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Over the past five days, the Erskine Fire has scorched not only the southern Sierra Nevada above Isabella Lake, it has seared emotions. Lives have been endangered, homes obliterated, possessions vaporized. Two people have died. Amid it all we’ve seen generosity, empathy, courage and determination bordering on heroism. Little wonder The Californian’s award-winning photography staff has been bringing back some heart-rending pictures. And the public has reacted to those images as one might expect. For the most part.
Many readers objected to The Californian’s publication of photos of 72-year-old Joe Palme’s confrontation with CHP officer Kelley Walker. Palme, who was trying to inspect the ashen remains of his Squirrel Valley home, was arrested. Some thought The Californian had invaded his privacy, even though the incident occurred in plain view and Palme, as he was being handcuffed, had urged photographer Felix Adamo to “take photos.” (Adamo, who had already snapped numerous frames by this time, notes that Palme was too busy fighting with law enforcement to even know Adamo was taking pictures.That's when Adamo captured his best images.)
Before that controversy sprang up, however, readers seemed very much appreciative of the The Californian’s social media coverage.
At Kernville Elementary, where evacuees were routed while many of their homes burned, there was Terra Lehman, head in her hands, sobbing with grief and uncertainty. She and her mother had lost their home in South Lake, and she spent some 10 minutes with two Californian staffers telling her story.
“This brings tears to my eyes!! They have worked so hard to have absolutely nothing now!! This is so gut wrenching to see,” Donna Gronemeier Lawson posted on The Californian’s Facebook page.
We shared a photo taken by a representative of the American Red Cross’ Central Valley Region that showed two other evacuees hugging.
“Thank you. God Bless everyone up there,” Jody Serban posted in the comments section below the photo.
We posted video of public safety officials updating evacuees on the status of the fire fight and efforts to help them cope.
“Can I do anything to help,” Melissa Sims-Bohlen wrote in response.
It’s been a life-affirming circle of support, concern, resolve and information-sharing involving the evacuees, fire crews, support organizations, news media and the general public, an outpouring that has literally reached every corner of the country. Donations have nearly reached the saturation point; the main thing needed now, the Red Cross says, is money.
Then came the images of Palme’s arrest.
Palme had driven through a CHP checkpoint Sunday morning to see what was left of his Squirrel Valley home. (Answer: Almost nothing, it turned out.) Walker, of the CHP, chased him down and ordered him to leave the area; it wasn’t safe, Walker said. Palme would have none of it. Angry, he confronted the officer, who drew his sidearm, apparently thought better of it, and reholstered it. But when Palme tried to climb back into his vehicle, Walker grabbed him. They exchanged punches and an instant later were on the ground, swinging and clawing.
Just the day before, Palme had given the Los Angeles Times an impromptu interview expressing anger and frustration. Now, apparently media savvy, he shouted to Adamo: Get a record of this. Or words to that effect.
Three days in, our photographers had demonstrated to the world how the calamity had instilled widespread panic, grief and camaraderie. Now, four days in, we were seeing anger, too.
Visitors to The Californian’s Facebook site didn’t like the looks of it. And it was our fault for having shown them.
By noon Monday 54,000 Facebook users had seen Adamo’s photos of the incident, 320 people had shared the post, and nearly 300 comments, a substantial portion critical of The Californian, had been logged.
“Shame on you for posting these pictures! These people have lost a lifetime of memories. Shameful,” wrote Julie Hungerford.
“Seriously, shame on the Bakersfield Californian! Have you ever endured such horror and devastation. If you are the least bit human you will remove this post. I think everyone should report it to Facebook to get it removed,” Therese Lieszler wrote.
“News media is no longer objective... now its all about attention grabbing... or pushing liberal adjenda,” Scrappi Collins wrote.
In summary, The Californian’s stark visual depictions of scorched landscape and devastated people had inspired a cascade of sympathy and, undoubtedly, a renewed appreciation for the indiscriminate ruthlessness of wildfire. But photos of one man’s explosion of anguish was somehow different, somehow beyond the pale, even if they underscored the depth of the pain like nothing we’d seen until that point.
“Shame on you for invading their privacy,” Laurie Vogel wrote. “Here is my next door neighbor's grandparents go fund me page. They got out with the clothes they were wearing: www.gofundme.com/2ba225sb .” It was wrong of us to tell Palme’s story, even though he was presumably happy we’d done so, but OK for Vogel to tell Facebook’s 1.65 billion users about others who were suffering?
Gradually, demands that we take down the photos of Palme (we didn’t and we won’t) seemed to subside and the discussion focused where it properly should: On the jagged emotions this kind of devastation can trigger, and on law enforcement’s difficult task of maintaining order among decent people in alarming distress.
Jeffrey M. Packebush had a good take on that. “Those closures are put in place for the safety of EVERYONE,” he wrote in a Facebook comment. “1- For the citizens to stay out of dangerous areas. 2- So officers and firefighters do not have to go get people who do not understand rule #1.” Then he added: “Officer Walker is a highly decorated 25 year veteran of the California Highway Patrol. Somehow, that is not reported.”
Each of the hundreds of people displaced by the Erskine Fire has a story. Each of the 1,712 firefighters and support personnel on the ground has a story. Some might even hope we tell theirs. Sorry we haven’t gotten around to telling Walker’s. The thing is, a big fire is burning at the moment.
Robert Price and The Californian welcome your comments and suggestions. To offer your input by phone, please call 395-7649 and leave your comments in a voice-mail message or send an email to soundoff@ bakersfield.com. Please include your name and phone number. Phone numbers and addresses won’t be published.