The Digital Journalist
Hey Mr. Fireman, where's your fire truck?
November 2003

by Justin Sullivan

It's 7 AM in Simi Valley, California, the heart of rush hour and I'm slowly making my way down highway 118, the Ronald Reagan freeway...I'm the only car on the road. The typically busy freeway has been shut down in both directions as a wildfire rages out of control on both sides of the freeway. Heavy smoke pours across the road as huge helicopters swoop down and dump water on the wall of flames that jump the freeway. I feel as if I made a wrong turn and ended up on the set of Apocalypse Now. This is my first day on the fire lines as wildfires burn throughout Southern California.

Los Angeles County fire captain David Martinez takes a nap as an out of control wildfire approaches in Chatsworth, California

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Covering fires has always been one of the most surreal and emotional experiences for me. The excitement that comes over you as a fire approaches quickly turns to sadness as you watch a home burn to the ground. It is incredibly frustrating to stand by helplessly as a witness to destruction.

Despite my conflicted emotions, I continue to wait for fire to come to a community of luxury homes, anticipating their ruin. Over the next 5 hours, I look on as fire inches down the hill. It is now dark, the flames are within yards of the homes as firefighters begin to light backfires to protect the expensive homes. A valley of dry brush and trees becomes a massive glow of orange as roaring flames reached over 200 feet. The winds remain relatively calm and the fire narrowly misses the homes, a small victory for firefighters as the blaze continues to move on.

Lorraine Messmer (R) and her daughter Tessa stand in their burned out home in Waterman Canyon, California.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
As sad as I am to witness the enormous loss, it is even more difficult for me to face the victims directly. I spend a fair amount of time in shelters where evacuated families make the best of the situation as they await word on the whether or not they even have a home to return to. Thousands are jammed into an aircraft hangar and parking lot at the San Bernardino Airport, sleeping on cots and eating donated food. Despite the somber mood and the tired faces, people are very upbeat and optimistic. I meet several really nice families who are very hospitable and invite me to stay with them for lunch. Others want me to sneak them into the fire zone so they can check on their homes.

The most unusual and somewhat uncomfortable aspect of covering wildfires is the unsolicited attention that I get from the public. Having to wear protective Nomex fire gear, people often mistake me for a firefighter, not necessarily a bad thing. I was sitting in Starbucks one afternoon filing photos, when a little boy walked up to me and said, "Hey Mr. Fireman, where's your fire truck?" Um...sorry, I'm just a photographer with a really dirty rent-a-car. Later that day, checking into the hotel, a woman came over with open arms to say "Thank you" with a big hug. "Uh...thank you, but I am just a photographer." "That's ok," she said, "you guys are doing a good job too." I could tell she was disappointed. I've turned down hotel discounts, free coffee, people waving, calling me hero, the list goes on, all because of that fire suit.

Firefighters line up on a ridge as they watch a wildfire burn in Chatsworth, California

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
My tour of duty began to wind down as cool weather and rain slowed the fires. I spent the last night in the fire area at the shelter on Halloween night. I was mingling about in the shelter as kids donned donated costumes and received candy from volunteers. It was here that I met a 15 year-old girl who was having her face painted. I learned that she was having one of those days where nothing goes right. She went to get her haircut and the barber had already left. All the donated Halloween costumes were too small and when she went to get candy, there was none left. Even here face paint looked sad. As I was leaving the shelter I noticed a few soldiers bringing a fresh supply of candy. I grabbed one of them and directed her to the girl. The shy girl nearly started crying as she was presented with a plastic jack-o-lantern filled with treats. This was a happy ending for a long week.

© Justin Sullivan