When I was 8 years old, I got my first camera for Christmas — a treasured point-and-shoot film camera. My favorite uncle gave me my first photo lesson the next month as he and my parents prepared to embark on a vacation flight to Bimini in the Bahamas. Uncle Les worked as a photographer and told me to get an “establishing shot” of the terminal building with the name “Fort Lauderdale Airport,” telling passengers where they were. He said this would establish the beginning of my vacation photo story.
Since that epic island holiday, I studied photography, along with film and television, at Columbia College in Chicago; and served as a staff photographer with a large nonprofit organization here in California until I got into a management position. Photography has always been close to my heart: capturing images in God’s creation that dazzle my imagination and tell a visual story. I might be considered a photographer, but I consider myself a “visual storyteller.”
With the recent fires — the Apple, El Dorado and Los Rios Rancho fires — my photos have told a story of the horrendous loss of our forest and the beloved, historic Los Rios Rancho. More than a few of my friends who saw my fire photos were stunned knowing I was in the midst of flames, dodging falling embers and the spray from helicopter water drops overhead.
Whenever I’ve been in a place of potential danger — whether in local fires or on an overseas assignment — I’ve felt adrenalin course through my body while my eyes did 360 glances in an effort of self-preservation.
On Sept. 17, that was the case as I captured images of a Hotshot fire crew cutting a fire line up the mountain near Jenks Lake Road off Highway 38. I was in a safe place, though the fire was quickly traveling toward where I parked my car. At one point I was sprayed by the helos dropping water on the encroaching fire, but I thought a photo of that fire line might make a good “establishing shot,” like what my uncle had taught me to get over 60 years ago.
After getting my shots, I headed back to Highland by way of Big Bear since the 38 was now impassable, blocked with burning logs and fallen boulders. It was late afternoon.
A week later, I drove back into the fire ravaged area above Angelus Oaks to capture the fire’s aftermath: It was stunningly sad, knowing that so many acres were now reduced to cinders and white ash that resembled a light snowfall. I parked near the fire line I photographed a week earlier at the height of the fire to get an “after” photo to contrast my earlier shot.
That’s where I met Jeff Sadowski, assistant special agent with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service. When he asked me not to cross over the yellow tape, it dawned on me that this was a crime scene tape and he was guarding the area.
I asked, “Is this where they discovered the fallen firefighter?”
He nodded it was and at that moment, my heart sunk as I realized my earlier photographs were likely the last ones taken where Big Bear Hotshot crew chief Charlie Morton, was found.
People on social media were asking why it was taking so long to determine how Morton died, so I asked Sadowski.
“We always start at the worst case scenario and work backwards,” he replied, “and that takes time.”
That meant ruling out homicide first, even though my unprofessional opinion was he was overcome by the flames I observed heading our way just hours before he was found.
I never met Charlie Morton, but I was nearby just hours before he left his earthly life; and that caused a sense of grief as I streamed his memorial service at the Rock Church the next day. He is missed by family, friends, and this visual storyteller who took the photographs of his final fire line cuts of his shortened life.
As of this writing, several calls to the San Bernardino County Coroner’s Office have not been returned regarding their findings of Morton’s official cause of death; and no date for release in the near future has been made.
Regardless, there are talks of erecting a memorial to this fallen firefighter and I would like to see one honoring Charlie Morton, placed near his final fire line cut.
When that happens, rest assured, I’ll be there to capture it in a photo.