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I covered my first California fire and was covered in hot pink fire retardant

Retardant on a car near Pacific Palisades fire
Vehicles were doused with fire retardant Oct. 21 near a brush fire burning in Pacific Palisades.
(Sonja Sharp / Los Angeles Times)

As a breaking news reporter in New York City, I covered scores of disasters, from hurricanes and blizzards to floods and deadly conflagrations. But my first California blaze Monday turned out to be a baptism by hot pink fire retardant.

The Pacific Palisades brush fire had somewhat quelled when I arrived on scene at about noon. A line of firefighters snaked up the ridge, battling small flames near the top while those below cut a fire line. Traffic was stopped about a mile away on Sunset Boulevard, but many residents were making the trek on foot to their homes further up Palisades Drive.

The winds had calmed to a whisper. Fire vehicles and personnel were being called away. Everyone assured me that things were dying down.

But unlike hurricanes and blizzards, I learned, fires are unpredictable.

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Suddenly, a chorus of female voices rang through the canyon. Those of us chatting and texting across the street looked up to see the all-women’s inmate fire crew scrambling down the ridge. Moments later, the ground where they’d stood was aflame. Helicopters that had been dumping water on the brush were now joined by fixed winged planes, and crews watched as the fire raced toward the road.

A plane releases flame-retardant
A plane releases pink flame-retardant above a Pacific Palisades fire.
(Sonja Sharp / Los Angeles Times)

That’s when I heard the air tanker. I raised my phone just as it dropped its payload.
“Get under the tree!” someone behind me shouted as the rose-colored cloud of retardant rained down on us. “Close your eyes! Don’t breathe!”

What I saw when I looked up again was a scene out of Stephen King’s “Carrie.” Police, firefighters and reporters were doused in dripping, reddish-pink muck, a brew that is 88% water and 12% ammonium phosphate and sulfate. It ran down the street, pooling in the gutters and soaking our shoes. Even some of the seasoned firefighters said they’d never been hit like that before.

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I escaped with a few hot pink freckles and some new streaks in my hair.

I also got some good fashion advice: next fire, skip the white shirt.


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