Newspaper and wire photojournalists who cover the fires often form a small community; up north, McNew said, a small group travels together “like they are in a war zone.” Though McNew prefers to work alone, he said he’s “always cautious.” Five years ago, 19 firefighters from an elite, highly trained “hotshot” crew died while battling a blaze around Yarnell, Arizona, that was caused by a bolt of lightning. “Even they got caught,” he said.
Wildfires can be devastatingly unpredictable, McNew emphasized. “Every fire is different [with] different characteristics,” he said. In California, the dry, hot Santa Ana winds, which pass over the Mojave Desert toward the Pacific Ocean, contribute to many of the conditions that allow for sudden outbreaks, such as with the Woolsey Fire.
Developing the state’s land has contributed to the problem, too. Many of the fires spring up “where the cities and the wildlands meet,” he explained. Such is the case with Paradise, a small town surrounded by a heavy forest.