Reporters flocked to Southern California last week to document the devastating wildfires that tore through the region. As some evacuees slowly began returning home, they found some half million acres — 770 square miles — scorched among the 14-plus blazes, with 1,780 homes destroyed and at least three fatalities. The disaster reminded many of Hurricane Katrina, as President Bush, touring the region with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, declared various areas “major disaster” zones and said help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency was on the way.
The network news anchors pounded the ground for fresh stories, relying on their local-station counterparts for market expertise. But of all the reports emerging from Los Angeles and San Diego, perhaps none was more gripping than that from Larry Himmel.
In a video that has been seen hundreds of thousands of times on YouTube (scroll down to view), Himmel, wearing thick goggles and a bandana over his mouth, does a live standup at the foot of his house, which was reduced to embers. “On any given day, I would say welcome to my home,” he told viewers. “This is what’s left of my home.”
Surprisingly upbeat, the 29-year KFMB veteran spoke with B&C’s Michael Malone about what he learned in switching from reporting the news to being the news, and how his family is dealing with its loss.
How are you holding up?
We’re doing remarkably well. These situations bring out the best in people -- I can’t tell you how generous people have been. My son lost a bunch of sports memorabilia, and some woman heard about it and dropped off a bunch of hockey sticks and signed baseballs at the station. He and my wife walked into a sporting-goods store because he needed tennis shoes and somebody bought them for him.
My [loss] played out on television, so it got a lot more publicity than other poor people who are in the same boat. I walk down the street and probably hug six or seven people a block. All that stuff helps. You see people walking around like zombies -- it’s like you’re in a war zone, you’ve been blitzkrieged and you’re just shellshocked. But people are starting to go to the coffee shop or wherever they normally go. They’re starting to talk about it and I think that’s going to help.
What are a few things you’ve lost that seem irreplaceable?
I had a room downstairs that had an antique pinball machine, an antique slot machine. I was a disc jockey before I was in television, and I had one of those old radio-operator boards. I had a couple of turntables down there, all my old vinyl, a 1957 Wurlitzer jukebox, that kind of stuff. But it’s [just] stuff.
How did you end up doing the standup from your house?
When I first evacuated my family, I knew we had a couple of hours. It was about 5:30 [Monday] when I woke up and smelled this terrible sweet smell of smoke. I had spent the day before covering that same fire, but it was 10 miles away and nobody was thinking it was going to affect us. So I was out there all day, talking to people who were evacuated, doing live shots of people who’d lost their house. I went home that night and said to my wife, “I just spent the day with these poor people who lost everything.” We woke up the next morning and I got them out.
Right in the area where I dropped my family off, there was a photographer I usually work with. I said, “I’m gonna have time to go back and get some more stuff, so let’s drive by my house.” There was certainly enough burning in the area that we could find a story, talk to somebody.
As we drove by the house, I said, “Oh my God, we’re in serious jeopardy here.” Because we have fire credentials, we were able to drive right up to the scene. As I got to the bottom of my driveway, the fire truck was coming down, and [the firefighter] said, “There’s nothing we can do. You can go up there, but it’s gonna be nothing.”
We went up the driveway and I was kind of shellshocked, adrenaline pumping like crazy. My photog threw me a microphone and we started rolling.
How were you able to keep it together?
I knew that for my family, this was real, and I wanted to do it so that they and my neighbors and people who knew me could see what’s going on. I think the adrenaline-junkie reporter kicked in. But still, it was surreal.
How did it feel to go from reporting the story to becoming part of the story?
Somebody said, sometimes you get the fire, and sometimes the fire gets you. I’ve been really accessible to the media, and I did it because I’ve been on the other side of that -- I’ve had to walk up to somebody and say, “Excuse me, I know you’re in the middle of a personal tragedy, but can I have 30 seconds of your time for a soundbite or two?” Having been on the other side of that, if someone asks for a moment of my time, I said, yeah, sure.
Bet you never thought you’d end up a YouTube phenomenon.
[Laughs] If it happened 25 years earlier, maybe I’d have gotten that network job I always coveted.