Sunday, April 24, 2011

Bug Out Bags Aren't Just for Armageddon Anymore

Back when I was going to college on the GI bill I became a semi-pro photojournalist (code phrase meaning I didn't make much money at it) to augment my meager official income. I came by most of my alternative income as a stringer finding, photographing and selling stories to local newspapers. As a freelancer I managed to somehow wrangle an official police press pass which helped me get past police lines.

During the warmer months I'd earn extra money by getting exciting pictures of the various brush fires that would spring up in southern California's summer heat. One day a newspaper editor commented to me "You smell like smoke!" I took it as a compliment.

I smelled like smoke because I got right in with (and sometimes in front of) the firemen. Oh I was good! Using angles and close-ups I could make a little two acre grass fire look like a conflagration and then rush down to the newspaper office to turn my film into cash!

Back in those days the official policy was to put out every brush and forest fire as soon as possible. The result of that policy was to allow brush that normally would have been burned off in small fires to accumulate year after year until the sage brush, chaparral and dried grass became so thick and high in places you couldn't walk through the dried brush. All it took was one hot dry summer to set it all ablaze.

Laguna Fire
The Laguna Fire burned from late September until early October 1970. It was my finest hour as a fire photographer, but my second worst as a semi-pro photojournalist seeking fame and fortune*. Although I came out of the fire smelling like smoke as usual I sold only a few pictures to the local weekly newspaper*. Newspaper caption #1:
While their comrades stood guard on the roof of a nearby school, which was protected from the fire by its wide playground, these reinforcements watched the fire race by. Sun night Flynn Springs. (By now we were all a bit tired and dispirited.) Click to enlarge picture. Then click again to enlarge again.

While the fire was "hot" news I was up on the fire lines recording great images while the daily newspaper (which paid MUCH better) printed whatever their in-house photgs brought them. I only sold a few pictures to the low paying weeklies. Newspaper caption #2:
A California Forestry Foreman started to drive into the area but soon found himself surrounded on three sides as sparks came to rest in dry brush after the wind shifted. (I'd followed him in. After a very short conference we decided to make like good shepards and get the flock out of there.) Click to enlarge picture. Then click again to enlarge again.

Afterwards I sent several dozen images of what was, at that time, the second largest fire in California's history to TIME magazine hoping to make a sale since TIME wasn't as time sensitive as the newspapers. I got back a rejection letter stating that TIME magazine didn't cover "local" fires. Maybe the fact that I was shooting only black and white for the newspapers didn't appeal to TIME's color minded editors. Picture #3:
One of the many pictures of the "local" fire that TIME turned down. Click to enlarge picture. Then click again to enlarge again.

I still have pictures and memories of that fire. The most prominent memory (sorry, no pictures) is of getting my eyebrows singed off.

I'd followed a line of fire trucks up into the hills when they attempted to start a backfire to create a fire break. The fire trucks spread out along the top of a "T" road intersection at the base of a hill. I parked just a few feet behind them on the leg of the "T" and stood in front of my little Volkswagen cameras ready to record what we all hoped would be end of the wildfire. But it was not to be.

I got a shot of a fireman calmly walking along the road holding out a can that dripped burning liquid along the roadside. Soon he and others had created a small half mile long grass fire that was slowly burning its way up the hill into the wind. Then the main fire got to us.

The dry and very combustible chaparral on the hillside was higher than a man's head and where it had been cut back along the dirt road the dead grass was bone dry. The 90°F plus heat with humidity in the single-digits combined with up to forty mile-per-hour Santa Ana winds to fan the flames into a firestorm as the fire crested the hill.

As the main fire fought its way down the hill the grass fire reached the chaparral and flared up. The two rows of flames met about twenty feet from the dirt road in a conflagration that was about thirty feet high.

The fire didn't just "jump" the fire line so much as it flared across it. The score was, once again, fire one, firefighters zero.

As the flames flared up on 'my' side of the road I jumped onto my VW and backed to a point where I could turn around and race back down the hill. I didn't want to be in the way when those fire trucks started fleeing the fire.

A mile or so down the dirt road I saw a civilian car with two men in it being chased by two sheriff's deputies coming towards me. The cops had set up roadblocks to keep all but emergency personnel (and me with my press pass) from entering the area. I stopped and tried to yell a warning of the inferno that was ahead of them to both cars and was ignored by both as they raced past.

Continuing my rapid retreat down to the roadblock, I discovered I no longer had eyebrows and my beard was singed. A few minutes later the sheriff's patrol car came back with four very dazed looking men in it. I don't know what happened to the roadblock runner's car. It seems they'd been trying to get to someone or something up in the fire zone. All they got for their trouble was a burned out car and arrested. Two young men work on a fire break well ahead of the fire. A man watches the fire while standing on his roof as he waters it down with a sprinkler. (Front page pictures from a weekly newspaper.) Click to enlarge picture. Then click again to enlarge again.

Other memories of the Laguna Fire:
A lone young fireman ignoring the frantic, frustrated, angry cries of his chief coming over the radio of his fire truck as he single-handedly fought a flying ember started grass fire approaching an evacuated house. (I wholeheartedly agree with the young fireman's decision; householders could have easily put the fire out with a garden hose, but they'd been ordered to evacuate by the authorities. Putting the grass fire out took only a few minutes and prevented (remember the up to 40 mile an hour winds) yet another wildfire starting up behind the fire line.

Following an old fire truck manned by volunteer firemen up a dirt road to an abandoned house surrounded by flames. The truck's commander really really REALLY wanted to "borrow" my goggles (he didn't have any) but I figured I'd need them to see to take pictures. I should have given them to him since I never really used them.

To give you an idea of how desperate things were one of the trucks out fighting the fires was a brand new pumper. They'd decided to forgo the normal acceptance tests and loaded it up with "deadlined" hoses and other equipment scheduled for replacement and sent it out to fight the fire manned by any firemen they could find. All vacations had been canceled and the fire houses in the city were being covered by skeleton crews.

Alright, old geezer, what do your ancient adventures mean to me?
1. Being prepared pays off. My little VW was equipped with a Radio Shack scanner with five crystals tuned to police, sheriff and fire department frequencies. You young whippier snappers have it easy with digital radios and such. You don't need a police/fire scanner, but do you have a battery/solar powered radio that'll get the emergency channels?

2. Planning ahead pays off. Many of the people who fled the Laguna Fire had to do so with little or no notice, some lost everything. Do you know what you'd take with you if you had to suddenly flee your home right now? Do you know where these things are ? Credit cards and cash (in case the ATM's aren't working); your meds; your passport(s), drivers licenses, birth certificates, deeds, vehicle titles; food; water and a place to go.

3. Knowing what you're doing can save your life. At one point, near the beginning of the fire, I came across four teenage boys fighting the fire on their own. They were halfway up a hill ten feet in front of flames as high as they were fighting flames on a fifty foot front in the middle of a mile long line of flames. A change in wind velocity/direction could have surrounded them with flames in seconds. I suggested they fallback to a natural fire break and give themselves some time to create a fire-resistant zone parallel to the flames which they could extend into a firebreak.

4. Pay attention! Near the very beginning of the fire I was covering some firemen who'd parked their fire trucks at intervals along a paved road planning to use it as a firebreak against the flames advancing slowly down a hillside. Having positioned themselves they fell to talking amongst themselves. I spotted a flying ember as it alighted among the dried brush on the other side of the road behind the last fire truck. I yelled to them, but by the time they got a fire truck to the spot the campfire sized "hot spot" had grown to a yards long wildfire racing on down the hill.

5. There have been four wildfires larger than the Laguna Fire in California since 1970. World wide our nightly news is filled with hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, tsunamis and tornados; do you really believe it can't happen to you?

* Next week I'll tell you about that one.

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