Waves of fire

By Jonathan Alcorn
May 3, 2013

As wildfires rage through California, photographers Patrick Fallon and Jonathan Alcorn describe working on the fire line.

By Patrick Fallon

Driving up the 101 towards the Dos Vientos neighborhood in Newbury Park, California, I could see the fire’s thick, black smoke – a sign the fire was burning fresh brush, fueled by strong winds.

When I arrived the neighborhood was under an orange tint from the smoke in the air. Sheriff Deputies were going door to door, helping people evacuate, while a group of young men helped their neighbors, jumping from yard to yard to hose down the back yards as firefighters held back the fire on the hills above the home.

In order to meet deadlines, we often have to shoot and move swiftly to get our pictures out. This requires a careful balance between when to keep looking for pictures and when to start editing and transmitting.

The firefighting equipment I wear, including a helmet, goggles, face shroud, fire shelter pack, jacket and pants, can make photographing awkward. Even with protective gear, the hot, dry air stung my eyes.

One of the greatest dangers when covering wildfires is not just the smoke and flame but the tight roads and poor visibility that can lead to accidents. Trying to navigate a fire like the Spring Fire is particularly difficult, as shifting winds kept moving the path of the fire. The lack of roads to move around the area and many cul de sacs complicated navigation even more. People wonder how we are able to get such access to these fires, California has laws to protect the ability of journalists to cover disasters (California Penal Code 409.5 (d) ). Even so, a few law enforcement officers are without proper knowledge of this law, requiring calls and delays to find a supervisor to allow us passage. Generally we are able to navigate these scenes safely to capture what is going on.

When reports starting coming out that the fire could “burn to the sea,” I headed down towards Pacific Coast Highway to get a better signal to transmit and refuel. On my way I noticed the large plume of smoke that brought an orange tint over the water. I immediately started looking for a human element to contribute to this scene. I wanted to show that this fire was distinctively “California.” The pair of campers I found were disappointed that their camping trip was cut short, but as they packed up they were a nice element to my photograph with the blue sky and large smoke plume over the Pacific Ocean.

After sending my images, I went back up behind the fire then around and back into the hills to try and get a higher vantage point over the blaze. Eventually I went back around to the highway for the evening battle to preserve a nature center and maintenance yard that included multiple fuel tanks. Fortunately, the winds complied with the firefighters, causing the fire to slow as it backed itself down the mountain, enabling them to extinguish it when needed and control the burn as it made its way down onto the road.

By Jonathan Alcorn

At around 10pm I arrived for the graveyard shift at the Springs Fire to relieve my colleague Patrick Fallon who’d been out there all day. We met up on the Pacific Coast Highway with the hillside filled with flames right across from us as Patrick finished editing his photos. It was surreal, you could hear the flames roaring and the peaceful sound of the waves crashing on the beach simultaneously.

After Patrick left I started hunting for some photos, there wasn’t too much firefighting happening because the flames were mostly on extremely steep hillsides. At editor Sam Mircovich’s suggestion I went looking for a lifeguard tower to portray the story of the flames meeting the Pacific Ocean.

I was down on the sand shooting reflections of the flames glowing on the water. When I climbed up to the eerily empty highway a police officer stopped to make sure I was okay because it was totally deserted at that spot except for my car parked on the road. He was super nice and asked if he could see the reflection photos.

The winds calmed down around 3am or so and suddenly there were hardly any flames. I sat in my car editing and sending photos to the desk. Then I had some down time to rest until sunrise brought the winds back and bam! the fire was out of control and burning fiercely again. It jumped across the highway and started burning a remote section of the Point Mugu Naval base with a hardcore firefight taking place.

It was a crazy 12 hours on the fire lines for sure.

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Intense photos, and thanks for sharing the story of how press photographers can get into these situations – didn’t realize California had a law specifically allowing this.

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