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Capturing images and providing answers

The Butte fire rages in Sheep Ranch on Sept. 12. The assignment was photographer Andrew Seng’s first chance to cover a major fire.
The Butte fire rages in Sheep Ranch on Sept. 12. The assignment was photographer Andrew Seng’s first chance to cover a major fire. aseng@sacbee.com

By Tuesday afternoon, photographer Andrew Seng had time to decompress and address the half dozen emails from people who saw his Butte fire images and hoped he might know if their home still was standing.

The Butte fire was Seng’s first major fire coverage. As an intern in the summer of 2014, his Bee bosses wouldn’t let him near a fire; he wasn’t trained and he wasn’t seasoned enough.

After four days in the thick of it, one night sleeping in his car, he’s starting to feel seasoned.

Thousands of firefighters are on the front lines of wildfires across California. It’s no cliché to say they are risking their lives for others as they work to protect people and homes and manage the savagery of this year’s firestorms.

Behind them are journalists who sometimes find themselves too close to the action but are determined to tell the story and provide needed information. Visual journalists in particular can’t get a photo or a video if they aren’t close. The Associated Press, Reuters, Agence France-Presse and many others all are covering what has become an international story: California’s blistering fire season.

“It’s pretty intense out there,” Seng said.

Seng started on Sept. 10, shooting still images and a smoke video from Irish Town and Clinton Road. As darkness fell, he was “chasing this big plume,” driving toward Railroad Flat Road east of Mokelumne Hill. He’d driven miles past a checkpoint to a residential road when a game warden advised him to turn around, that no firefighters were in the area ahead. But because others were evacuating from the area, “I still felt I had to check it out,” Seng said.

That’s when he heard the roar of the fire exploding. “You can hear it before you see it,” he said, and yes, it really does sound like a freight train.

Seng pulled back to a checkpoint where a handful of people were waiting to see if their homes had survived. A few minutes into the wait three trucks came speeding out. The occupants “were hyped on adrenaline.” Though the hair on their arms was singed off, “They had just saved their home,” Seng said.

The Butte fire grew to 65,000 acres on Saturday and 15 percent containment. Video by Sue Morrow, smorrow@sacbee.com

“After that I think some of the guys at the checkpoint felt they could go back” to check their homes, Seng told me.

A talented journalist, Seng still is young enough to add “Don’t scold me” when he says he followed the residents back. The fire had intensified. Flames raced on both sides of the road and then on the road itself. Another roar, and then the trees in front of Seng exploded.

“All of a sudden they came racing toward me,” Seng said of the residents. He high-tailed it out with them and decided to call it a night, driving back to Sacramento.

On Sept. 11, Seng headed back to Mokelumne Hill, checking out burning homes, following a fire crew. He slept in his car at a Mokelumne Hill checkpoint that night, though with fire engines going by constantly, he didn’t do much sleeping. The next morning he headed to San Andreas and then Mountain Ranch to cover evacuations, keeping in contact via text with Bee photographer Paul Kitigaki Jr. and editors at The Bee because cell reception was spotty. Communication, though, is vital in such tough conditions.

You can hear it before you see it.

Andrew Seng, Bee visual journalist, of the roar made by an explosion of fire

It was on Whiskey Slide Road in Mountain Ranch where Seng bumped into resident Steven Van Jones, who said he was on his way to get a generator and might need Seng’s help if his friend did not arrive in time. “I did help him,” Seng said. “I felt I needed to help him before his friend got there. I was afraid he was going to collapse.”

Seng also relied on the kindness of others, mostly firefighters but also fellow journalists. “It’s not a competitive thing out there; you have to look out for people,” he said of his time with experienced photographers from other media groups.

“The Cal Fire guy was so awesome,” Seng said, reminding him of a few keys points from the media training they provided earlier this year at The Bee.

Seng and other Bee journalists head to the fire with equipment as well as the training. He had fire-resistant pants and a jacket, a helmet with a shroud that helped with the heavy smoke, gloves, goggles and a fire shelter that we hope no one ever has to use as it is a last-resort tactic to avoid being killed – and it doesn’t always work.

Last Sunday he was shooting near Sheep Ranch, where firefighters had bulldozed a fire break near a ridge. Seng was about a quarter mile away from the ridge and fire, but firefighters still were nervous that he and Rich Pedroncelli of The Associated Press were too close.

“They said if it gets past this ridge it will burn really fast,” Seng said. “I didn’t want to hinder them. I understand if they are worried about me, it might hinder their escape.” He stayed long enough to capture images.

Typically, The Bee pulls its journalists off fire coverage after three days. The conditions are harsh, the smoke bad for your lungs. Seng stayed a day longer and was ready for fresh air by the time he returned to Sacramento.

“I think this fire taught me about my own limitations and what I can and should do,” Seng said. “I want to get those images.”

He did. Those who live in the fire’s path, though, want answers. In some cases they found them in the images, whether of a house still standing or a seared landscape with only twisted metal and dust.

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