The Digital Journalist
Into the Fire
November 2007

by Sandy Huffaker

So many tragic events start out after you've awakened in the morning, the sun shining and you think to yourself, "What a brilliant day." So much so that I automatically get a little nervous that something bad is going to happen. The events of 9/11, the day we declared war on Iraq, the Cedar fire, (San Diego's last devastating blaze five years ago) and the current fire that, as of Tuesday evening (10/23) has consumed more than 600 square miles, killed two and forced the evacuation of more that 350,000 homes.

A helicopter prepares to drop water on a brushfire in the Del Dios area of Escondido, Calif., on Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2007. The Witch Fire that started outside of Ramona, Calif., has burned over a thousand structures and forced over 300,000 to evacuate in what is called San Diego's worst-ever fire.
On the previous Sunday afternoon I was at my 11-year-old daughter's soccer game and the wind was whipping around the field at hurricane force. So much so that when one of her teammates launched a beautiful shot to the right corner of the goal, the ball just stopped in mid-air and gently fell into the goalkeeper's hands. I knew right away--the wind along with the dry Santa Ana conditions--I was in for a busy week. So I got in the car (it was a tie game, by the way), turned on the radio and learned that Malibu was ablaze and that there was a small fire in Ramona.

I got home, loaded up my fire gear and hit the road. As I entered Ramona the entire town was evacuating. The police at each checkpoint were frantically telling me to "GET OUT NOW!!" To me, this was a sign that I was going in the right direction. After a long and tense two-hour journey I finally got to Ramona and it was completely deserted (except for fire officials). I hooked up with a really cool group of firefighters from Monterey County who allowed me access to follow them around in the fire area. They seemed to respect that I was in a dangerous area with them and needed to tell the story of the wildfires and their work. (Many other units I approached would try to keep me back until the flames were out. For the most part, fire and police officials gave the media great access.)

Salinas, Calif. – Firefighter Jeff Wardwell, with a light on his helmet, prepares to extinguish a brush fire in a residential area of Ramona, Calif., on Monday, Oct. 22, 2007. As of Monday morning, the Witch Fire in Ramona [named for Witch Creek] had burned approximately 8,000 acres and the entire town was evacuated.
We headed out to the front lines. As we got to the fires, the firefighters would periodically jump out of the fire engine and hose down little hotspots around the residents' homes in order to keep them from burning down. Any houses that were already on fire were just left to burn. I could only think it was more efficient to save homes rather than extinguish ones already burning. The air was absolutely terrible and there was this constant sound, kind of like a locomotive, barreling towards us intermixed with loud crackles, breaking glass and an occasional boom of propane tanks blowing up. I got my shots and headed out around 3 a.m. to go home and file.

One thing I've found to be true is that the media reports make these events sound about a thousand times worse than they really are. I've been getting calls from family and friends from around the country thinking the whole town is on fire and that we're all frantically trying to flee to safety. My mom, who generally shows very little emotion, was quivering and in tears on Tuesday morning because Wolf Blitzer said on CNN that San Diego was burning to the ground.

Roy Hunley sits on bleachers at Steele Canyon High School in Lakeside, Calif., after evacuating his home in Delzura, Calif., on Monday, Oct. 22, 2007.
I must say most TV reports have grossly sensationalized the fires and that, although devastating, they are just a series of small fires that are literally everywhere around the county. Most of the homes that have burned are from airborne embers that fall on rooftops and catch on fire. I guess it's better to make us believe this because there have only been two fatalities [see Editor's Note, below] and almost no looting or other problems. All of the evacuations and efforts to get people food and shelter have been remarkably efficient.

One of the strangest things I've experienced are people coming up to me thanking me for my service as a journalist. I've had at least 10 folks come up and say, "You media guys are doing a great job!" How weird is that?

It's been an exciting few days as well as a true inspiration seeing how we as humans band together in times of crisis. I love what I do.

[EDITOR' NOTE: This dispatch was written at an early stage of the wildfires that continue. As of 10/27, according to Reuters, nearly 810 sq mi (in over 20 individually named fires) have burned over seven counties.]

© Sandy Huffaker

Sandy Huffaker is a freelance photographer based out of San Diego covering news, sports and corporate events for Getty Images, The New York Times, WpN, The Associated Press, Bloomberg News, Newsweek, USA Today and many more publications around the globe. He graduated from Pratt Institute with a BFA in photography in 1991, and has attended the Eddie Adams Workshop. He has won numerous awards from the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA);; Museum of Photographic Arts, San Diego and others. Huffaker is currently signed on as a mentor with the NPPA and is the organization's Region 10 JIB [Job Information Bank] Chair. The dispatch appears courtesy of the photographer and his agency WpN.

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