Q&A: How a Times photographer got this Easy fire photo with Reagan’s Air Force One

Air Force One at Ronald Reagan Library with flames in the distance
Air Force One on display at the Reagan Library as a helicopter prepares to make a water drop on the Easy fire in Simi Valley Wednesday.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

On a hill in Simi Valley overlooking Southern California, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library is the final resting place of the 40th president and his wife, and the site of his Air Force One aircraft.

That same aircraft was the unlikely anchor for a photo of the hills set alight by the Easy fire, which broke out early Wednesday morning and sent thousands of Simi Valley residents running from their homes before dawn.

Staff photographer Wally Skalij has covered many a fire for The Times. As flames from the Easy fire raced toward the Reagan Library, he was ready and waiting to capture this unique view of the 2019 fire season in Southern California.


The library is designed to withstand earthquakes and wildfires. As the grounds nearby burned, people inside sheltered in place. To hold back the flames, firefighters launched aggressive attacks on the burning ridges near Simi Valley’s residential areas.

In a question-and-answer session, Skalij explained how he got the shot.

How long have you been shooting fires?

I have been shooting fires for over 20 years and think I’ve seen everything, but it seems something new arises at every fire.

It’s not always about the huge flame photos. It’s about giving the viewer a different perspective and telling the story.

An owl on the beach in Malibu during the Woolsey fire.
An owl sits on the beach in Malibu as the Woolsey fire approaches on Nov. 9, 2018.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

How did you know where to go?

I was stationed at the Getty fire last night waiting to see if it would flare up again. I was getting notices that the winds in Simi Valley were gusting around 60 mph so I headed in that direction.


As I arrived, the Easy fire started. I immediately headed to the front of the fire.

What led you to shoot this photo from inside the Reagan Library?

My colleague, staff photographer Al Seib, told me the Reagan Library was nearby. I didn’t know what to expect but noticed Air Force One inside overlooking the hills.

I waited for 45 minutes for the fire to arrive.

Overall I was looking for [a moment of] historical value and to create something that would grab the reader.

Air Force One at the Reagan Library as the Easy fire approaches
Air Force One at the Reagan Library as the Easy fire burns in Simi Valley.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

What were your challenges?

My only challenge in shooting this photo was not getting kicked out. I wasn’t 100% sure I was allowed to be in there.

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California’s wildfire seasons are getting longer and more extreme, so the time to prepare is now.

Sept. 2, 2021