The story that follows is long and a bit convoluted, but it’s necessary to understand the situation and my reasoning behind releasing the images herein.
On August 29, I decided to go shoot some breaking-news images of the Station Fire, a massive wildfire conflagration which continues to burn as I write this in early October. I spent a significant amount of that day inside the forest shooting. The forest was closed to the public and I was admitted as media – told I was “on my own” which was just fine with me. Late in the afternoon, as I was making my way back out, I came across a rather eerie looking scene at a turnout a few miles from the forest boundary. It just looked and felt weird – the fire hoses sitting there in a box (apparently staging by the firefighters), the gnarly blackened trees, etc. So I pulled in and took a couple photos of the site.
Over the next week, that area burned over again once or possibly twice. [Can anyone confirm how many times?]
On September 4, authorities said they believed the fire was arson and cordoned off a small area inside the forest from which they believed the fire was set.
Later that evening, I noticed on LAist‘s fire map that editor Zach Behrens dropped a pin indicating the site’s location within the forest. I got a feeling about it and started digging around to see if – against infinitesimally small odds, considering the size of the forest and the fire – that was where I took the pictures of the weird spot.
And sure as shit, it was. I verified the area with Google Street View, with the LA Times’ map, and even by watching some video KABC was running of the cordoned off area. I was now absolutely sure my pictures were of that spot. So I quickly removed the low resolution image I had posted on flickR – on the off-chance that I had evidence that might be useful to the police, and went to bed. Perhaps naively, I thought the shots might be helpful in the investigation considering the amount of time (nearly a week), additional burning (one or two major burners), that had elapsed between when my photos were taken and authorities’ ultimate arrival on the scene.
Several things came together the following day, Saturday (9/5) – I simultaneously contacted the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department and a photo editor at AP (AP ran several of my Station Fire photos the prior weekend). My initial attempts to contact LASD were unsuccessful both due (one assumes) to their volume of work (busy and unanswered phone lines) and because, honestly, they don’t have this whole “interwebs” thing figured out. Several e-mails were either returned to me undeliverable (such as one I sent on Saturday to their lead arson investigator, Heidi Clark) or flagged by their spam filters.
Late Saturday, I had a conundrum. On one hand, there was the news value of the images; on the other, I did not want to potentially screw up an investigation. Having not heard from LASD, I decided to provide AP with a single low resolution version of one of the images. AP decided to include that image in the editorial package they moved on Saturday night.
Very late on Saturday night, I finally got in touch with an investigator at LASD. She was very kind and professional and asked me to send the images to her e-mail, which I did. To be more specific, I uploaded medium-resolution versions to my web site and provided her with bit.ly links both for ease and also so I could tell if anyone looked at them. She did look, and she e-mailed me back, indicating that she would be forwarding them to two of her investigators.
No one else would click the link for several days, and no one would call me for several days.
The following Tuesday, I received an e-mail from one of those she had forwarded them to. He asked me when they were taken (even though I had – in the e-mail he was responding to – been specific about when and where they were taken). I again encouraged all three of them to look at them and tell me if they might be useful, and if so, I would provide him with the original, full-res ones and keep them offline for the time being so as not to screw anything up for them. And on the flip side, I asked – if they weren’t interesting, let me know that, too – so I could put them online or otherwise release them. His reply: “Well be in touch feel free to rlse em”.
I let it sit. Thursday evening, I received a call from his colleague – the other person who had been included on that e-mail thread. At this point – now almost a week later – I still hadn’t provided the high-resolution images to anyone.
He was a nice, professional guy and basically just had my name and number and the vague sense he should talk to me. I told him the story and asked if he had seen the images. He said he had not, he just had a printed-out e-mail in his hand that someone gave him. I asked him if he could get to a computer to look at them, and he said no, he was working out of his car and didn’t have access to a computer. I invited him over to my house to see them on my computer. He said he might be able to come over tomorrow (Friday) but cautioned me that he was “a detective, not an arson investigator .. [and they] might help one of the arson guys, I know they sifted through stuff… but it’s not gonna mean a hill of beans to me… we all specialize in a different area; it might be helpful, I don’t know. Can I get ‘em on a CD? Then I can put that in the file, so the stuff is all there for the next guy to pick up and take on… I could show ‘em, but it might take some time…”
Since I was leaving for Europe on Saturday, I told him to let me know by early Friday – and he could either come over for a CD and viewing, or I would just mail him a disc. He called me Friday and said he would not make it to Venice and would I kindly mail the disc. And that is what I did, and I’ve heard nothing further.
So, I’m opening the high-resolution images to the public. These are quite detailed images of the area where authorities say the Station Fire was started, exactly as it stood the afternoon of August 29 @ 1745PM PDT. If anyone wants the RAW files, please e-mail me and I will gladly send them along.
They might be worth nothing – in fact, that’s probably the most likely outcome. But hell, who knows – maybe one of you armchair sleuths out there can help solve this terrible crime. I sure hope so.
[A slight tangent: while I was up there I saw a lot of discarded cigarette butts. If any of you have ever thrown a cigarette out of your car window, you are a criminal and a sloth. Please never do this again, and vigorously chastise anyone you ever see doing so.]
So, here they are. Just click through to flickR for the full-size. Once there, you’ll need to click “all sizes” and then choose the original size to see them in their full detail.