The Digital Journalist
California Wildfires
November 2003

by Gina Ferazzi

It was Thursday night, October 24. I had been home for a short while after working an 8-hour shift in Los Angeles. I turned on the 10pm news and saw the red glow from a wildfire approaching an area called Lytle Creek, not far from where I live. People were evacuating their homes as the fire raced down the mountainside into their neighborhoods.

The air crane tries to stop flames from jumping a fence onto a home in Devore home on Sunday.

Photo by Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times
The red glow got closer and the flames grew bigger. You could hear the crackle of brush burning as embers dotted the mountain road. Visibility and breathing were a challenge. I stayed with the fire crews. The wind made the fire unpredictable and gave it enormous strength. For one calm moment, I was able to set up a tripod and shoot a time exposure. There wasn't much calm after that. I photographed fire crews battling flames head-to-head, turning their backs at times, because the smoke made it difficult to breath. I stayed up all night.

By dawn Friday, the wildfire had spread close to neighborhoods. It was surreal. A huge wall of flame silhouetted residents who were out of their beds before sunrise to see the firestorm approaching. The air was thick and the sky was a muted orange color. My eyes began to sting and water. My lungs were struggling. I pressed my face into the air conditioning vent in the car and turned it on high. I hadn't slept in almost 30 hours. The Grand Prix Fire was taking a toll.

Jim Kilgore of San Bernardino runs from a ball of flame as he tries to save his house from an intense firestorm.

Photo by Photo by Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times
The next day another fire erupted in north San Bernardino, called the Old Fire. I drove down 40th Street, passing a man comforting his horse as black smoke filled the air. The red glow permeated the landscape. This wasn't a desolate mountain road. It was a neighborhood with many homes. I parked my car and left the flashers on. On my left, I saw a man, Jim, racing around his home with a garden hose. I followed him. The house behind his was on fire. The flames were dropping blowing embers into Jim's palm trees.

At one point, a fire captain put his arm around Jim and said, "You should get out of here!" Jim wasn't going to leave without a fight. The neighbors' house in the back erupted into a giant fireball. Jim leaped over a corner of his backyard pool with his garden hose in hand. I ran sideways, keeping my camera pointed at Jim and the giant fireball. The heat was shocking.

I ran to the front yard. The air there was no better. My lungs were burning again, my eyes felt like they had been stabbed with pine needles. My eyelids looked like swollen hot dog buns. My face was black with soot. The entire neighborhood was burning. House after house was aflame.

And this was only Day 2.

On Monday, October 27th, Day 4 of the Wildfires, I photographed one of my most dramatic images. I returned to the northern San Bernardino town of Devore. A place only 24 hours earlier had been consumed by fire. I drove the rural road, passing scorched earth, burned stables and homes reduced to ashes.

Wyatt Spellman stands on what used to be his small bed in the smoldering rubble of his family's home in Devore.

Photo by Photo by Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times
On the left, I noticed a long driveway that led to a home on a hill, or once was a home. The ashes were still burning, but a family was there. I parked on the main road and walked up the driveway. I woman approached as I got to the top of the driveway. She was friendly and began to tell me how her dad and fiancée tried to save the house, but the flames were too intense. They had no chance and evacuated at the last minute.

As she was talking, I noticed her young son, Wyatt, watching his mom with concern on his face. His sister was nearby sorting through glass figurines she had salvaged from the rubble.

Dressed in blue shorts, a stripped shirt and tennis shoes, Wyatt walked into the smoldering rubble. He had a spirit and innocence about him. A blue handkerchief hung from his neck and smudges of soot were on his face and chins.

He grabbed the burned steel rungs of a small bed frame and said, "This was my bed."

© Gina Ferazzi
Los Angeles Times