“..embers and ash fall from above like hellish snow”
It is my first day on the San Diego fires and I am driving toward Rancho Santa Fe, on highway 76, known as Del Dios highway (the highway of God). There is smoke pretty much everywhere; up in the hills, down the creeks, and in the distance. I am looking for live flames, threatened properties, or fire-fighters battling the fire, in an area that has, with the exception of a few news crews, been completely evacuated.
I pull over to talk to a guy on a motorbike watching the fire burn on a small hill less than a mile from the road. He tells me he lives in the area, and used to be a volunteer fire-fighter. He says that the fire, helped by the winds, is going to come down this hill to the creek below our position where at least 10 houses hide among the woods.
I decide then to drive down to investigate. At this stage, live flames are on the side of the street and smoke surrounds everything. A gusts of wind momentarily clear the smoke, so I am able to find a safe spot to park my car. I leave it running in case I need to make a hasty retreat. I am wearing my fire suit, helmet, mask and goggles. Before I even leave my car I can tell that this fire is ferociously aggressive and moving quickly.
I leave my 300 2.8 telephoto lens behind to have fewer things to carry around the flames. I take only my 2 Mark IIs, with a 16-35 2.8 and 70-200 2.8 and a small waist pack for extra batteries.
As I walk around the neighborhood I realize that houses are untouched although the fire burns fiercely on the other side of a 2-lane street and the wind is blowing strong. I stay and wait while embers and ash fall from above like a hellish snow.
Slowly the fire advances and an hour later I spot the first flames on some of the roof tops. In less than 20 minutes, the whole group of houses is engulfed in 50-ft high flames. Their propane tanks hiss and burn and the heat is so high that I could barely hold my camera.
The first fire crew arrived after about 35 minutes but there is not much they can do to save these properties – when the fire burns so quickly.
At my next stop, the evacuation center at Del Mar Fairgrounds, I realize that the human toll of this fire is beyond imaginable proportions. There are piles of clothes, toiletry items and food, and most importantly tireless volunteers, helping in any way they can.
My first photograph is of a woman feeding her cockatoo from her spoon. She tells me that “Sugar” loves potato soup. The fact that some of these people will not have a home to go back to stays with me as move among them, hearing their stories and looking for more pictures. They smile, despite their obvious displacement and I wish them a safe return to their homes. I hope they still have homes to go back to.