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|| News Item: Posted 2008-12-02

'Just Improvise': Covering the Montecito and L.A. - Area Wildfires
By Sandy Huffaker

Photo by Sandy Huffaker / Getty Images

Photo by Sandy Huffaker / Getty Images

A Man usues his cellular phone while riding a Segway in a neighborhood in Yorba Linda California on Saturday, November 15, 2008.
Friday Nov. 14 started out like most days in the fall. Work was slow, not much booked until after the holidays, I was really excited to see the new Bond movie Quantum of Solace and as usual, was thinking of ways to market myself to potential clients. At about 10AM the phone rings and all the sudden I'm en-route from San Diego to Santa Barbara to cover the Tea Fire.

So, my press pass was four days from expiration, my goggles and face mask were destroyed from last years fires, and I hadn't gotten my car ready for a big drive, but hey, if I've learned anything from covering Marines all these years, "just improvise" --- I love that motto!

As I got North of LA, the adrenaline started to set in as the local Santa Barbara news station was basically telling everyone to get the hell outta Montecito (well, not quite in those words). That's when fire logic clicks in.

Basically wherever you're told to leave, you go, wherever the line of traffic or people are going, you go the opposite way. It's kind of an eerie, almost lonely feeling as your passing by people and they're screaming "wrong way buddy!!!" and I'm saying "I know, I know, I'm nuts to be doing this but I'm press". Then you get to another police checkpoint, flash the press pass, and the cop gives you that "I ain't responsible for you" lecture. After that, you're basically free to do go wherever you want.

So I get up the mountain, debris and smoke and dead animals and rocks and tree branches all over the road. Looks like Lebanon or something. I get out shoot some destroyed homes, still no flames.

Gotta make a good picture, it's getting to be sunset. I start to realize I'm definitely near Santa Barbara because I see lots of college age looking shooters with no fire gear on- oh yeah, Brooks. So sunset comes and not much but burnt-out homes.

After a little panic, I found the always so visual prison crew camp. Now, you just can't go wrong with a bunch of tired, tattooed, and tattered inmates. There are infinite photo-ops and a fun bunch of guys/gals to hang with. I finally get some keepers and decide to head to a shelter to get some shots of the evacuees. Little did I know Montecito is a wealthy enclave so there were only about 10 people there. The Red Cross folks were great, offered me lots of free food and Verizon had set-up free wireless. It had gotten pretty late after transmitting when I realized I had not secured a room. I jumped in the car and drove around for about an hour and had no luck finding a place.

So, back to the shelter where I ended up sleeping on a cot in an empty gymnasium. After a long, cold night with the one baby in the room who cried all night and unbearable snoring, I finally got a little sleep only to be awoken by a TV crew filming me sleep. Of course I ruined their shot when I told them who I was. (ha! ha!).

Photo by Sandy Huffaker / Getty Images

Photo by Sandy Huffaker / Getty Images

Armando Gastino hold his grandaughter Julianna while awaiting orders to evacuate in Diamond Bar, CA on Sunday, November 16, 2008.
I get on the phone that morning with Getty and tell them things are a little slow so they send me down to a new fire in Yorba Linda, our other shooter David McNew was sent to Sylmar. Ugh! That's south and east of LA and I'm North and West.

So I get my mandatory In N Out Double-Double burger and hit the road. Five hours later I'm back in the doo-doo. This time the flames and smoke are seriously intense. I get to a neighborhood where homes are burning and some bold residents are spraying down their houses. Along the way I see this guy on a Segway using his cell phone. OK, that's kinda weird, I'll shoot it and figure out why it's so strange for a man to casually driving his Segway down the street in the middle of a wildfire. I get my shots and head back to civilization to transmit.

A strange thing about covering wildfires is that within a mile of horrific fire, destruction, smoke inhalation, etc. I can be at a nice, air conditioned Starbuck's, having a latte and listening to really loud Norah Jones. This is quite different from covering a hurricane in that EVERYTHING is destroyed after winds come through. Another thing we deal with is people thinking we're firefighters and offering to buy us our drink or thanking us profusely for our help. It's kind of funny to see their faces twist when I say I'm a journalist. They usually don't rescind the offer.

So, I'm told to stay another day and I have only packed two t-shirts and a pair of shorts. I find a hotel room next to Disneyland, take a shower and have to put on ALL of my same clothes from the last few days. Not fun!! The next morning I head out for day three of action. By the end of the day, I finally feel in fire mode. Time to head home.

In retrospect, the people are the most important aspect of covering the fires. I am constantly amazed at the great length's citizens will go to help others out. It is those little unseen stories like the guy who stayed behind to help save he and his neighbors homes or the Red Cross volunteer who stayed up all night checking in evacuees, etc.

Yes, fire looks beautiful and makes great shots and usually gets all the play, but the images I most cherish are those little stories within the flames.

My fire gear:
• Nomex pants jacket suit.
• Goggles
• 3M Niosh Painters Mask
• Leather Boots
• Lots of photo-wipes
• Bandana
• Water, Gatorade, Peanut M & M's, Pretzels.
• Canon Mark 11N and Canon 5D
• Lenses: 16-35mm, 70-200mm and 300mm F4
• A little bit o' common sense

(Sandy Huffaker is a freelance photographer based out of San Diego who works regularly for The New York Times, USA TODAY, Getty Images, The AP, Bloomberg News, Newsweek, and many more news and corporate clients around the globe. He's been a Sportsshooter member since 2003. Website: Blog:

Related Links:
Sandy's member page

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