Covering My First Wildfire

I live in Los Angeles and all of the smoke in the air is giving me flashbacks of the Woolsey Fire that raged through Southern California in 2018. I remember it well because I had been asked to cover the wildfire by the executive producer of KCET’s SoCal Connected who called on a Friday evening. Her story, The New Normal, was about how overdevelopment into fire-prone areas and climate change is increasing the frequency and severity of wildfires in California.

We put on flame-resistant turnout coats and drove down the eerily empty 101 freeway through the police blockades. Power throughout the burn areas was turned off so we were either operating in total darkness or by the intense red flare of raging fires that were burning down entire neighborhoods.

It was a pretty harrowing sight to see children’s toys and clothing on fire and old burning yearbook pages blowing in the wind. I documented much of what I saw on video but had a few close calls. My header photo is of an incident we had on Pacific Coast Highway (PCH). We had our backs to the ocean and were shooting a hillside that was filled with burning homes. The wind suddenly kicked up and blew debris and a swirling tornado of fire right at us. Downed power wires were literally whipping in the air.

Pepperdine University
Uploading footage from the field
Neighborhood locals team up to put out fires in Malibu
Burn areas in Northern California
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We were fortunate to be traveling  with an experienced stringer who kept his always running Dodge Charger pointed in the right direction for quick escapes. We got out of there and ended up following the engine crews that were working PCH. Overworked firefighters were frantically going from location to location, trying to save homes and businesses throughout Malibu. But it was a windy evening. Embers were blowing over our heads. We followed one crew to Pepperdine University, which is literally surrounded by hillsides that were on fire. I used a 400mm lens to get shots of students huddling in the library since campus security was chasing away reporters. Most of the university was spared.

I returned to the sites I’d visited the previous night to shoot the scorched aftermath. Only emergency crews and press were allowed onto PCH so access everywhere was easy. While shooting locals distributing food and water in a parking lot, I stumbled across a group of local lifeguards and surfers that were patrolling the neighborhood in pickup trucks with shovels tossed in back. They had formed an ad-hoc spotter network using radios and were guiding each other to any smoke sightings. I had to jump a few neighborhood walls with all of my camera gear to keep up with them. They were able to save a few homes and celebrated by drinking a lot of beer.

The week after I drove up to Northern California to shoot drone shots of burn areas outside of Yosemite. A producer and I met with Cal Fire who took us on a bumpy tour of several restricted burn areas. We did our best to follow along in a rented Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon. The locking diffs kept us out of trouble since recent rains had washed out the road. One heavy crew carrier got bogged down in the mud. Overall, The New Normal became one of our best stories of the season and has since won a Golden Mike, an L.A. Press Club award and a couple of Emmy noms. You can see The New Normal here: https://www.pbs.org/video/the-new-normal-jz1jpu/