The Digital Journalist
When the Fire
Comes To You
November 2003

by John Gastaldo

I went to the movies the night the Cedar Fire started. I almost drove off the road when I turned a corner coming into what is affectionately known as the Valley of the Sun (that's what they call my town, Ramona, California) and saw what looked like a bright light show. That was around midnight.

East Bay Regional firefighters from Oakland, CA run from flames on Hoskings Ranch Road as flames advanced on Julian, CA during the Cedar Fire.

Photo by John Gastaldo/The San Diego Union-Tribune
Immediately I headed to the hot zone, which was more like a blowtorch, winds whipping flames at about 30-40mph. Having brush gear (helmet, brush jacket and pants, and a shroud) in the car was a big help. Despite being turned back by well-meaning deputies, I managed to reach evacuees with horses at that hour.

I worked flames and embers until 3:00am and then decided to get some rest. I had just ended a full day's shift and regular week, before the movies, and was zonked. I woke up several times between 3 and 6am, worried, watching the yellow glow get brighter. Finally, I decided to stop worrying and start working the fire, again.

Getting my brush gear on, I looked east out my bedroom window and couldn't believe my eyes. A gray and black smoke cloud stretched from Ramona to El Cajon, CA, a distance of more than twenty miles!

I went to work and didn't stop for the next five days and nights. My coworkers helped tremendously by working assignments I couldn't get, John McCutchen, our assignment desk editor never left the desk, and photo editors poured over the Union-Tribune images day and night on what officials are calling Firestorm 2003.

A CDF firefighter walks near heavy fuel burning in Barona Mesa Estates in Ramona after midnight Sunday not long after the start of the Cedar Fire.

Photo by John Gastaldo/The San Diego Union-Tribune
I worked the longest week of my life and slept at least one night in my Ford Focus, ouch! It was hit with fire retardant and will smell like smoke for the next year. I just finished cleaning all the dust from the CCDs in my Nikon D1s. My coworkers and I made some very memorable photos of Firestorm 2003. When the photo staff heard I was moving to the "country" back in 2001, they thought I was nuts, now at least I know they've learned how to get to my house.

© John Gastaldo
Staff Photographer, The San Diego Union-Tribune