Photo Captures Firefighters Ensnarled by Blaze 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.
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Photo Captures Firefighters Ensnarled by Blaze

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Photo Captures Firefighters Ensnarled by Blaze

Photo Captures Firefighters Ensnarled by Blaze

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Now there were many heartbreaking images taken of Southern California's wildfires, but there was one in particular that captured the nation's attention. A dozen firefighters were trapped in a circle of smoke and flames.

Reporter Gloria Hillard visited the scene in that photo and spoke with the photographer and the firefighters.

GLORIA HILLARD: Charcoal chaparral is all that's left on this blackened hillside dusted with white ash. But the photo of 12 firefighters cocooned in silvery space blankets in a circle of flames has left a ghost imprint here.

L.A. Times photographer Karen Tapia-Andersen had been on the scene only a few minutes when the firefighters' hose burned and they lost water.

Ms. KAREN TAPIA-ANDERSEN (Photographer, L.A. Times): The flames just surrounded them. And at that point that's when my heart started to drop for those guys.

Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible) we have no water.

(Soundbite of a walkie-talkie)

Unidentified Man: I need any engine with water in my location down here at Engine 22 immediately.

Ms. TAPIA-ANDERSEN: You're thinking at this point, are these men going to make it? And when you see them struggling to get into those fire shelters, and they're struggling because the wind's blowing them and can't even get in them. That's when my - I lost it. You know, I'm shooting it but I'm fearful for their lives. I'm so fearful for their lives.

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

Mr. DAVE HUNT (Volunteer firefighter): It seemed forever. It seemed like we were in there for a really long time, but I think it was only for a few minutes, about maybe five minutes. But, yeah, I feel really lucky to be here.

HILLARD: On the hot ground next to him was Mark Grossman. Grossman, a 27-year veteran of Volunteer Fire Station 16, could only think of the promise he had made a few months earlier to his best friend, the father of the rookie fire fighter in the shelter next to his.

Mr. MARK GROSSMAN (Volunteer Firefighter, Fire Station 16): And I told her father that I would make sure I was watching out for her, take her, you know, under my wings somewhat.

(Soundbite of a walkie-talkie)

Unidentified Man: We could use some air support over here, ASAP.

Mr. GROSSMAN: I have her, you know, with fire coming over her. So I was talking to her and I go, oh my god, your father is going to kill me. And then all of a sudden she says to me, and my sister is too. And then there was a little bit of quiet. So in the quiet she got a little nervous so she started to sing. And all of a sudden you'll hear this…

(Singing) Hand me down that can of beans, hand me down that can of beans.

So she started singing because there was this that quiet moment, and it was unsettling…

HILLARD: Photographer Karen Tapia-Andersen continued shooting, and something else.

Ms. TAPIA-ANDERSEN: I started to pray, literally just pray for these men because nothing was happening. No - it was like - there was no help in sight.

HILLARD: Firefighter Dave Hunt said that's what he did as well.

Mr. HUNT: I said a little prayer, and I was just hoping to see everybody again. And when we heard the rotor blades from the helicopter, I felt really good. I felt really relived.

(Soundbite of a walkie-talkie)

Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible) drop.

HILLARD: The water-dropping helicopters put out the flames that surrounded them and one by one bright yellow emerged from the silver blankets. In the photographer's lens was the rookie firefighter, a smiling 29-year-old Michelle Parks(ph). She only wishes she'd sung a different song up on that hill, because back at fire station it's become her serenade.

Ms. MICHELE PARKS (Firefighter): I've heard it repeatedly. Regretfully that's the song that I chose.

(Soundbite of laughter)

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

Ms. TAPIA-ANDERSEN: The paramedics came, gave them water, gave a couple oxygen, checked their blood pressure, and they all wanted to go right back on the line. I found that amazing.

HILLARD: And the weary volunteer firefighters did go back to work. They would be on the frontlines for another six days.

For NPR News, I'm Gloria Hillard.

INSKEEP: You can see some of Karen Tapia-Andersen's photos of the trapped firefighters at

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