At first glance this is among the most beguiling of Sternfeld's photographs. A fireman buying a pumpkin while the house burns behind him? What's going on here? Shouldn't his attention be on the fire? And who buys pumpkins in December? Wouldn't they have rotted in the fields by then?
As has been pointed out in numerous places (including Nick Turpin recently on B) the fire was no accident. It was a training exercise for the McLean Volunteer Fire Department.
A few weeks ago I called Clyde Clark to get a firsthand account of what happened. Clark was a member of the MVFD back in 1978 (he's since risen through the ranks to become Chief) and was on the scene the day of the exercise.
According to Clark, a developer had bought the property planning to build a subdivision but before he could proceed he needed to raze the existing structure. He offered the house up to the MVFD to burn in a controlled way. The MVFD would get some practical training and the developer would be rid of the structure. A win-win situation.
The exercise began in a very controlled way, room by room. It wasn't until late afternoon, around 3 or 4 pm, that the conflagration became big enough to consume the entire house. Joel Sternfeld (In Clark's words, "Joel Sternberg or whatever his name was...") happened to be driving by. He saw the fire, pulled over, set up his 8 x 10, and made the photo before anyone realized he'd done it. According to Clark, Sternfeld had made no prior arrangements and he knew no one on the fire crew. But chance favors the prepared mind, and Sternfeld found himself in the right place at the right time.
It wasn't until later when Sternfeld sent the MVFD a copy of Life Magazine that the fire crew realized they'd been photographed. Sternfeld's photograph was the magazine's centerpiece. Later Sternfeld sent a signed print to the MVFD which has been dutifully put on display in the firehouse, where it provokes the occasional question about its history. On top of that, Clark says they get a few inquiries a year from students or historians curious about the photograph and occasionally they will lend it out locally.
The house is now long gone, replaced by a large housing development called The Hamptons.
The December date still stumps me. I know Virginia is a temperate climate but could they grow such things that time of year? The photo was taken late in the afternoon. In December it would be nearly dark at 4 pm. All of which tempts me to think the date may be mislabeled. I asked Clark but he was unsure of the exact month of the exercise.