Displaced residents didn’t find Rob Freestone’s photos — or his caustically insensitive captions — particularly humorous.
For the people who survived the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history, the nightmare of the Camp Fire didn’t end when the flames were extinguished. There are homes to reconstruct, fire-hollowed trees to tear down, lives to rebuild.
So it’s not entirely surprising that the displaced people of Paradise, California, didn’t find Rob Freestone’s photos – or his caustically insensitive captions – particularly humorous.
In one picture, the crane operator for a tree-trimming service pretended to jump on what used to be a family’s backyard trampoline: “Trampolines are stupid,” his caption read. “BTW, it used to be called a Jumpoline until your mom got on it.” In another picture, Freestone straddled a mailbox shaped like a firetruck: “I got to ride on a fire truck today.”
A third photo featured Freestone’s reflective-vest-wearing colleagues sitting in the burned-out husk of a recreational vehicle. “They’re off on a fun filled vacation to unknown destinations in their new RV,” he wrote.
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The most graphic photo features the carcass of someone’s cat with a charred beer bottle posed near its lips and the caption: “Dude . . . I was just chilling with my homies, having a couple of cold ones, and BAM . . . fire breaks out.”
The photos were taken in November, but the town of Paradise – and very shortly afterward, the rest of the world – discovered them a month later. Incensed residents reposted them on the town’s website, and sent angry messages to Freestone’s employer.
“This is unacceptable and reprehensible behavior,” the Paradise town manager said in a posting on Facebook. “Town leadership has contacted this subject’s employer and [Rob Freestone] will no longer be working in our Town. The Paradise Police Department is looking into criminal charges.”
No charges have been announced. Freestone could not be reached for comment.
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More than 1,500 people have commented on the photos, which were posted on a public group that served as a clearinghouse for residents to get information about recovery efforts. Several included Freestone’s full name, the name of his union and the company he worked for.
“He better get fired and arrested for his shameful behavior how disrespectful can one man be,” one woman wrote. “Shame on you this ugly human being out doing his supposedly job, persay, and clowning around about this horrific situation.”
“This was probably already said numerous times, but ALL involved with these pictures should be held accountable too, not just the guy who posted this,” another person chimed in. “This work has been done by more than one person.”
Others said contractors working on devastated but still-private property had been asked not to share pictures on social media and wondered whether Freestone could be arrested, sued or both.
Over 17 days in November, the Camp Fire charred an area the size of Chicago, destroyed 14,000 homes and killed at least 88 people. Thousands of others were forced to flee homes destroyed or threatened by flames – overflowing emergency shelters and turning Walmart parking lots into tent cities.
Paradise fared the worst. The town of nearly 27,000 burned from end to end. Freestone was part of the first wave of the recovery, even as the Camp Fire continued to burn in other parts of Butte County.
His company, Bigge Crane and Rigging, was checking and trimming fire-damaged trees, which authorities had warned posed a danger to returning residents and an army of insurance auditors, utility workers and repairmen.
Bigge Crane and Rigging took action shortly after the photos went public.
“Mr. Freestone has been removed from the Camp Fire recovery effort and we are working with International Union of Operating Engineers regarding his actions,” the San Leandro-based company said in an apology about the actions of its employee. “Bigge Crane and Rigging Co. regrets the insensitive and reprehensible actions of Mr. Rob Freestone. . . . Bigge fully supports Paradise and all of Butte County in the effort to recover from the fires and we will continue to do so.””
Hours after making that apology, Bigge announced that they had “identified the three participants in this abhorrent event and their employment has been terminated.”