In Paradise, the poignant story of a photographer returning from hell

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IN PICTURES – San Francisco-based photographer Josh Edelson has covered fires in northern California for AFP. Here is his testimony, upsetting.

"When huge fires hit California last year, people thought it was an anomaly. They expected the forest fire season to return to normal episodes, as the state has known for decades. And then "Camp fire" has arrived. In terms of destruction, it has erased any past competition. And from far away! The numbers speak for themselves: more than 10,000 burnt homes, at least 77 dead [chiffre porté à 81 morts dans un nouveau bilan, ndlr] and more than 1,000 people missing. It's the deadliest fire ever in California. An extraordinary fire. Literally.

READ ALSO – Fire in California: In Paradise, the impossible evacuation

To do our job, we are approaching the lights closely. We follow them by listening to the CB frequency channels and the emergency services radio, and following the Twitter feeds and firefighter sites. When I got up on the morning of November 8, the fire had already devoured almost 500 acres of a wooded area with very little moisture. Weather conditions were about the same as last year's fires – dry weather, low vegetation moisture and strong winds. So when the "Camp Fire" started in the foothills of the Sierra Mountains, firefighters could not do much to stop it.

Suddenly I saw a whirlwind of fire, three meters wide. It looks like a whirlwind of dust, like those we see in the desert, but instead of sand it carries embers.

Josh Edelson, AFP photographer

I arrived at Paradise, around 12:45, and the fire was raging. One of the first things I saw when I arrived was a hospital on fire. We were evacuating his patients in vehicles. At one point, I found myself at an intersection, whose buildings on each corner were on fire. With the gusts of wind at 80 km / hour, the view I had of houses and cars on fire was brutally masked by clouds of black smoke, so thick that you could not see anything a meter ahead. I took some pictures from my car, wondering if I should not go out and take some more. I did not know what I was risking.

Suddenly I saw a whirlwind of fire, about three meters wide, coming towards me. It looks like a whirlwind of dust, like those seen in the desert, but instead of grains of sand it carries embers. I'm not afraid of them because I wear the same protective gear as the firefighters. But fire swirls are very rare and completely unpredictable. I could not know if he would get fat or change direction. As a precaution, I started backing up to get me out of there. I was in the middle of a maneuver when I saw the power lines above that were starting to move violently. A bundle of them suddenly fell in front of my car.

A building consumed by flames on November 8 in Paradise.

A building consumed by flames on November 8 in Paradise. JOSH EDELSON / AFP

Similar scenes were repeated throughout the city. All fast food establishments had already burned, and a supermarket with them. There was a big shopping center surrounded by a huge parking lot. Most of the time they provide protection because the fire can not be fed. But not this time. He was already destroying one business after another. The scene was constantly rehearsing, wherever I went. The fire was everywhere. The city had no chance of escaping. The next morning, I think 90% of the area had burned. One of the things that made this fire so deadly is not only its speed but also the fact that it arrived in a mountainous area. The roads are narrow and winding. People fleeing the fire soon found themselves trapped in traffic jams. They could not run away.

Aerial view of a neighborhood of Paradise, November 15th.

Aerial view of a neighborhood of Paradise, November 15th. JOSH EDELSON / AFP

There was a big shopping center surrounded by a huge parking lot. Most of the time they provide protection because the fire can not be fed. But this time, he was destroying one business after another.

Josh Edelson

When we cover a fire there are two phases, the fire itself and its consequences. It was this second phase that struck me the most. I was driving through the rubble of the city when I came across a hearse, which I followed. I had incredible access to the search operations of the victims' bodies. At one point, we stopped in front of a burned house. There was a body right there. Rescuers raised a metal roof that had fallen on them. The body was completely burned. But you could catch the expression of the dead man's face. I think it was a woman. Her hand was up in the air, as if she wanted to protect herself from something. His eyes were open and fear had frozen the expression on his face. It's as if the thought that she knew she had to die, at that moment, in that fire, was printed on her face.

I put down my camera, and I hunched over. In an instant I experienced a kind of connection with this person, with the terror she must have felt in realizing that she was going to die in this fire. My hands were shaking. I covered a lot of fires, but I had never felt such a thing. I did not send any of these photos out of respect for his family. It was so terrible that it would have done more harm than good. My work was summed up in the following days. Follow the rescuers in search of bodies and human remains. It was morbid.

A body is evacuated from the smoking remains of a burnt house.

A body is evacuated from the smoking remains of a burnt house. JOSH EDELSON / AFP

The next day we found a man lying face down between two cars, his arms against his chest. Handling a burned body is horrible. The corpse is so stiff that it looks like carrying a very heavy mannequin. You have to catch your hands so you can lift it. It's horrible. When they return it, it detaches pieces of skin, like rag. It's all about a horror movie. You look at it while praying that a part of the body will not come off while moving it. At the same time, you wonder how this person died. What was she doing, what was she thinking?

I am always amazed at all that a fire can burn. Things you would never expect to melt. Glass. Number plates. A fire of such intensity that it melts the metal.

Josh Edelson

With this man, I tried to make photos that could not be identified. I could not do it Looking at them later, I thought that I could not transmit them. This man's family will see them and recognize his shoe, the cars he was standing near. And they would be furious, I think. They would say to each other: How can you force us to look at our husband, our father, our son in such a state? I ended up transmitting only photos of the mortuary cover containing the man. I only did that later.

I am always amazed at all that a fire can burn. Things you would never expect to melt, apparently do so without difficulty. Glass. Number plates. A fire of such intensity that it melts the metal. The things behind are fascinating too. And sometimes disturbing. At one point I came across a small patch of intact grass in front of a burnt house. There was a small bench with a skeleton and pumpkins on it. A Halloween decoration. The skeleton's head tilted to one side. In the midst of all this devastation the scene was a little unreal. I stayed there for five days, an unusual time for me.

Rows of charred cars abandoned on the road testify to the desperate escape of the inhabitants of Paradise through the forest.

Rows of charred cars abandoned on the road testify to the desperate escape of the inhabitants of Paradise through the forest. JOSH EDELSON / AFP

Something that happens once can be an aberration. If it happens a second, it may be the beginning of a cycle. We had gigantic fires now for two years in a row. With my colleagues, we think this is just the beginning of a recurring phenomenon. There is no other explanation. We have crossed a threshold in terms of the scale of destruction, and unfortunately we must expect the thing to repeat itself. "

Jeremie Saylors, 11, in the ruins of Paradise.

Jeremie Saylors, 11, in the ruins of Paradise. JOSH EDELSON / AFP