Flammable California

August 6, 2008 | By David McNew | News

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David McNew/Getty Images

Smoke billowed above the Piute Fire. I could see it, a hundred miles away, as I drove to my assignment in northern LA County on June 30.

The fire was “blowing up” and pumping out thick, blackish smoke and ash that rose fast in superheated air currents. Ice crystals formed a silvery crown thousands of feet up over the dark plume, it looked like a beautiful thundercloud over the Sierras.

At this point, firefighters have told me the icy crown could grow heavy and collapse into the plume, forcing strong winds back into the fire to blow it in many directions at once. This fire was taking off and communities were threatened. I informed my editors in New York, shot and filed my assignment and then I drove north.

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David McNew/Getty Images

The Piute fire was a mountain fire with tall pine forests in the upper elevations. Temperatures reached the 90s and above in the lower reaches. A web of back country dirt roads into the fire started an hour away from the nearest wireless signal I could use for filing my pictures. The smoke plume prevented me from using a satellite phone so driving took up much of my time.

Falling trees and branches called “widow makers” were a constant threat in the charred forest. One freshly fallen tree blocking a jeep trail reminded me that a small chain saw and a steel tow chain could become life savers.

Another, potentially more dangerous fire, was coming to life and many firefighters were suddenly sent to the seaside city of Goleta, California, leaving one flank of the Piute fire with few to watch over it. I left too.

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David McNew/Getty Images

Official reports at the time indicated only a 35-acre blaze but fire officials knew better. A massive response was sent as it began to threaten thousands of urban and suburban homes. The Gap fire quickly became the official top priority.

It was different from the Piute fire, instead of blazing through forests of pine where residents were few and expansion meant running deeper into the wilderness, the Gap fire chewed through brushy hills to reach the city.

It was in a “Wildland-Urban Interface Fire Area” which meant that it had the luxury of staying in a hotel with a bed and a shower with internet access – all just a few miles from the fire. At the Piute fire, two nighs ago, I’d only slept a few hours in my car until the blazing hot sunrise woke me up, drenched in sweat.

It also meant paved roads on three sides of the fire, making for easy drives to some of the better places from which to observe the firefighting efforts. For the first time in days I saw other members of the press, many from LA.  Ocean views at the Gap fire were scenic but more importantly for me, the Pacific Ocean kept the air many degrees cooler than the Piute fire.

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David McNew/Getty Images

It is the most dangerous time of year right now, when powerful Santa Ana winds rip through mountain passes. Conditions have never been more favorable for wildfires to grow monstrous proportions.

News photographers in California could be just one arsonist, lightning strike or cigarette away from yet another historic fire disaster this  year.

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