KCRA – Filming the Firefights
It’s been a helluva couple weeks in Northern California. Two fires broke out—literally exploded—in a matter of days.
One—the Valley Fire in the Calistoga, northern Napa and Sonoma area—went from 0 acres to 20,000 acres in one hour.
Everyone has heard about California’s drought. Well, it’s nearly the end of the summer and the state is dried up. Doesn’t take much more than a spark to ignite a stand of dried grass. Then it’s like putting a match to gasoline—Whump!!!!—and the landscape is going up in flames.
The Butte Fire, in San Adreas, California, first started to go up on Thursday, July 10. On Friday, July 11, I was sent out there with KCRA reporter David Bienick. David and I have had good luck in covering fires. We were teamed for covering the Rim Fire in Yosemite in 2013 and had one of the most exciting—yes, and potentially dangerous—days of covering a fire in our careers.
On this day, we arrived and were waved through the police checkpoints, where only police, fire and media are permitted through. It is very hilly country with difficult terrain, making combatting the fire complex. Also, the Butte Fire has not been burning so much in waves as in spots. Cinders and hot embers get carried up into the air with the smoke and come down in other areas, igniting dried grass, brush and leaves there. So it’s a hard fire to combat. As soon as one spot is suppressed, another one breaks out a few hills away.
We were driving down Mountain Ranch Road, passing burned out hillsides, then untouched areas.
We spotted a tiny spot of fire burning on a hillside of just a few flames on a few square feet of dried grass. Soon that was spreading up and into the trees. And just beyond the trees and the hilltop was a home. We got out and started shooting and very soon a small fire crew arrived. In an instant the wooden fence along the road was going up. David and I were running around, filming and being careful to keep out of the way of the fire crews. But the flames were everywhere and happening fast—the wooden fence, cars just inside the fence, a pile of firewood—all were going up in an instant. David and I just had to move quickly and follow the action. The effort was being made to save the house.
The trick to this was—this was not a full-size fire engine with a few thousand gallons of water but a quick response vehicle with only 500-gallons. And in no time the truck was down to 350-gallons. The firefight had to be more strategically fought.
I simply tried to record the interaction of the firefighters trying to choose the priorities in the firefight until a water truck could arrive to replenish their truck.
It was hot, and active.
In situations like this there is no time to stop and do an interview. At moments like this the job is entirely mine as the cameraman to document the action and the sound of the moment to later tell the story with the natural sound of the moment.
Note: In times like this we are always conscious not to get in the way and hinder the fire crews. I’ve had lots of experience in scenes like this and know where it’s safe and am often shooting with the camera pointing at one area while I’m looking around at the scene and behind me at the same time. I’ve learned how to film and not look through the viewfinder for quick stretches at a time. Also, if the camera lens is wide and set to an approximate focus point, I can guess with reasonable accuracy what will be in the picture frame.
The scene happened and was over in fifteen or twenty minutes. From there we shot some other areas, but David and I decided that rather than file a story about the big picture of the fire, which would be told already by the news anchors at the top of the news block on the Northern California fires, that we would focus our story on this one moment in the fires, to show the general firefight through this one scene as a microcosm of what was happening all over the area.
The countryside around San Andreas would not allow for a microwave signal back to the station, so we used wireless TVU backpacks, which send a signal back through a combination of cell phone signals. The technology for this has become amazingly good.
The next morning, Saturday, July 12, I was on the morning shift and was sent back to the Butte Fire. I arrived in San Andreas around 8 AM and the station was calling for a live shot of wherever I was. I wasn’t near the fires, but the entire valley was cloaked in a brown cloud of smoke. It was difficult to even see the end of the street.
I pulled over into the parking lot of a grocery story, set up the camera on a tripod on the sidewalk and sent back live images of the smoky streets.
I wrapped a safety vest around the tripod to make sure motorists could see the camera. These photos aren’t altered—the air really was this brown!!!
A week later I was sent to check out the aftermath of the Valley Fire with KCRA reporter Kevin Oliver. We took a live truck so that we would have wi-fi and a generator power source, but again used a TVU backpack to transmit our live shots.
These fires are enormous. The Valley Fire covers 31 square miles. All the phone and power lines have been melted and must be completely restrung with new poles. An army of PG&E crews are in place to do this once the area is declared secure.
As of this morning, Sunday, September 20, 2015, the number of homes lost to the Valley Fire is 888. Such a loss.
Filming firefights like this is exciting, but my heart breaks for the people who’ve lost their homes. I was glad that in the story that David Bienick and I covered the home was saved.
Hopefully there will be some relief from the fires for a while. We could stand to have some cool weather and rain. I’m hoping my next long days will be spent covering rain and snow, and not fires!