Smoke on the water

Photographer Benjie King captures haunting images of Newport’s bayfront and Yaquina Bay Bridge in the orange glow cast by wildfires

The morning after a historic windstorm swept over the central Oregon coast, igniting the Echo Mountain fire in Lincoln County and stoking the flames of other fires already burning, Benjie King was out looking for oxygen for his dad. As he usually does, King, 45, took his camera with him and soon found himself shooting photos of scenes around Newport he knew he was unlikely to experience again.

“I was actually working the night I realized things were going down,” King recalled. “You could look straight at the sun that evening and I knew it was going to be a gorgeous sunset, but I didn’t get a chance to go out that night. The next morning, there was just a gorgeous orange glow — almost like an unusual, beautiful sunset all day.”

It wasn’t a sunset, of course, but the light from fires miles away.

Benjie King shot the Yaquina Bay Bridge in the smoky glow caused by wildfire. "You won’t see the sky like that again, hopefully, ever again,” he says. Photo by: Benjie King, Out West Photography
Benjie King shot the Yaquina Bay Bridge in the smoky glow caused by wildfire. “You won’t see the sky like that again, hopefully, ever again,” he says. Photo by: Benjie King, Out West Photography

I first saw King’s photos on the internet 150-odd miles from home, where I was stranded after Labor Day weekend. Driving toward home from Central Oregon on Sept. 8, we knew of the windstorm that had struck the coast the previous evening, closing U.S. 101, and of the fire raging in Otis and Rose Lodge.

It was sunny and clear in the mountains — though the evening before had been heavy with smoke — but we soon noticed a strange wind, not one direction or another, but swirling and oddly foreboding. And then we came to the turnoff for home and discovered the highways were closed. We could drive dozens of miles out of our way to take an alternate route through a landscape that might or might not be safe, or we could wait it out.

Newport photographer Benjie King
Newport photographer Benjie King says he knows people who lost their homes in the fires. “I’m sitting here taking pictures while people’s homes are burning to the ground,” he says. “But I knew it had to be captured.”

We went back to the motel in Sisters. There, I watched as evacuations were posted, along with King’s photos of the Yaquina Bay Bridge and the Bayfront bathed in orange. It was a landscape like we’d never seen. Hauntingly beautiful, but in the most horrific of circumstances.

King had mixed feelings, too.

“It’s personal,” he said. “I know a few people who lost their homes. I grew up in Rose Lodge. I know nearly everybody in Otis and Rose Lodge. It was horrible. I’m sitting here taking pictures while people’s homes are burning to the ground. But I knew it had to be captured. You won’t see the sky like that again, hopefully, ever again.”

A blue ship stands out against an orange sky in the Newport Bayfront. Photo by: Benjie King
A blue ship stands out against an orange sky in the Newport Bayfront. Photo by: Benjie King, Out West Photography

The response to the photos has been enthusiastic, King said. “People are ordering them. They love them.” King can be contacted through his Out West Photography page on Facebook or by email at benjiekingphotography@yahoo.com

Not bad for a guy who has been dabbling in photography for only a year, shooting with a used $300 camera and less-than-ideal lenses. He took up photography as a break from his day job as a caregiver in adult foster homes.   

“It gets stressful,” King said. “I would go out and take some snaps and forget about it. I started sharing them and people really started digging them, and next thing you know I’m a photographer. We have so many gorgeous subjects here; it’s kind of hard not to be a photographer.”

King’s not one to sit around and wait for the shot and tends to shoot from the hip, he said. On that day at the bridge, he guesses he spent about 15 minutes and ended up with 10 to 15 shots.   

“I almost felt guilty publishing those. I donated two of the bridge shots. I did an auction and sold them to raise a little money for the Red Cross. That was kind of neat. It made me feel better.”

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This story is supported in part by a grant from the Oregon Cultural Trust, investing in Oregon’s arts, humanities and heritage, and the Lincoln County Cultural Coalition.

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