I was driving a two-lane rural road, tunneling through thick chaparral brush and oak that hadn't burned since who-knows-when. The air was clogged with smoke so dense it felt like I was breathing molasses. I couldn't see if the moon had risen or whether there was even a stripe on the road that night.
I'd been taking pictures in a weird and lonely landscape dotted with burning country homes near Fallbrook, Calif., as wildfires chased hundreds of thousands of people from their homes throughout San Diego County and beyond. This one was called the Rice Fire.
Except for a man waving his arms in the throes of panic and screaming obscenities from inside his pickup truck, the place was deserted. Firefighters knew these homes were a lost cause and left some time ago to look for homes they could save.
After the roar of the biggest flames diminished to a crackle, a perversely beautiful calm settled over the scene. Burning stumps and structures almost looked like soothing campfires in the night. Even the sound of propane tanks exploding in a mobile home park every few minutes and the smell of toxic smoke that was once someone's couch or computer or cradle did not disrupt the beauty. The peaceful glows would continue until sunrise revealed the ugliness of the devastation.
© David McNew/Getty Images
LAKE ISABELLA, Calif: The Piute fire burns out of control south of Isabella Lake as more than 1,400 wildfires continue to burn across about 550 square miles of central and northern California, July 1, 2008. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has declared a state of emergency in Kern County because of the Piute fire that is threatening several communities in the mountains east of Bakersfield, Calif. Firefighters have completed fire containment lines around 11 percent of the 11,500-acre fire growing in the Sequoia National Forest. Last week, President Bush declared a state of emergency for the entire state of California because of the hundreds of fires burning since dry lightning storms crossed the state on June 20. Making matters worse for the more than 19,000 firefighters from 42 other states battling the wildfires, drought is wicking moisture from the vegetation which leads fire experts to fear a possible repeat of the firestorms of 2003 and 2007 that destroyed thousands of homes in Southern California.
Now it was time for me to get out and find a safe place to park with a usably strong Verizon wireless signal with which to file my images to the picture desk in New York.
When a brush rig disappeared into the smoke up the road, I tried to follow it. They had radio communications with firefighters about conditions ahead. I didn't, and my concern that the fire might hook around was growing.
I inched forward but the smoke thickened and visibility dropped to zero--I needed to retreat. I couldn't see the edge of the road but I knew it was straight. If I kept my wheels straight, I'd probably be OK. Suddenly the lights of a fire truck appeared behind me. Optimism returned. I could follow and team up with them if things turned ugly. I waited for them to pass.
Instead, their lights shrank back into the smoky darkness. Then a bright orange glow surrounded me. The temperature was rising fast and the window by my elbow was too hot to touch. I wore fire gear and carried an aluminum tent-like "shake-and-bake" emergency fire shelter but I was anything but fireproof. I concentrated on keeping my wheels straight as the rising heat of the towering flames above sucked the smoke skyward and illuminated the road behind me. When I'd reached safety, there were no firefighters waiting to see if I was OK. They were looking for homes to save.
June 2008 – Northern California Takes the Torch
Southern California has a reputation among wildland firefighters as the place to be if you want to see a lot of action. Never-ending home construction in habitat that is based on a cycle of fire and re-growth, generations of heavy fire suppression, and years of worsening drought conditions conspire to create ever more dangerous fire conditions. Firefighters used to count on a predictable "fire season" but that's history. House-consuming wildfires occur even in the dead of winter and they are getting bigger and more powerful each year.
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GOLETA, CALIF.: A firefighting airtanker drops Phos-Check fire retardant over the Gap fire near Goleta as more than 1,000 wildfires continue burning across about 680 square miles of central and northern California, on July 3, 2008. The 2,000-acre wildfire threatens about 200 homes as it spreads through the chaparral-covered Santa Ynez Mountains in the Los Padres National Forest. Last week, President Bush declared a state of emergency for the entire state of California because of the hundreds of fires burning since dry lightning storms crossed the state on June 20. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
During a two-week period in the fall of 2003, 3,600 homes and countless other buildings burned down as three-quarters of a million acres of California went up in flames. The insurance industry declared it the worst fire disaster in the U.S. history with losses well over $2 billion. Then, last October, the annual Santa Ana Winds reached more than 100 miles-per-hour in places and fueled even bigger firestorms, this time destroying 6,000 homes.
As a staff photojournalist for Getty Images based in Los Angeles, I cover several of the many wildfires that scorch Southern California each year. I always keep a duffle bag stuffed with fire gear, the kind of gear that the wildland firefighters wear, at home or in my car.
On June 20, though, the action would not be around here. It was Northern California's turn to catch fire: it had been pounded by a system of thunderstorms that sent tens of thousands of dry lightning strikes into hundreds of square miles of dried forest. Fire reports exploded – 300, 700, 1000, more than 1,400 fires – and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared states of emergency.
Ten days later, more than 550 square miles of the state were charred and the total number of fires would soon exceed 2,000. I was on my way to a normal daily assignment.
Flammable Southern California was still flame-free but the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains, east of Bakersfield, were giving birth to more fire. It sounded like trouble and was close to my region. I grabbed my fire gear and some clothing… just in case.
July 2008 – Different Fires, Different Characteristics, Growing Danger
Smoke billowed above the Piute Fire. I could see it, a hundred miles away, as I drove to my assignment in northern Los Angeles County on June 30.
The fire was "blowing up" and pumping out thick, blackish smoke and ash that rose fast in superheated air currents. Ice crystals formed a silvery crown thousands of feet up over the dark plume. It looked like a beautiful thundercloud over the Sierras.
At this point, firefighters have told me, the icy crown could grow heavy and collapse into the plume, like the falling towers of the World Trade Center, forcing strong winds back into the fire to blow it in many directions at once. This fire was taking off and communities were threatened.
© David McNew/Getty Images
GOLETA, CALIF.: U.S. Forest Service Hot Shots set a backfire to try to contain the Gap fire, officially the top priority fire in the state, on July 6, 2008 near Goleta, California. The 6,860-acre Gap fire is spreading across the chaparral-covered Santa Ynez Mountains of the Los Padres National Forest, drawing closer to many houses that were rebuilt after the 1990 Painted Cave fire destroyed 400 homes. An estimated 4,000 people have evacuated from about 1,700 homes in the path of the fire. President Bush has declared a state of emergency for all of California in response to more than 1,400 fires that were mostly started by dry lightning storms crossing the state on June 20. More than 300 continue to burn. Making matters worse for the more than 19,000 firefighters from 42 states battling the California wildfires, drought is wicking moisture from the vegetation that leads fire experts to fear a possible repeat of the firestorms of 2003 and 2007 that destroyed thousands of homes in Southern California.
The Piute Fire was a mountain fire with tall pine forests in the upper elevations. Temperatures reached the 90s and above in the lower reaches. A web of backcountry dirt roads to the fire started an hour away from the nearest wireless signal I could use for filing my pictures. The smoke plume prevented me from using a satellite phone so driving took up much of my time.
Another, potentially more dangerous fire was coming to life though and many firefighters were suddenly sent to the seaside city of Goleta, Calif., leaving one flank of the Piute Fire with few to watch over it. I left too.
Official reports at the time indicated only a 35-acre blaze but fire officials knew better. This Gap Fire quickly became the official top-priority fire of them all.
It was different from the Piute Fire. Instead of blazing through forests of pine where residents were few and expansion mostly meant running deeper into the wilderness, the Gap Fire chewed through brushy hills to reach the city and threatened homes.
It was in a "Wildland-Urban Interface Fire Area." What that meant to me was the luxury of staying in a hotel with a bed, a shower, and Internet access just a few miles from the fire. At the Piute Fire, two nights before, I'd only slept a few hours in my car until the blazing hot sunrise woke me, drenched in sweat.
It also meant paved roads on three sides of the fire and easy drives to some of the better places from which to observe firefighting efforts. And for the first time in days, I was seeing other members of the press, many of whom had just driven in from Los Angeles. Ocean views at the Gap Fire were scenic but more importantly for me, the Pacific Ocean kept the air many degrees cooler than that of the Piute Fire.
Here there were reminders of other fires too: as in October I again saw a panicked man screaming obscenities from his pickup truck but this time no homes were burning and there was little to scream about.
That could change though. The most dangerous time of the year when powerful Santa Ana Winds rip through mountain passes and desiccated native vegetation is approaching. Conditions have never been more favorable for wildfires of all types to grow to monstrous proportions.
News photographers in California could be just one arsonist, lightning strike, or cigarette away from yet another historic fire disaster this year.