Photo Captures Firefighters Ensnarled by Blaze

Firefighters trapped by flames atop a ridge scramble into fireproof covers. i i

Twelve firefighters trapped by flames atop a ridge off Santiago Canyon Road in Orange County scramble into fireproof covers Oct. 22, 2007. Karen Tapia-Andersen/Los Angeles Times hide caption

itoggle caption Karen Tapia-Andersen/Los Angeles Times
Firefighters trapped by flames atop a ridge scramble into fireproof covers.

Twelve firefighters trapped by flames atop a ridge off Santiago Canyon Road in Orange County scramble into fireproof covers Oct. 22, 2007.

Karen Tapia-Andersen/Los Angeles Times
Firefighters walk down the hillside after water-dropping helicopters put out the flames. i i

Firefighters walk down the hillside after water-dropping helicopters put out the flames that surrounded them. Karen Tapia-Andersen/Los Angeles Times hide caption

itoggle caption Karen Tapia-Andersen/Los Angeles Times
Firefighters walk down the hillside after water-dropping helicopters put out the flames.

Firefighters walk down the hillside after water-dropping helicopters put out the flames that surrounded them.

Karen Tapia-Andersen/Los Angeles Times

California's recent wildfires produced many spectacular images, but perhaps none as dramatic and memorable as a Los Angeles Times photo of 12 firefighters trapped in a circle of smoke and flames.

"The flames just surrounded them and at that point, that's when my heart started to drop for those guys," veteran L.A. Times photographer Karen Tapia-Andersen says.

Tapia-Andersen had been on the scene in Orange County only a few minutes when the firefighters' hose burned and they lost water. The firefighters scrambled to use shiny fireproof covers as shelters from the flames.

"You're thinking at this point, are these men going to make it?" she says.

"And when you see them struggling to get into those fire shelters, and they're struggling because the wind's blowing and they can't even get in them. That's when I lost it. You know, I'm shooting it but I'm fearful for their lives ... "

Finally, volunteer firefighter Dave Hunt, along with the other 11 firefighters, managed to deploy their flimsy shelters.

"It seemed forever," Hunt says. "It seemed like we were in for a really long time, but I think it was only for a few minutes, about maybe five minutes. I feel real lucky to be here."

'I said a little prayer'

As Tapia-Andersen continued shooting, she began to pray.

"I started to pray — literally just pray for these men because nothing was happening ... there was no help in sight," she says.

Hunt says that's what he did as well.

"I said a little prayer," he says. "I was just hoping to see everybody again. When we heard the rotor blades from the helicopter, I felt really good. I felt really relieved."

The water-dropping helicopters put out the flames that surrounded them and one by one the firefighters emerged from their shelters.

Tapia-Andersen has covered many fires in her career, but none had compared to this wildfire, she says. Her last pictures at the scene were of firefighters sitting on a curb.

"The paramedics came, gave them water, gave a couple [of them] oxygen, checked their blood pressure. And they all wanted to go right back on the line. I found that amazing," she says.

The weary volunteer firefighters went back to the front lines for another six days.

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