Paradise, California, US -- Last year, when huge fires ripped through northern California, people thought it was a one-off. We’d had a mega fire and will now go back to regular old wildfires that have been part of life in California for decades. But then Camp came along.
Camp Fire has blown away last year’s fires by a long shot. Which is hard to fathom.
The numbers say it all. More than 10,000 homes burned to the ground. At least 77 people dead and more than 990 still unaccounted for. It’s the deadliest fire in California history. This fire is just extraordinary.
The morning it broke out on November 8 we thought it could be something big. I woke up at 8 am and one of my fire photographer friends was already texting me about it. As a freelance photographer, I’ve been chasing fires for years. Along with other natural phenomena, it’s one of my favorite things to photograph. We fire chasers monitor scanner feeds, Twitter and local firefighter groups online. By the time I woke up, there were more than 1,000 acres on fire in a wooded area (read fuel), with low humidity. With winds well over 50 miles per hour to spread it along, it seemed like it could turn into a major problem. By 9 am, I was on the road, heading up north.
In a fire, firefighters have strict priorities. First and foremost, they aim to save lives. Then they aim to save property. When Camp Fire broke out, the weather conditions were pretty much the same as during last year’s huge blazes -- dry conditions, low humidity and high winds. So when the fire spead, in the foothills of the Sierra Mountains, there wasn’t much firefighters could do to stop it.
By the time I got to Paradise, around 12:45, the blaze was already in full force. I knew pretty much right away that it was a big one. When I arrived, one of the first things I saw was a hospital on fire. Patients were being evacuated, put into vans. Ok, so the firefighters were unable to keep it from getting into major civilization, I thought. This is serious.
Little did I know just how serious it would turn out to be. But I quickly got a taste of its ferocity.
At one point, I found myself at an intersection, where buildings on every corner were on fire. There were 50 mile-per-hour (80kmh) wind bursts, so you went from having a clear view of buildings and cars on fire to it turning completely dark with smoke, so much that you couldn’t see a hand in front of you.
I took a few shots from the car and debated whether or not I should get out to take some more. I didn’t know how long I could stay there and be safe. Then all of a sudden I saw a 10-foot-wide (about three meters) fire whirl coming at me.
A fire whirl is basically a large dust devil -- the kind you sometimes see dancing in deserts. Except that instead of dust, it’s filled with embers. I’m ok with embers, because I wear the same fire protective gear that firefighters don. But fire whirls are very rare and they are very unpredictable. I didn’t know if it was suddenly going to get bigger, or switch direction. I didn’t want to take a chance, so I switched the car into reverse to back out of there. As I was backing out, I saw power lines shaking violently. Then a bunch of them fell right in front of my car. There were scenes like that all over town.
House after house, business after business was engulfed in flames. I saw every major fast food restaurant burn down. Jack in the Box, KFC, McDonalds, Roundtable Pizza. A Safeway supermarket. There was a major shopping center, with one of those huge parking lots around it. Most of the time, a parking lot like that provides good protection -- there is nothing to burn.
Not this time. This fire was slowly eating its way through the shopping center, building by building.
Everywhere I went, it was like that. The fire was just everywhere. The town didn’t have a chance.
There’s a crew of three-four fire chasers in northern California and whenever we go cover a fire, we share each other’s location on our phones, to be on the safe side. We also have walkie talkies to communicate with each other and we often stick together.
At one point I separated from everyone and that’s when I had my accident. I had stopped and downloaded photos from my camera into my computer, to send them to the desk in Washington. But there was no connection, so I couldn’t get them out. I put the laptop, still open, on the floor of the passenger seat and started to drive to try and catch a signal. My cameras and lenses lay on the passenger seat itself.
All of a sudden, I saw a power line right in front of my windshield. I slammed on the brakes to avoid driving into it. The cameras slid off the seat, right into the laptop, cracking the display. @#$#!!! I told myself. Now I had no way to file my photos.
I was in the middle of a wildfire and I needed a new computer. So I headed out of Paradise, right at the peak of the fire, to Chico, the closest large town a half hour away, praying I’d find what I was looking for.
Lucky for me I did. Chico happened to have a Best Buy, the electronics superstore. Carrying my broken laptop, I ran in, straight to the computer counter. It must have been one of the fastest purchases of a Macbook Pro ever. The people there were super nice, helping me to set it up. I also still had to get out the photos that were in my broken notebook. So I hooked it up to a television on display and filed them like that. I was in and out of the store in an hour, and raced back to Paradise.
I was out of the fire zone for about two hours, right at the fire’s peak. But this fire was so huge that it didn’t affect my photos too much. When I got back, an elementary school was ablaze, so there were still plenty of things to shoot.
By morning, I would say that 90 percent of the area had burned down. It was breathtaking in scope, the power and fury of this fire.
One of the things that made this fire particularly deadly is that not only did it come quickly, but it came in a mountainous area. The roads here are narrow mountain roads. So people fleeing got caught in traffic jams. They just couldn’t get out. If you’re driving on a road and there is fire on the side and there is no wind, you can drive past it. But with 50-60 mile-per-hour winds, the flames will stretch across the road and you can’t drive through without your car catching on fire.
There are two parts to wildfire coverage -- the actual fire and the aftermath. It was the aftermath of this one that really had an effect on me.
I was driving around town when I saw a hearse and followed it. I got incredible access in the search for bodies. At one point, we went to a burned house. There was a dead body right there. The rescuers lifted up a metal roof that had collapsed on top of it. The body was completely burned. But you could see the look on the face of this person. I think it was a woman. The eyes were open and the fear on her face was just frozen there. Her body was completely charred, but you could see the look on her face and her hand was up, as if she was trying to protect herself. It was as if the thought that she was going to die right then, in this fire, was imprinted on her face.
I put my camera down and slouched. Suddenly I felt such a connection to this person and the fear she must have felt when she realized that she would die in this fire. My hands were shaking. I’d covered a lot of wildfires, but I’d never felt something like this before. I didn’t end up filing the pictures, out of respect for the family. It was so gruesome, it would have done more harm than good.
It was like that for the remaining days. I would follow rescuers as they looked for bodies and remains. It was really morbid.
The next day, we found a guy who was lying face down between two vehicles, his arms against his chest. The logistics of moving a burned body are horrific. The bodies are so stiff, it’s like moving a really heavy mannequin. You’ve got to get the hand, you’ve got to lift this part. It’s gruesome. When they flip it over, it can reveal bits of skin, like a rag. It’s like something you see in a horror movie. You watch and just pray that a part of the body won’t fall off as they move it. At the same time, you wonder how this person died. What were they doing, what were they thinking.
With this man, I tried to take photos to make him unidentifiable. But there was just no way. I can’t move these pictures, I thought as I looked through them later. This guy’s family will see them and recognize his shoe, the vehicles he was next to. They'd be furious, I imagined. How dare you force us to see our husband, our father, our son like this, I thought they’d say. So I ended up moving the pictures of him in a body bag. It was like this all the time. I had a lot of ethical struggles with this fire.
It never ceases to amaze me what a fire will burn. Things you wouldn’t expect to melt, do. Glass. License plates. When you see it, you realize just how intense the flames were -- this fire was so incredibly hot, it melted metal.
The things that remain are interesting too. And sometimes spooky. Like the small area of grass that I came across in front of a burned home. There was grass and a bench, with a skeleton and some pumpkins on it. A Halloween decoration. The skeleton’s head was cocked to the side. In the middle of all the devastation, that scene -- untouched by the flames -- was just eerie.
I was up in the area for five days. That’s the longest I’ve ever spent at a fire scene before going home. Day two to five were just spent following rescuers looking for bodies. On day five I went home. I needed a break, my wife missed me and I missed her, I had some corporate shoots. But mostly I just needed a break. To clear my head. Refresh myself. Then I went back in to shoot the aftermath.
If something happens once, it could be a fluke. If it happens twice, it could be the start of a pattern. We’ve had mega fires twice in two years now. The general consensus in my circles is that this is the start of a pattern of mega fires. There is no other way to describe the relative impact of something like this. This is so much bigger in terms of the scale of devastation than we've ever seen before, and unfortunately, we can probably expect this to happen again.
This blog was written with Yana Dlugy in Paris.