was on the highway to join the family at my in-laws’ house, hours before the evacuation warning became an order.
Once we were settled in, I started organizing my gear to go cover the fire. I couldn’t imagine sitting on the couch endlessly updating fire maps and news sources on my phone. I would much rather be out documenting it, contributing to the coverage of these fires, as I normally do.
My daughter ran in as I was putting on my Nomex fire clothing, which she has seen me do dozens of times.
When she asked, “Where are you going?” I told her I was going back to cover the fire. “Why?” she asked, with some concern in her eyes. “We just left.”
I explained this was just like any other fire and I was going to do my job. I realized that she finally understood what a wildfire meant to a community and that maybe this wasn’t just any other fire to us.
That moment stuck with me as I watched a helicopter pull water out of the lake we swam in a few days earlier and as I kept stopping at an overlook to see if our favorite mountain bike trails were burning yet.
Firefighters digging a containment line for the Caldor fire near Pollock Pines.
Fighting hot spots near the community of Pacific.
As of Thursday morning, the uncontained blaze had forced thousands of residents of El Dorado County to flee or prepare to leave their homes, state officials reported.
Wood burning in Eldorado National Forest.
Smoke from the Caldor fire covered the forest near Pollock Pines.