“When huge fires have hit California in the last year people have believed that it was an anomaly. They expected that the forest fire season back to episodes normal, as the State has seen for decades. And then “Camp fire” has arrived. In terms of destruction, it wiped out all competition in the past. And well-away! The figures speak for themselves: more than 10,000 homes burnt, at least 77 dead [figure increased to 81 deaths in a new balance sheet, editor’s note] and more than 1,000 people missing. This is the fire the most deadly that has ever known the California. A fire extraordinary. Literally.
see ALSO – Fires in California: Paradise, the impossible evacuation
in order To do our job, we approach the fire closely. We follow them by listening to the channel frequency of CB and the radio for the emergency services, and following the Twitter feeds and the sites of the firefighters. When I woke up on the morning of 8 November, the fire had already devoured almost 500 hectares of a place wooded with very little moisture. The climatic conditions were substantially identical to those of the fires of last year – a time dry, a low moisture content of the vegetation and strong winds. So when the “Camp fire” was started in the foothills of the mountains of the Sierra, firefighters have not been able to do much of anything to stop it.
I Suddenly seen the arrival of a whirlwind of fire, three meters wide. It looks like a whirlwind of dust, like those which one sees in the desert but instead of sand it carries the embers.
I arrived at Paradise around 12: 45pm, and the fire raged. One of the first things I saw upon arriving was a hospital on fire. There was going to evacuate his patients in vehicles. At one point, I found myself at an intersection, with buildings at each corner were on fire. With the gusts of wind at 80 km/hour, the view that I had of the houses and cars on fire was suddenly obscured by clouds of black smoke, so thick we couldn’t see anything one metre in front of itself. I took a few photos from my car, asking me if I shouldn’t go out and take other. I didn’t know what I risked.
Suddenly I have seen that happen to me a whirlwind of fire, three meters wide approximately. It looks like a whirlwind of dust, the kind that one sees in the desert, but instead of grains of sand it carries the embers. I’m not afraid of these, because I wear the same protective equipment that the firefighters. But the whirlwinds of fire are very rare, and completely unpredictable. I couldn’t know if he would be expanding or change of direction. By caution, I started walking back to get me out of there. I was full of manoeuvre when I saw the power lines above, which were starting to move violently. A package of them suddenly fell in front of my car.
A building consumed by flames, November 8, to Paradise. JOSH EDELSON/AFP
scenes like this have been repeated throughout the city. All the fast food restaurants that had already burned, and a supermarket with them. There was a large shopping mall surrounded by a huge parking lot. Most of the time, they provide protection because the fire can not feed. But not this time. It was already in the process of destroying a trade after the other. The scene was repeated constantly, wherever I go. The fire was everywhere. The city had no chance of escape. The next morning, I think 90% of the area had burned. One of the things that has made this fire so deadly is not just its speed but also the fact that it happened in a mountainous area. The roads are narrow and winding. The people who were fleeing from the fire soon found themselves stuck in traffic jams. They could not flee.
aerial View of a neighborhood of Paradise on November 15. JOSH EDELSON/AFP
there was a large shopping mall surrounded by a huge parking lot. Most of the time, they provide protection because the fire can not feed. But this time, he was destroying a trade after the other.
When you cover a fire, there are two phases, the fire itself and its consequences. It is this second phase that has marked me the most. I was riding in the rubble of the city when I stumbled upon a hearse, which I followed. I had access to amazing operations of research of bodies of victims. At one point, we stopped in front of a burnt house. There was a body right there. Rescuers have raised a roof of metal that had fallen over. The body was completely burned. But you could enter the expression of the face of death. I think it was a woman. His hand was stiff in the air, as if she had wanted to protect something. His eyes were open and fear had frozen the expression on his face. It is as if the thought she knew was to die, at this time, in this inferno, had printed on its face.
I put down my camera, and I’m hunched over. In an instant I felt a sort of connection with this person, with the terror that she had to experience in realizing that she was going to die in this fire. My hands were shaking. I’ve covered many fires, but I had never felt such a thing. I have not sent any of these photos, out of respect for his family. It was so awful that it would have done more harm than good. My work is abstract it in the following days. Follow the rescuers to search for bodies and human remains. It was morbid.
A body is carried out of the smoking remnant of a house burned. JOSH EDELSON/AFP
The next day, we found a man lying face down between two cars, the arm against the chest. The handling of a body burned is horrible. The corpse is so stiff that it looks like the transport of a model very heavy. It is necessary to catch hands, to be able to lift it. This is horrible. When they return, this detached pieces of skin, such as cloth. It has everything a horror movie. You look at it praying that one part of the body does not come loose during the move. At the same time, you wonder how this person is dead. What was she, what did she think?
I’m always amazed of what a fire can burn. Things which you do you’d expect ever, that they can melt. Of the glass. License plates. A fire of such an intensity that it melted metal.
With this man, I tried to make photos on which we could not identify it. I am not arrived. Looking at them later, I said to myself that I could not pass them. The family of this man will see that and will recognize its shoe, the cars near which it was located. And they would be furious, I think. They would say: How can you force us to look at our husband, our father, our son in a state like this? I did eventually pass as photos of the body bag containing the man. I’ve only done it then.
I’m always amazed of what a fire can burn. Things that you would expect never to the point where they can melt, do so apparently without difficulty. Of the glass. License plates. A fire of such an intensity that it melted metal. The things that remain behind are fascinating also. And sometimes disturbing. At one time I stumbled on a small square of grass intact, in front of a house burned. There was a small bench with over a skeleton and pumpkins. A decoration for Halloween. The head of the skeleton was leaning to one side. In the midst of all this devastation, the scene was a little unreal. I stayed five days, an unusual length for me.
rows of cars charred abandoned on the road testify to the desperate flight of the inhabitants of Paradise through the forest. JOSH EDELSON/AFP
something that happens once may be an aberration. If it occurs a second, this may be the beginning of a cycle. We have had up to now giant fires for two years in a row. With my colleagues, we believe that this is only the beginning of a recurring phenomenon. There is no other explanation. We have crossed a threshold in terms of scale of destruction, and unfortunately, we must expect that the thing repeats itself.”
Jeremie Saylors, 11 years old, in the ruins of Paradise. JOSH EDELSON/AFP