Notes from a wildfire

October 27, 2007


Photo: Lucy Nicholson.

4.30am and traffic is actually moving at the busiest freeway junction in the U.S.  If only I could drive everywhere at this time.

Photographer Mike Blake has been up all night waiting to hear whether he will have to evacuate from his San Diego home with his wife and son.  Luckily the wind has changed direction and the expected firestorm didn’t make its way to the coast.

Californian homes burn fast.

Not like brick or stone houses.  A couple of hours after the first spark, all that remains is a pile of shredded paper.  The powdery landscape is broken up by satellite dishes, burnt-out car chassis, metal-framed garden furniture and the odd piece of pottery.  An acrid chemical smell lingers for days.

Survivors often use the word “rage” to describe the fire blown through their neighborhoods by 100+ mph winds.  It cruelly levels some people’s homes while leaving their neighbors’ untouched.


Photo: Lucy Nicholson

I arrive in San Diego and call our fire photography guru, Reuters freelancer Fred Greaves.  I’ve been listening to local AM radio for the last couple of hours and have called the San Diego fire service command center.  While there are countless home evacuations and miles of brush burning, there are also no recent reports of homes on fire.  I ask Fred’s advice on where to go.  “Follow the black smoke,” he says.

Greaves is close to the Mexican border, I am in the east, Mario in the west, and Mike is covering the evacuation centers.

I can’t see any black smoke through the thick grey smoke.  Just a beautiful deep red sun rising.


 Photo: Mike Blake.

Immediate mandatory evacuations have been ordered in a rural area out east, so I head that way.  I cross a police roadblock with my press pass and my car is the only one driving east as I pass miles of traffic queuing to evacuate in the other direction.  The wind pounds my car and I finally see black smoke on an Indian reservation in the distance.


Photo: Lucy Nicholson

I drive through an eerie deserted landscape of burnt-out cars and buildings.  A few people are running.  An empty casino is untouched.  I see a burning home in the distance, so I stop the car.  The wind is swirling, throwing sparks from the flames onto the trees in every direction.  I run through a field towards the intense heat, shoot 4 frames with my camera then run back to the car.  There are no firefighters in sight.

 Rincon home

Photo: Lucy Nicholson

Further down the road a woman is watching her neighbor’s trailer home burn to the ground as her husband sprays their yard with a garden hose.

Rincon woman 

Photo: Lucy Nicholson

Next stop is an affluent area in the hills further west.  There is a fire truck in every other driveway.  I head toward a plume of black smoke where I find firefighters trying to put out a fire in a private vineyard while pushing the flames away from homes.

Meanwhile, Mario has come across a neighborhood just as the fire hits and makes great photos of firefighters battling to save homes.


Photo: Mario Anzuoni

When I first began to shoot fires in California, Fred Greaves took me to be outfitted in a firefighter suit and helmet with an emergency fire shelter, and told me to wear jeans and cotton clothes underneath and leather shoes.

The shelter is a reflective sheet which you are supposed to whip out and crouch underneath if fast-moving fire heads your way.  A photographer from USA Today told me he had to use his once and ended up in the burns unit.  He had to ask his wife to peel crispy skin from his back every night for weeks.  “That’s love,” he told me.


Lucy in firefighter outfit

All the stores are closed, so I sit outside a gas station in my yellow outfit to transmit photos.  My face is smudged with soot, and my hair is matted.  A woman rests her hand on my shoulder, tells me “God Bless,” and offers me a sandwich.  I tell her thanks, but I’m not a firefighter.  “You’re working hard out there though,” she says, but retracts my sandwich.  It looks so good.

Prisoners are used a lot for fighting wildfires in California.  They stand out in their orange suits.  The women work together and most of them chain-smoke as they do the physically exhausting job of clearing brush for a dollar an hour.  I once came across a group of male prisoners attacking bushes on a hillside with chainsaws as they tried to prevent a flare-up.

As the sun sets, I see some National Guard troops protecting an evacuated neighborhood from looters.  A soldier, who told me he was glad to be home from Iraq, was politely asking residents to park their cars and stand in line.

The area was heavily hit by the fire and there are hundreds of people lining up.  I ask a cop what is going on and he says they are escorting people to their homes to collect medication.  I asked him if they needed to show a prescription, but he is taking the humane approach.  He tells me that as long as people tell him they are going to get medicine, he will let everyone be escorted to see their home.

Most people do not mind being photographed – some are indifferent, some excited to be in print.

One woman who has lost her home starts screaming at a local newspaper photographer taking her picture with a long lens.  He apologizes again and again but she continues her tirade.  I apologize too, even though I wasn’t photographing her, and she walks away.  He seems upset, so I tell him he wasn’t doing anything wrong, that most people appreciate us being there to tell their story.  I also tell him he probably made her feel better, by allowing her to vent at someone, even though I’m not sure if this is true.

350 miles after the beginning of the day, I scrub the soot out of my ears, wash my hair, wrap it in a towel and fall asleep before I remember to take the towel off.

Firefighters sleep 

Photo: Lucy Nicholson

Mike and I are flying to Denver to shoot World Series baseball this weekend.  I’m not normally excited about high altitude (1 mile above sea level) and temperatures just above freezing, but it will be good to breathe again.

Firefighter in wind

Photo: Fred Greaves


Photo: Mario Anzuoni


Photo: Mike Blake


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Nice job again Lucy… Thanks for working so hard to tell these stories. Keep kicking butt! See ya, Shelly

Posted by Shelly | Report as abusive

So pretty ……..

Good blog! It shows the real suffering’s
of those people. “I run through a field towards the intense heat, shoot 4 frames with my camera then run back to the car. There are no firefighters in sight.” O god! these are so amazing photo’s. I am able to understand your hard work.

keep it up !

Posted by Allba | Report as abusive

Now you understand what the real world of photojournalism is about, not the easy, laid-back job of shooting basketball.

Posted by crazyphotographer | Report as abusive

Sometimes we can not control nature, but ask yourself – HOW CAN ANYONE SET ARSON ON TOP OF ALL THIS?!

Posted by * MISS UNIVERSE | Report as abusive