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Dodging flames, AP team delivers extraordinary all-formats coverage of raging California wildfires

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When two burning tree limbs crashed in flames on the exact spot where Marcio Sanchez had been standing just moments earlier, the shaken AP Los Angeles photographer called two colleagues to check that they both had his wife’s phone number, figuring that “if something happened to me, they could tell her.” Despite his near-death experience, he then plunged back to work, capturing vivid images for AP clients of furious wildfires tearing across swaths of California.

Elsewhere in the state, veteran wildfire photographer Noah Berger sped down flame-lined roads in his Nissan Xterra, trailed by a reporter from The Wall Street Journal who documented how the photographer, a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his images of California fires in 2018, again tore from blaze to blaze to document for AP the latest raging fires that impacted millions.

While shooting the crackling flames, Berger always keeps his engine running, the Journal noted, because “there might not be enough oxygen to start it again.”

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Associated Press photographer Marcio Jose Sanchez, left, takes a selfie with fellow AP photographer Gregory Bull while covering the Easy Fire in Simi Valley, Calif., Oct. 30, 2019. – AP PHOTO / MARCIO JOSE SANCHEZ

On top of their lenses and other camera gear,Sanchez,Berger and San Diego-based photographer Greg Bull also carried gas masks to enable to them to breathe in the choking smoke,fire-resistant overalls, heavy boots and — for a worst-case scenario — portable fire shelters they can climb into as a last resort should they become engulfed by the deadly flames.

Along with reporters Don Thompson and Janie Har, whose compelling text coverage included an exclusive report documenting how 20 frail seniors were trapped for two days in the dark by a fire-related power outage,Sanchez,Berger and Bull win Best of the Week honors for their standout work in a fantastic team effort by AP staff in California that provided gripping,competitive coverage for AP clients in all formats.

A tip from a caller led Har,based in San Francisco, to the low-income apartment complex in Northern California where she and photographer Eric Risberg found the seniors with wheelchairs and walkers fending for themselves in the dark and where one woman in her 80s tripped over another resident who had fallen on the landing in a steep stairwell.

From Northern California’s Sonoma County,where 200,000 people were told to pack up and leave,many in the middle of the night,Sacramento-based Thompson filed a steady stream of compelling first-person accounts, one from a man who two years earlier had to run for his life when the so-called Wine Country Fire moved with lightning speed in the middle of the night. This time he grabbed clothes and hit the road before flames closed in.

Berger had sensed months earlier,from tinder-dry leaves that crunched underfoot when he was walking his dog,that the blazes which regularly blight California might soon be back. He was already in place when winds whipped up the fire in Sonoma County,having traveled there days earlier. From a safety zone he mapped out in advance, Berger watched as flames swept down a hill toward him.

Berger always keeps his engine running,The Wall Street Journal noted, because “there might not be enough oxygen to start it again.”

In the midst of the hellish flames,Berger shot image after image. The dramatic photos were the earliest from the scene and vividly conveyed the terrifying ferocity of the winds and fire.

Later in the week,the winds shifted south and Berger followed them,driving through the night to get in place for a series of fires in and around Los Angeles that threatened the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and J. Paul Getty Museum. One night, Berger had 12 minutes of sleep before getting a heads up from a fire source to move to another fire that was threatening homes and forcing evacuations.

Sanchez joined Berger on the fire lines and both filed overnight video that carried AP into the morning,when reinforcements arrived,allowing AP to provide round-the-clock video coverage of wildfires.

Sanchez,who has covered wildfires for nearly two decades,never skipped a beat even after his narrow,unsettling escape from the flaming branches that missed him only through a stroke of luck. He’d left that spot just minutes earlier because he’d forgotten his helmet and fire shelter in his car and was walking back to get them, a harrowing tale he shared with AP clients and readers in a gripping first-person account.

Sanchez also was a leader in the field,helping direct freelance photographers Christian Monterrosa, Ringo Chiu and Ethan Swope.

Bull churned out both photos and video,producing a remarkable five video edits on Oct. 30 alone and,with photographers and videographers John Mone,Terry Chea and Krysta Fauria,ensuring comprehensive video coverage for AP clients throughout the week.

Kansas City photographer Charlie Riedel added key coverage of the Kincade Fire,while behind the scenes,Los Angeles photo editor Reed Saxon worked tirelessly,coordinating photographers and getting photos to AP clients before competitors.

For AP text clients,a team of John Antczak,Bob Jablon,Stefanie Dazio,Chris Weber,Amy Taxin,Brian Melley,Jocelyn Gecker and San Francisco news editor Juliet Williams brilliantly pulled together the multiple strands of the fast-moving,complex and far-reaching story, including Phoenix reporter Jonathan Cooper’s in-depth look at missteps by Pacific Gas & Electric as the utility deliberately shut off power to homes and businesses, plunging millions of people into darkness to prevent strong winds from toppling its power lines and igniting fires.

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The engrossing,all-formats coverage was among the most popular on AP all week. Photos from Berger,Sanchez and others regularly appeared in The Washington Post,The New York Times and numerous other publications and websites. Har’s story was No. 4 for AP and was matched by the local San Francisco ABC affiliate.

For their extraordinary work during a hectic and dangerous week,Sanchez,Berger,Bull, Thompson and Har share this AP’s Best of the Week.

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