The Digital Journalist
Firestorm Déjà vu
November 2003

by Mark Boster

The final weeks of October 1993 were beset with unusually warm weather, almost an Indian summer, with warm winds, and low humidity. The weird weather gave birth to one of the worst wildfires in recent history. Hundreds of homes in Laguna Beach and Malibu were burnt to the ground. At the Los Angeles Times we were crafting a ten-year retrospective of the firestorms when history repeated itself.

The same warm winds began to blow, and a chill ran through me as I remembered photographing block after block of burning homes ten years earlier. I was so sure of my feelings that I told Senior Photo Editor Mary Cooney that she should put out a memo warning all of the staff photographers to arm themselves with water, and to prepare their fire gear.

A firestorm blew out of the hills above Ramona Monday October 27, 2003.

Photo by Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times
A few days later, a puff of smoke in the Devore area grew into what was later called the Grand Prix fire. Homes were burning. The photo staff of the Los Angeles Times sprung into action. Most didn't have to be asked to go, they simply grabbed their gear and water and headed towards the smoke.

I found myself covering Eastern San Diego County. The fires were overwhelming. The swath of destruction spread for miles, and many of the tiny hillside communities where the homes were burning were all but impossible to reach due to downed power lines and burnt trees blocking the roads.

After covering residents returning to their burnt homes in Crest, I was sent to the fire approaching the town of Julian. I attempted a late night drive down a dark stretch of highway 79 to reach the head of the fire.

The fire never got close to the downtown Ramona area, but a plume of smoke filled the air.

Photo by Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times
The sky was illuminated with an eerie red-orange glow. Fire department personnel on the roadway watched as the fire jumped from tree-to-tree, "crowning." They were helpless against the giant monster rampaging towards a historic tourist town. Fire hoses and pumper trucks wouldn't have made a difference.

The sound generated by the fire resembled the roar of a jet engine, punctuated with the booms from propane tanks exploding. It was a strange symphony that would have been interesting if it weren't so dangerous. In air thick with soot and ash, the photographic aspect of this adventure was almost secondary to just surviving the moment and living to tell about it. There were homes burning that I couldn't even get in to document.

I finally turned around on Highway 79 and headed back towards Julian. Once back in the city I heard that the roads were closed in and out, the electricity was out, the townspeople were evacuated, cell phones were dead, and one pay phone in the center of town was working. After making several pictures of firefighters working an active fire line, and several others guarding the deserted town with their trucks, I moved my car into the safest place in town, the parking lot at Julian High School. I parked with the front of my car facing the burning hilltop that I had just driven back from and watched the advancing fire like a kid in a drive-in movie theater.

A CDF water dropping helicopter made a precision drop on a hotspot in the forest outside Julian.

Photo by Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times
Hours passed while I spent the night in my car. The fire would die down for a while, and then pick up again. At about 4am I caught myself sleeping with one eye open, but I noticed a shift in the direction of the smoke. Instead of the smoke wafting towards the town-towards to the West, it was now drifting towards the East. This meant (for the time being) that the town of Julian was safe. The fire was creeping into an uninhabited area. Mother Nature spared this tiny hamlet, but had scorched and ruined countless others in the night. It wasn't until dawn that road crews and the electric company had cleared the roadways that we could see the breadth of the devastation and begin to see the ruins of homes.

After 30-hours of being awake and working this fire I received the all clear and left at noon to head towards the city of Ramona, twenty-two miles and an hour of winding roads away from the nearest working cell site to send photos. Fatigued and hungry I passed through the tiny town of Wynola just after fire had crossed the road and danced around the little hamlet of cottages and homes. I began to feel safer, and the pucker factor began to leave as the smoke and devastation was getting smaller in my rear view mirror.

In the safe confines of a fast food restaurant in Ramona I began to send photos back to the office in LA via my cell phone, excited about the images from the night before of firemen making their heroic stand to protect Julian. It wasn't until I was making my drive back to Orange County that I heard about firefighter Steven Rucker dying in an area that I had just been in that it all hit home. That firefighter had been killed when a freakish gust of wind blew the fire towards him as he was saving a home in an area that I had been through several hours before. In a split second, Mother Nature had spared the town of Julian, but took the life of a brave man.

Fire crews manned the lines all night on the outskirts of Julian, setting backfires and cutting brush and trees to halt the fire.

Photo by Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times
In the future, when the warm winds of late October begin to blow, and the humidity begins to drop I will remember the lessons learned from the firestorm of 2003. I will also remember the heroes that saved a tiny town, and the devastation left behind. I am really beginning to hate the month of October. But devastation and disaster is the nature of our crazy business, and as the Director of Photography at the Los Angeles Times Colin Crawford has always said, "Photojournalism isn't always pretty."

I'll second that.

© Mark Boster
Los Angeles Times Staff Photographer