Reuters chief correspondent Axel Bugge was driving through a wooded, hilly part of central Portugal in June when a powerful storm struck – an unusual combination of torrential rain, strong winds and oppressive heat.
“As we passed out of the rainstorm, we saw lightning bolts in front of us, and then lots of smoke appeared on the horizon,” said Bugge. - He paid careful attention to where the wind was blowing because winds in excess of 10 mph can make a fire spread quickly.
Bugge saw the beginnings of a wildfire that would become Portugal’s deadliest, killing more than 60 people, injuring upwards of 150 and destroying more than 150 square miles of forest.
Reuters covers wars, protests and uprisings, but “ignorance makes fires one of the most dangerous things we cover,” says Mike Christie, general manager of global logistics and security. “You can’t put on a flak vest or use an armored car.”
To prepare, journalists take a wildfire safety course, taught by former firefighter Troy Kurth from Missoula, Montana. Kurth teaches weather patterns, vegetation and fire behavior, along with instruction on using a fire shelter. A paramount rule: never try to outrun a blaze. Instead, seek shelter in a river or stream, whenever possible.
Reuters journalists also learn how to safely wait out a fire in a car (ignition off, headlights on), which proved invaluable in Portugal, where 47 people died on a single stretch of the N-236 road.
“I am always thinking about the training,” says David Ryder, a Reuters photographer who shot the charred aftermath of the Alamo and Whittier fires this week near California’s central coast. This starts with the right gear. Ryder says police ushered him through a roadblock into the fire zone because he “looked legit” with the equipment Reuters requires all journalists to have on hand when covering a fire, including a hard hat, safety glasses and leather boots.
Even though the flames had subsided, Ryder remained on high alert, watching where he stepped and keeping protective gloves in his back pocket in case he needed to scramble up a hill. “Just because it looks like there is no fire, does not mean there isn’t one,” Ryder says. Two summers ago, Ryder witnessed a Washington State fire near the town of Twisp turn from smoldering to raging within five minutes.
“Everything seemed totally boring – the firefighters were literally warming their burritos on the embers of the fire,” Ryder recalls. Then a gust of wind blanketed the area. Soon it was filled with flames and smoke. “It was total madness within five minutes or less,” Ryder says.
After taking several photos, Ryder ran to his car. The keys were in the ignition, and it was facing the road, ready for a quick getaway.