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Photo by Dustin Davis, story by Tom Demerly of tomdemerly.com.

It is an image of fierce defiance frozen in a terrifying moment. A powerful vision of what many people see as the American condition. As I type this, over 15,000 people have shared it from my Facebook page across social media that I can track. As of Monday night, another person shares it every 15 seconds. While I despise the colloquialism “going viral”, there is no doubt something about this image has resonated again and again with the current collective American consciousness.

It is the Taylor Creek Fire “Don’t Tread On Me” photo.

Dustin Davis, 32, of College Place, Washington, shot the photo of a rattlesnake frozen in its fiery death throes on Wednesday, August 8th, 2018 at 12:55 PM local time during the early stages of the Taylor Creek fire in Oregon. Davis was fighting the fire as a member of the 3rd Battalion, 116th Cavalry Regiment of the Oregon National Guard.

Davis told me Monday night in an interview on Facebook Messenger that, “On a mop-up mission my buddy Miles and I stumbled upon that little guy. I knelt down and took the picture with my iPhone. I was very intrigued by the way it had died and was really moved by it.”

 

 “On a mop-up mission my buddy Miles and I stumbled upon that little guy. I knelt down and took the picture with my iPhone. I was very intrigued by the way it had died and really moved by it.”

 

I saw the photo on Dustin’s Instagram page at dndavis0ne and copied it to my Facebook page. I added the observation that Dustin Davis’ remarkable photo of the charred snake looked like the snake depicted on the famous Gadsden Flag with the moniker, “Don’t Tread On Me”. For that reason, the image seemed iconic and metaphoric of our country that feels increasingly divided, increasingly fractured, and trapped in some kind of modern “trial by fire”. Judging by how the image has resonated across social media, I wasn’t the only one who recognized the symbolism of Dustin Davis’ now famous photo and the Gadsden Flag.

Firefighter and photographer Dustin Davis.

Almost as soon as I shared it to my Facebook page, initially without Dustin Davis’ permission, the image started to go viral. When it started to trend, I tried to find the original source I copied it from when Dustin Davis contacted me on Facebook. Given that I had initially taken his photo from Instagram with a screen capture and without asking, Davis was incredibly gracious about letting me continue to use it after I replied to him. He even agreed to this interview late Monday.

The massive Taylor Creek fire, burning now since early August, was started by lightning according to the official information from the U.S. Forest Service in the region. It has burned over 52,000 acres and, as of Monday, August 20, is nearly “79 percent contained” according to the Forest Service. A nearby fire, also started by lightning, the Klondike Fire, covers a staggering 72,074 acres (113 square miles of area) and is now only 28 percent contained. The wildfires burning in the American west now are reported to be the worst in history, a reality that has raised an increasingly divisive debate about everything from forestry and water management to global climate change as the fires continue to burn out west.

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