On Assignment: 2007 Wildfires Captured Through San Diego Photojournalist’s Lens
Friday, October 20, 2017
Photo by John Gibbins / The San Diego-Union Tribune
As families evacuated and firefighters worked to gain control of the Harris Fire 10 years ago, photojournalists documented it all. The San Diego Union-Tribune featured pictures from its photojournalists in “Inferno: The WildFires of 2007.”
The collection includes photos by Union-Tribune photographer John Gibbins, who has been covering wildfires for nearly four decades.
Thick, cloud-like smoke filled a valley in one of Gibbins' first images of the Harris Fire.
“A wind-driven fire, you’re not stopping it. You’re not stopping it,” Gibbins said.
The fire started near Potrero, about five miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border. Gibbins said this is an area of San Diego county that he knew well.
“We know that Santa Ana-driven fires are a part of life in the county and in the backcountry,” Gibbons said. “But to have something that big, so close, was just amazing.”
Gibbins worked on capturing the fire fight, evacuations, and humanity.
"Just complete strangers stepping up to do what needs to be done,” Gibbins said.
“There’s a kitty with burned feet,” he said as he pointed digital photo of a man, holding a cat wrapped in a towel. “They were taking it (away) to get it taken care of.”
With press credentials, Gibbins had full access. He said he set out to tell the story as flames lapped roads and threatened structures.
“It just comes with training and instinct, and when composition and the subject matter comes together, you know, just do it,” Gibbons said. “It’s not a book-learned trade … You learn it in the school of the street.”
He said he dreamt about doing this work when he was a Union-Tribune paperboy.
“I remember sitting on the floor at my mom’s house in La Mesa, folding that paper every day and seeing pictures from the Vietnam War and the Olympics,” Gibbins said. “I had a budding interest in photography then. I thought: ‘Aw, that would be great to be able to take these kinds of pictures.’”
Gibbins now has a career encapsulating moments in time, like when the Harris Fire charred more than 90,000 acres of the backcountry in San Diego county.
“For me, some of the hardest things to see was the wildlife,” Gibbins said. He talked about a photo of a speckled gray cat that looked like it gazed directly at his camera lens. “He or she had burnt feet and was just kind of gingerly walking by the burnt area, right here by the Barrett Dam,” he said. “So it was really hard to see.”
Gibbins talked about another photo that showed a group of U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents and first responders standing on the shoulder of a road.
“There was a really quite calm over the whole thing, but obviously there was something really wrong,” Gibbins said. “As they looked around they started seeing another body and another one and another one, and they found four victims.”
He said the victims had crossed illegally into the country and then the fire trapped them in the canyon.
“They were all burned to death. It was a horrific situation and seeing people who died in a fire like that, it’s etched in your head,” Gibbins said.
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