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Blaze fans flames of Internet fame

Times Staff Writers

When a brush fire began raging in the shadow of the Hollywood sign on Friday, hundreds sprang into action with cellphone cameras, camcorders and digital cameras in hand.

One man captured the scene from atop the U.S. Bank building downtown, the tallest tower on the West Coast. Video footage that appeared on YouTube.com was made by people aiming their cameras at the fire with one hand and holding their steering wheels with the other.

A pilot snapped the dramatic column of smoke from his Cessna high above Santa Monica Airport.

Then there was Cheryl Groff.

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She and her boyfriend were driving on the Harbor Freeway when they saw the smoke and thought the Hollywood sign was about to catch fire.

Groff turned off the freeway and tried to get closer, switching seats with her boyfriend at a traffic light so she could shoot the fire. Exiting her car in an alley off Western Avenue, she headed north on foot, climbing an outside stairwell of an office building so she could get an unobstructed view of the blaze.

“I thought this was going to be history,” said Groff, a 28-year-old Torrance college student.

The Hollywood Hills blaze, though it turned out to be relatively minor, was an event made for this era of digital photography and image-sharing websites such as YouTube and Flickr.

Within hours, more than a thousand images had been posted around the Web, providing seemingly every conceivable vantage point of the smoke and flames.

Part of the reason is the location: A large fire in the heart of the entertainment industry, where “everyone’s a photographer and everyone’s a filmmaker,” said Jeremy Emerman, 19, who took shots of the fire from Mulholland Drive.

But the mass documentation of the fire also speaks to the way technology is changing the way we view events.

“Who knows what our obsession for documenting will accomplish,” said Martin Kaplan, associate dean of the USC Annenberg School for Communication. “It may turn out to be raw historical material whose value doesn’t become apparent until time passes.”

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The brush fire, which started behind the Oakwood Apartment complex near Universal City on Friday afternoon, charred 160 acres. Two teenage boys from Illinois could face charges. .

Capt. Antoine McKnight of the Los Angeles Fire Department said it was hard not to notice the Hollywood fire, with its spectacular smoke column.

“You could see it from a great distance. But a lot of commuters saw it because it was very close to two freeways -- the 134 and 101,” McKnight said. “You have something of that magnitude, it’s going to leave a lasting impression.”

When Gary Mecija, 31, of Silver Lake walked out of a coin laundry and saw the orange-tinged sky, he drove home and ran to his roof to get shots.

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“I was awestruck,” Mecija said. “The smoke was just so huge, it looked like something out of a movie. You just can’t help but take a picture.”

The dramatic smoke against a clear blue sky had many photographers waxing poetic on the beauty of the fire in captions or comments on the Web.

“The smoke plume was just iconic and very beautiful. I call it ‘The Hollywood starlet of fires.’ It was just so photogenic,” said Mary-Austin Klein, 42, a landscape painter who lives in Echo Park.

Klein got a call from her husband, who works on the 13th floor of the Department of Water and Power headquarters downtown, alerting her to the fire. She drove to the top of Park Drive to get a shot of it.

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Sergio Najera, 31, was eating lunch at a Carl’s Jr. in North Hollywood when he noticed smoke behind some buildings near Griffith Park. An avid scooter and motorcycle rider, he had plans to go riding through the park that night.

Worried that the area was on fire, Najera and his friend hopped on their bikes with Najera’s camcorder and digital camera in hand to document the fire.

In Burbank, Najera’s bike broke down, so he started to film and shoot photos, edging his bike along the road.

He eventually fixed the bike, hopped back on and continued filming. Najera posted the video clip on YouTube and the still photos on Flickr.

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“I was actually amazed by how many people also had videos and pictures of it,” Najera said.

Kaplan and others said advances in technology have changed the way people look at events, not only in Los Angeles but across the globe.

The confluence of the Internet and digital video technology has allowed individuals to push their way into the picture. Kaplan said the Southern California fires of 2003 saw the beginnings of amateurs’ posting breaking news photos on the Web.

Four years later, sites such as Flickr and latimes.com’s Your Scene section allow people to easily post photos on the Internet. And this fire -- although tiny compared to the 2003 firestorm, occurred in the center of L.A.

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“It was really what I call ‘stop-the-car photojournalism.’ You just had to stop the car and look at that fire,” said Rick Meyer, a former president of the Press Photographers’ Assn. of Greater Los Angeles and a former photographer for The Times. “It was a column of boiling red and black smoke that went straight up 5,000 feet.”

The fire images scattered across the Internet varied in quality -- some were blurry, others crisp and professional. They came from hundreds of different angles, shot from West L.A., from Baldwin Hills and amid smoke and embers in Toluca Lake, and framing icons like the Griffith Park Observatory and the Capitol Records building in Hollywood.

Jim Wagner, 55, a Realtor in Sherman Oaks who saw the smoke when he was at an open house, looked out the window and thought a nearby property was on fire.

He left to make sure that one of his listings wasn’t on fire. Driving east with his Treo mobile phone hooked into his dashboard, he hit the record button.

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“The camera was recording the smoke coming up as I was approaching it, and when I looked at it the other night, I thought, this is kind of cool, it kind of gives you an account of what’s going on, let’s put it on YouTube,” Wagner said.

“It’s not often that you see what could have been a major brush fire taking place right in the center of the city.”

tami.abdollah@latimes.com

andrew.blankstein

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@latimes.com


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