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AP photo team owns Southern California wildfire coverage

A man rides a motorcycle past a home engulfed by a massive wildfire, Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017, in Ventura, Calif. Wind-whipped flames consumed hundreds of homes in the city, 80 miles northwest of Los Angeles. (AP Photo / Jae C. Hong)

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California’s notorious Santa Ana winds were blowing last week, bringing with them the threat of devastating wildfires.

Late in the evening on Dec. 4, West Region photo editor Stephanie Mullen was monitoring a fire that broke out in Ventura County, about 80 miles northwest of Los Angeles. It was near populated areas and Mullen knew that if the winds really picked up the flames could start burning homes.

That night, she hired Northern California freelance photographer Noah Berger, an expert at shooting wildfires, and partnered him with Los Angeles-based staff photographer Jae Hong. Berger drove through the night and he and Hong were in place as daylight broke and the fire surged into the city of Ventura, where it would burn hundreds of homes. They rapidly shot and filed, allowing AP to deliver striking imagery before our competitors had even started their day.

By having the AP team in place at sun up on the first day of the fires, the AP owned the coverage in those important early hours. We had impressive play globally including The New York Times, The Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, abcnews.com and dailymail.com.

Carlson, Berger and Hong took turns napping in their cars so AP always had eyes on the fires.

In San Diego County, Bull spent the night in his car to get daybreak photos of the destruction.

Later that morning, two wildfires broke out in Los Angeles County. Orange County-based photographer Chris Carlson worked his way through road closures to make images of horses being rescued and flames overwhelming homes in Sylmar. Carlson, Berger and Hong took turns napping in their cars so AP always had a photographer’s eyes on the fires.

There were more fires as the week wore on, most notably in San Diego County where flames destroyed dozens of homes in a retirement community. As darkness fell, San Diego photographer Greg Bull snaked his way through roadblocks and heavy traffic to capture nighttime images there, then slept in his car and got haunting daybreak photos of the destruction.

For providing a photo package no competitor could rival, Hong, Carlson, Bull and Berger share this week’s $300 Best of the States prize.

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