Published on January 2, 2018.

Fire in the Sky

A photographer captures a moment of desperation in a California wildfire

Just weeks after wildfires in Northern California’s wine country became the state’s deadliest on record, Southern California was hit with a spate of wildfires, the largest of which scorched an area of more than 420 square miles.

The Thomas Fire began on December 4 in Ventura County, less than 75 miles from the heart of Los Angeles. Within a week, it grew to over 230,000 acres. By December 20, it had become the second-largest wildfire in state history. Thousands were evacuated.

But as photographs like this one show, not everybody left before the flames arrived. Here, Ventura residents Brandon Baker and Prescott McKenzie use garden hoses in a frantic attempt to keep a flaming palm tree from igniting a neighbor’s home.

After the image went viral on social media, the Los Angeles Times photographer who captured it, Marcus Yam, described in an interview with the newspaper what it was like to face the fire. “It was like it was raining embers,” Yam said. “I put on a scarf to try to cover my neck and all that because I can feel embers falling on my face, embers hitting my face every way. I was completely soaked in water and covered in embers, so I was gray, just dirty and wet and cold…I saw people waiting until the last minute to evacuate. People were narrowly escaping that street when it was engulfed in flames. I might have been the last one to drive out.”

Residents not heeding evacuation orders is a key concern for fire and life safety professionals. NFPA recommends those who are near fire activity to follow news updates and official statements and be prepared to leave at any time, even before an evacuation order is given. For more of NFPA’s resources on preparing for wildfires, visit the NFPA webpage on wildfire.

Top Photograph: Getty Images