What makes some people rush headlong into places others flee? What makes some folks risk life and limb to be there when things go from bad to worse?
For veteran newspaper photographer Bob Ponce, it was the thrill of being the first one on the scene. It was the reward of getting the photo that told the story.
“When you’re a photographer, you’ve got to be in there with your camera,” he said. “You can only take so many shots from a distance.”
So when the Tea Fire broke out a couple of weeks ago, Ponce no doubt felt the same itch all shutterbugs in the area got when the beautiful and terrible flames lit up the evening sky over the Montecito foothills.
And if he could get around the way he used to, he’d still have a few tricks up his sleeve, tricks he learned as he photographed several of Santa Barbara’s historic fires.
“I always prided myself on being the first newsman on the scene,” Ponce said. “You gotta get up there before they put up the roadblocks.”
Ponce had just graduated from San Marcos High in 1961 when he got his first camera, a used piece of machinery he picked up for $50. From that point on, he said, he took photos of “anything and everything” he could.
By 1964 he had the chops to become a Santa Barbara News-Press photographer, just in time to document the Coyote Fire, a monster of a blaze that tore through 67,000 acres in the hills north of fire-prone Montecito.
“I was actually down at City College when it broke out, photographing football players. And I saw the column of smoke up on the hill,” said Ponce. He kept tabs on that thin column of smoke, which stayed that way for hours. Only later did the evening winds whip the small fire into a huge blaze.
“When I came out (from a friend’s house) at 6:30, the whole mountain was on fire,” he said. “So I went out there and started taking pictures.”
Photographing a wildfire up close is never as easy as the photographers make it look. In fact, said Ponce, you can never let your guard down. In 1971, the year of the Romero Fire, on Montecito’s eastern flank, he learned just how unpredictable wildfires can be.
“I started driving up the road, and I had fire on three sides,” Ponce said. “I kept looking in the mirror. Sure enough I saw the fire erupt behind me.”
He said he threw his car in reverse and got out of there as fast as he could.
Then there was the time in 1977, during the Sycamore Fire, a relatively small blaze in the Sycamore Canyon area. This time, said Ponce, who was by now the paper’s chief photographer and photo editor, the close call he had didn’t come from the flames and the smoke.
“I was taking pictures out in the field, and I looked around, and here comes the plane. I see the bomb bay doors open, and I thought, ‘Oh, no.’”
Fortuately, the aircraft delivered its load of flame retardant before the material could drop on him, but he didn’t realize that until after he came out of the ball he was taught to curl up into to keep from getting battered by the heavy stuff.
When you mention the 1990 Painted Cave Fire, the first thing people remember is the horrible speed with which which the wildfire consumed everything in its way from high atop the Santa Ynez Mountains above the Goleta Valley down past Highway 101. Ponce is no different.
“That was the fastest moving thing I ever saw in my life,” he said of the blaze that destroyed 440 houses, apartments and other buildings in its way.
Ponce was leaving another fire that day, one eating up waste at the Transfer Station off Calle Real. Call it blissful ignorance, call it luck, but Ponce heard about another fire not too far away, and hustled to get to it even as people on the other side of Old San Marcos Road were racing past him in the opposite direction to get away from the flames.
“When I got to the top, I just saw these flames, rolling down the hill,” Ponce said.
The flames were low, but driven steadily forward by the winds. His work from this fire earned him an award.
Over the years he cultivated a relationship with local firefighters who would come to recognize him out in the field. Instead of having to sneak out there, he was even given safety equipment of his own — boots, turnouts, a fireproof tent — to help him do his job.
Eventually, however, his body began to pay the price for the strenuous life he was living, resulting in a series of surgeries. Diabetes caught up to him. Ponce had to come to the conclusion that he couldn’t do it anymore and went on disability until his official retirement last year.
These days, weather permitting, Ponce heads down to the Vices & Spices cafe, 3558 State St., near his San Roque-area apartment, and hangs out with a bunch of friends. They’ll talk current events, drink some coffee, and Ponce will swear that his beloved USC Trojans will take home another national title this year.
But he hasn’t lost his love for the scanner (he has two), which he listened to during the Tea Fire.
“It was eerie,” he said, comparing the recent wildfire to the Sycamore Fire more than 30 years ago.
And, stashed away in the storage compartment of his walker is a late-model Canon digital SLR camera. Just in case he’s the first newsman on the scene.
— Noozhawk staff writer Sonia Fernandez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.