"Get in there and tell those lunatics to get out of there!"
I leaned into the captain's face to be heard over the roar of burning trees and homes and shouted, "You think they'll listen to me?"
"YES!" he declared.
I shrugged and approached the front door of the palatial house that had just started to burn on its south side. I stared at it for a moment and then decided to ring the doorbell. I was amazed when a startled Englishman answered the door as if surprised to see a man in fire gear at his front step. "You need to get out of here!" I shouted through the bandana and shroud covering my face. His reply was more annoyed than alarmed. "I know. We're coming. My wife is disabled," he offered as an explanation as to why he and his wife had waited so long to evacuate.
I turned and found the captain still in the driveway. He approached and asked, "Who are you with?"
"The European Press-Photo Agency," I replied. I could see a grin from under his mask and he patted me on the shoulder, "Sorry, I thought you were one of my guys."
We both made our way to the next burning house. And the next. Sometimes we were only able to spend enough time to confirm that the structure was burning. At others it was as though the house was the only one burning in San Diego. The captain's men darted across lawns with hoses and axes, desperate to save each stranger's home.
At one home firefighters charged into the side gate and struggled getting a hundred feet of hose over a fence and into the burning backyard. They began to douse a large pile of timber when a noxious smoke swept through the already acrid air. One, then another of the three firefighters I was with began to gag and then one nearly collapsed. A lifetime's supply of pool cleaner had begun to burn and it gave the air an acidic taste. As my own lungs caught fire I helped rush the most stricken of the three firefighters out the back gate. I was sure at least one of us would become seriously ill but after a number of abortive attempts to vomit all of us were ready to make for the next house.
Later that day I was asked how many homes I'd seen destroyed. I tried to calculate it a number of ways. How many had I actually seen? I could not remember. How long was I there? Who could tell? I can't imagine that I'd been able to stand it for more than an hour or so. We can't have spent more than 10 to 15 minutes at any one house. There were dozens already engulfed when I got there. Only later when I saw aerial photos of those same cul-de-sacs in Escondido and Rancho Bernardo were my worst approximations realized: Hundreds of homes had been lost.
I went out again in search of flames and was turned around at many of the same checkpoints I'd entered only an hour or two earlier. "Even the fire crews are leaving," a CHP (California Highway Patrol) officer told me. "It's too dangerous."
My normal routine for finding the action at a fire is simplistic in the extreme: Locate the point on the horizon with the vertical plume of smoke and steer your vehicle towards it. On this day there was virtually no horizon to speak of. Even areas not affected directly by flame were smothered in an impenetrable blanket of smoke. It was easier to follow the checkpoints. I got onto the closed I-15 and followed it to a closed off-ramp. Past a few checkpoints and behind an emergency vehicle I found myself in Poway. "You be careful. There's nothing but flame down there," said an impossibly young CHP officer at the last checkpoint. I've covered fires for about three years now and am well familiar with the hyperbole that generally afflicts those who man checkpoints. This young officer's assessment was not overstated.
As in Rancho Bernardo and Escondido the only available light came from the glow of an approaching firestorm muted by clouds of ash and smoke. Making pictures other than silhouettes became nearly impossible. I drove up a cul-de-sac that was perched on a hill and began to photograph a number of palms swaying in the churning Santa Ana winds. A fire truck soon followed and four or five firemen began to drag hoses and ladders off the truck. Even as they prepared to defend the home it became apparent that it was too late. A tremendous wave of heat tore through the air and the smell of burning brush was infused with melting plastics, wiring, insulation and a thousand other things one should never inhale.
We moved to the next house. It seemed to be going well. A large fireman who was soaking what appeared to be a pile of wood chips with a garden hose pulled down his mask and informed me that a dramatic fight to save a house a few doors down might make for good pictures. I thanked him and ran off. As I re-entered the cul-de-sac I checked each house for signs of firefighters. One had smoke billowing from its eaves. Another was fully engulfed. Two more had their front doors smashed in and the entryways were belching black smoke. To my right a shock of green grass lined the front of a home where firefighters scrambled to link hoses and beat back a wave of flames that were running for the front door. I began to shoot over the shoulder of a fireman whose job was to keep the flames at bay while also making sure he did not waste any of the engine's precious water. As a large bush caught fire a few feet from us he yelled to his captain, "Should I let it burn?"
"Ya, that'll be fine," I heard in reply. The plant's violent demise punctuated the air with a mentholated stench.
"It's gone! Get out of here! Just leave it!" It was the same voice not five minutes later. A flood of firemen came pouring from the back yard and then disappeared onto another street.
A short time later it occurred to me that it might be time to leave when a firefighter in a scuba-like respirator asked, "How are you standing this?"
"I guess I haven't been here as long as you," I answered. I'm sure he was there long after I left.
Despite the efforts of firefighters from every corner of California and beyond, over 1,000 homes were lost in little over, perhaps under, 24 hours. The air in San Diego is still stained with what remains of 300,000 charred acres.
© Sean Masterson
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