"What the human eye observes casually and incuriously, the eye of the camera notes with relentless fidelity"... Bernice Abbott

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A Salton Sea Journey

In 2003, I made a photographic journey to the Salton Sea in search of the decaying and salt encrusted homes that are so often the subject of every photographer that passes through the Imperial Valley. I took along my medium format camera and my trusty 35MM camera for this adventure. It would be another year before I would buy my first digital camera.  

It was late afternoon when I discovered one such home along the west shore, just north of the retirement village of Salton Sea Beach. This home, like the hundreds that once peppered the shores of the lake, was once a symbol of the promises that the Salton Sea once held in its bid to become the California Riviera. Now, they serve as a constant reminder of lost dreams; a losing battle against Mother Nature; tombstones of a once promising destination along the San Andreas Fault.

I began to photograph the home and what was also left a service garage at the edge of the lake.  The walls of the garage were contorted as the foundation slowly sank into the lake and the metal roof had surrendered to the lakes’ unusually high salinity long ago. Entering the structure was deceptively challenging, one wrong step and I would sink into the thick layer of desiccated fish carcasses that had accumulate over the years from the annual die offs.  While framing my shots, I began to notice smoke rising from nearby Salton Sea Beach.
I soon realized that the fire was beginning to intensify so I quickly packed my gear and headed in the direction of the smoke.  When I arrived, I found a community in chaos.  One mobile home was engulfed in flames and a second one was beginning to burn along with it. This sleepy little retirement village had come to life as residents watched helplessly while their neighbors homes burned, all the while fearing for their own.

Individuals from the local senior volunteer fire company were already on scene and waiting for their equipment to arrive. The smoke began to darken the sky when I captured a lone fireman walking into a wall of thick smoke. Fire companies arrived from Salton City seven miles to the south and from Thermal four miles north as the fire began to spread to the patio of a third home.  Because of the remoteness of the town, if the fire was to spread, additional firefighters would have to be called in from the two nearest stations in Mecca, 17 and 26 miles away. These senior volunteer firefighters knew they were the only ones who would be able save this community.

The second home would be lost before the battle to save the community began in earnest. Not knowing how far I would be allowed in, I began to photograph the firefighters as they struggled to control the blaze, expecting to be told to leave at any minute.  Instead, I found myself helping the firefighters drag and reposition the heavy fire hoses as they attacked the flames. One minute I would photograph firefighters battling the blaze and the next I would sling my camera over my shoulder and help drag fire hoses where they were needed.

These senior volunteer firefighters showed as much determination to quell this fire as any rookie would have. Their perseverance paid off as they saved the third home and stopped the fire from spreading.  As brief as this encounter was, I am fortunate that I was able to capture these unique moments from the Salton Sea that day.

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