(Editor’s Note: We welcome Sean McLean to Photofocus. Sean is a photographer and software engineer residing in the Santa Cruz Mountains near Santa Cruz, CA. Sean studied Art with a Multimedia Design Option at California State University East Bay. Some of Sean’s favorite activities are blogging, landscapes, portraiture and building communities of local photographers. Sean’s website is seanmcleanphotography.com, where the mood is generally light and the spelling is generally poor.)

A strange lightning storm passed through the Monterey Bay, igniting a series of fires in the Santa Cruz mountains on Sunday, August 16, 2020. We all saw the lightning storm and many of my friends caught some amazing photographs.

I assumed that there would be a fire or two from at least one of the lightning strikes and I assumed they would be handled quickly. But never have I been so wrong. The fires merged into an unprecedented monster. That fire was followed by even larger monsters.

The beginning

The sky became smokey on the Aug. 17 and some views turned an ominous red. Several helicopters were overhead carrying buckets of water. Calling these things “buckets” seems wrong since they look about the size of a hot tub. I started getting concerned when I realized the scope of the air attack that had started.

Part way through Aug. 18, I semi-joked with my co-workers that if they didn’t see me for a few days this picture of a passing helicopter should help explain why. That’s also when I started reviewing my evacuation plan and getting the car ready just in case. Shortly after sundown there was a glow from the direction of Boulder Creek Golf and Country Club. Then I could see that glow moving; towering flames just a few miles away.

The first Reverse 911 call came moments later calling for general evacuation. A few minutes later another said there was an error and to ignore that first call. I kept packing the car. We were out of there minutes before the “real” Reverse 911 call came and the only serious road out got crowded. Pardon me for not making any photographs of that part. The evacuation plan worked perfectly, but now we had the obvious problem of needing somewhere to actually be. We didn’t come home again for another two very long weeks.

Coming home

Against all reason our whole neighborhood survived. 925 homes didn’t. I came home for a few hours after it was deemed safe enough by the authorities. One of the first things I found were the piles of ash around what were once burning embers.

This stuff was on fire when it landed here days ago. Again, there’s just no reason why our neighborhood didn’t burn. By late afternoon there was a spot fire that ignited across the valley. More helicopters arrived for the air attack. My neighbor and I took pictures, watched, and we were understandably anxious.

I came back the next morning to a mix of highs and lows from this emotional roller coaster. Boulder Creek is a small town and after a while you get to know pretty much everybody. But here I am in a mask, sunglasses, and carrying my camera.

I was understandably confused for media from out of town and invited to “Get the <expletive> out of my town.” I told them, “I live here. This is my town.” No hard feelings — honest.

I spent the morning photographing fire engines and their crews. They came from everywhere. I saw engines from Boulder Creek, Santa Cruz, San Jose, Los Angeles, San Diego and even Los Alamos. What do you say to a guy who just might have saved your or a dear friend’s home? “Thank you” seems inadequate. What I really wanted to do was collapse.

Fast forward a few days. My family is back in our home. The smoke inside has become tolerable with filters duct taped to fans constantly running. The typical summer coastal fog has rolled in, but it’s mixed with the smoke. The sky was getting dark by 2 p.m.

By 3 p.m., the crickets were chirping and the sky was deep red. This was a scene worth photographing, so I went into town. You may have seen some of the photographs from around San Francisco. Here are a few from little Boulder Creek, 40 miles south.

Capturing the destruction

The next day I got a message from a friend who got out of the worst of the worst with essentially the shirt on her back. She asked if I could please get her some pictures of her beloved mountain home near Bonny Doon. I’ve avoided being there for several reasons. It’s just not safe because the trees are burned, weakened and can fall without any warning. Portions are still burning. On top of that, it’s so intimate — photographing the devastation that was somebody’s home.

The place was hard to find because all of the landmarks had been wiped out. Up the hill, turn left, first possible right, second home on the right. Even finding that first right turn was hard. Second home on the right? I knew what it looked like but even identifying it as an individual home was nearly impossible.

It was a hammock that reassured me that I was in the right place. I knew there was a row of potted plants near the hammock. I found the tipped over hammock and the soil of the plants still in the shape of their burned away pots. I lost it right there. I went back to the car for better protective gear: A hard hat, high visibility vest, steel toed boots, etc. I like to think of myself in terms of “artist with a camera” rather than “photojournalist,” but I thought it would be important to mix the two. I planned to show the scene with my personal style. Convey the devastation while looking for leading lines and intimate details.

Some wide angles were necessary, but they were overwhelming. There was so much that it’s just confusing to the eye. I chose to get closer for details.

I lost my composure when I realized I was in the kitchen. The light was fading and exposures got much longer. No matter, nothing was moving. It was clearly time to go when it was taking a full minute for a decent exposure. I sent the photos to my friend. We cried and some healing started.