What It's Like Taking Pictures Inside an Inferno
National Geographic photographer describes the experience of shooting fires.
Part of our First Person series, where we invite writers to share personal stories.
I feel a personal connection to the fires hitting Southern California.
As a kid growing up there, I wanted to be a photojournalist and fires were something I could shoot. I had a paper route and used the money to buy a camera and a fire-police radio to hear the dispatcher calls. My mom would drive me to places before the roadblocks went up, so I could wander around and take pictures.
I covered my first big fire after college as a newspaper photographer in Boise, Idaho. There was a devastating blaze that wiped out a town north of the city. All that was left were chimneys and dead horses. I shot other fires and felt so small and insignificant when I saw the flames, heard the roar and power of it. It's like a freight train. (Watch video: "Behind the Photo: Fireman")
I've never felt scared while covering a fire because I am certified as a wildland firefighter. In bad situations, the training kicks in. You have to be very respectful and humble to this force of nature that's totally unpredictable. You're constantly reevaluating the risks. One thing I learned in training is that many aspects of fires are counterintuitive. For instance, "keep one foot in the black and you'll always come back." The "black" is the area that's burned; it might be hot and smoky but it's not likely to burn again. It could be your escape route. There are also hidden hazards that people don't realize, like trees that fall down days after the active flame is out.
Things look otherworldly when you're in the middle of a fire. Light does unusual things through smoke, and fire is its own light source so you can make these wonderful pictures right in the middle of it. You don't want to stop. I have enough fire experience to know how to be safe but also to think creatively in the middle of all that.
The most difficult thing about shooting in a fire is trying to keep smoke out of your way because it obstructs what you're trying to photograph. So I'm always paying attention to the direction of the wind. You have to know when to keep moving—when you can take your risks and when it's time to go.
Southern California has very specific kinds of fires pushed by Santa Ana wind conditions and fueled by chaparral, which is drought resistant and very flammable. Chaparral burns hot and fast. These are strong, wind-driven fires, with embers blowing ahead of the fire front and starting more fires. When I shot a story there for National Geographic in 2007, our helicopter had a hard time turning because the winds were so strong.
Wildfires are going to continue to happen because that area is made to burn. Fire is indiscriminate—it doesn't care what's in front of it. I've photographed people there who lost everything to fire, but they always say: Those things are just things. At least we have each other, and that is what's most important.