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The Story Behind the ‘2020 Can Got to Hell’ Viral Wildfire Photo

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Photo of a sign for a senior center surrounded by wildfire flames
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A photo of a senior center sign surrounded by searing flames and smoke at Lake Berryessa defines 2020 California for many.

It’s nearly all there in that single photo: COVID-19, climate change, uncontrolled wildfires, economic devastation. Only the Black Lives Matter protests are missing.

“2020 can go to hell. This has been the worst year of my life.” — Lake Berryessa resident Judi Vollmer

The sign welcomes visitors while reflecting the deadly realities of the coronavirus pandemic:

“Wear a Mask, Wash Your Hands, Social Distance, Stay Safe” and an invitation to “Come Join Us.”

She Lost Her Trailer and Her Dad Has the Coronavirus

New York Times national correspondent Jack Healy met Judi Vollmer, who lives down the road from the senior center in Napa County, last week.

Vollmer, 65, shared that her trailer had burned to the ground during the LNU Lightning Complex. And, her 92-year-old father was positive for the coronavirus.

“2020 can go to hell. This has been the worst year of my life,” she said.

The fire, which destroyed dozens of homes in the area, killed three people — including a 71-year-old man in a wheelchair. Relatives said the victims were Mary Hintemeyer, 70, her boyfriend, Leo McDermott, 71, and McDermott’s son, Tom, 41.

Photographer: Sign Makes You Think, ‘That’s 2020’

Noah Berger, a free-lance photographer working for Associated Press, took the picture shared around the world. Berger is a veteran of many wildfires.

He explained the backstory on AP’s Behind the News blog.

“It didn’t take me long to make that connection even when I was shooting it.” — photographer Noah Berger

“We were watching the flames come over the hillside really fast and really strong, so everybody was kind of on edge and the air was pretty charged watching the fire bear down,” Berger said. “Mostly we were shooting a complex of homes that we thought the fires would burn, and then the firefighters came in and saved it.

“I just turned and saw that hillside on fire. What caught my eye was that there was a directional sign, so I stopped to shoot that, and then I noticed next to it was that sign.

“It doesn’t take a lot, you just look at that sign and think, ‘That’s 2020.’ That’s a sign of the times that everybody is so freaked out about this one thing and another crazy thing comes on top of it. It didn’t take me long to make that connection even when I was shooting it.”

The Adrenaline of Photographing Wildfires

In 2018, Berger talked to Oakland Magazine about his passion for documenting wildfires.

“There’s no layers of PR bullshit; there’s no emails to return,” Berger said. “You’re just pared down to getting the best photos you can in a challenging situation, and often it’s working 18 hour days and not having real meals for three days.

“Just having that intensity of focus is the big appeal of it. And, of course, the sight of 200-foot flames coming across a ridge at you is impressive and addictive: the adrenaline.”

Photo of fire

Flames from the LNU Lightning Complex fires leap above Butts Canyon Road on Sunday, Aug. 23, 2020, as firefighters work to contain the blaze in unincorporated Lake County. (AP/Noah Berger)

Bill McEwen is news director and columnist for GV Wire. He joined GV Wire in August 2017 after 37 years at The Fresno Bee. With The Bee, he served as Opinion Editor, City Hall reporter, Metro columnist, sports columnist and sports editor through the years. His work has been frequently honored by the California Newspapers Publishers Association, including authoring first-place editorials in 2015 and 2016. Bill and his wife, Karen, are proud parents of two adult sons, and they have two grandsons. You can contact Bill at 559-492-4031 or at Send an Email