top of page
Search

Wildfire photography: documentation of wildfire in its many forms

Content warning: these images may be difficult for some viewers, as traumatic life experiences with wildfire are commonplace, especially from the megafires in the last decade.


Captions under images are taken from photo sources, some have been shortened.


The power of wildfire photography lies in the documentation of the natural world. Wildfire photography can bring public awareness to the realities of wildland firefighting, the effects of wildfire, and even be appreciated simply as an art form with its own beauty.


A stand of trees next to the river are awash in flame. Fire paints light across a dusky sky across the river.
Kyle Miller Photography

As with any art form, the human relationship with the subject is revealed through our reaction to the art piece. What are the first few words or phrases that you think or feel when you see the images above? Many modern-day westerners, and perhaps yourself, have negative connotations of wildfire. Perhaps one of those thoughts was along the lines of "that looks scary," "that seems dangerous," or "it is unfortunate those trees are being destroyed." These perspectives take a negative view of fire, and of course, fear of large fires is a natural instinct and evolutionarily necessary for survival. However, the same holds true for large, churning rivers or expansive oceans, in which a human could drown. And yet our overall connotations of bodies of water in western thinking do not take such a negative view.


Blackened trees stand silhouetted and engulfed in yellow and orange. Embers are everywhere.
Kari Greer 2016

Roosevelt Fire. Bondurant, Wyoming; Sept. 25 - Oct. 1, 2018 (Kari Greer)

Any piece of art can have the power to change your perspective or facilitate deeper thinking and learning. Wildfire photography certainly has that potential, especially because we so rarely see wildfires in person. Having access to a variety of depictions of wildfire is vital. Take, for example, the image above: a wildfire roars in the background of a lone firefighter with a drip torch (a tool used to dispense fire). Did you know that firefighters often use fire to fight fire? Or that seasoned wildland firefighters can be in proximity to flames several times their height while feeling quite safe? Note: Approaching a wildfire is NOT safe for the public. Fire professionals are trained on when and where it is safe to approach a fire.






"As with any art form, the human relationship with the subject is revealed through our reaction to the art piece. What are the first few words or phrases that you think or feel when you see the images above?"

As a visual learner, I was inspired by the following visual depictions of fire to provide context that can help others learn more about wildfire.



Looking up: Red fire retardant falls from a plane against the background of dark smoke. The green tops of several trees can be seen in the bottom left corner of the photo, but the landscape and sky is otherwise entirely obscured by smoke.
An airplane drops fire retardant during the 2022 Mosquito Fire in California. Jennifer Osborne 2022

A wildland firefighter with a drip torch walks along the hillside, scattering fuel to encourage undergrowth burning. Trees are more widely spaced than the dense woods we associate with fire-suppressed and untreated forest systems of today.
Ponderosa Pines on Thorne Creek. Kyle Miller Photography

Above, you can see the use of a drip torch by a professional wildland firefighter. He uses the slope from the uphill topography to burn undergrowth in lines. As each line is set on fire, it burns upwards (the slope is towards the left in this photo), and the fire burns up towards the previously set line. It is common to start at the top of a ridge and burn in strips in this way until you reach a valley. This system creates a predictable environment in which flames stay small and run out of fuel. Of course, this technique is not usable in all conditions. For example, if there were a downslope wind, low humidity, or different vegetation burning in this way, it could become unpredictable or unsafe. Conversely, during colder months, when vegetation retains more water and is not subject to colder temperatures, getting fire to catch and maintain a burn is challenging, sometimes impossible.


In the photograph above, the grasses and shrubs are burning, but the trees have no fire on them. Most tree species native to California, when in a healthy state, can easily withstand the level of ground fire seen here without sustaining any damage or being at any real risk of catching fire. A thick outer layer of bark acts as a barrier because it does not ignite with the small flames that grasses and small shrubs create. This is in part because bark retains water better than grasses and small shrubs do, so the intensity of the flame required to ignite bark is much more extreme than the little flames shown here.


"This composite image shows the progression of plant growth after a fire. Beginning as quickly as the day of the burn, grasses and wildflowers break through the ash looking for sunlight. Controlled burns are timed to mimic the natural fire regime in an area."
Brady Beck. Text reads: This composite image shows the progression of plant growth after a fire. Beginning as quickly as the day of the burn, grasses and wildflowers break through the ash looking for sunlight. Controlled burns are timed to mimic the natural fire regime in an area.

Fire licks a grassy hillside. Four Marin County Fire Department firefighters stand at the edge of the fire. Blackened grass smokes on the right side of the image, while flames still run through the grass in the upper lefthand quadrant of the image.
Marin County Fire Department firefighters participate in a controlled burn training on June 19, 2019, in San Rafael, California. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The general public rarely gets to see fire in a natural ecosystem; even this simple burn may invoke fear for some, especially due to past experience with wildfire. It is important to spread images of safe fires. Just as we might see the beauty and significance of a forest or a river when portrayed by nature photography, I hope our view of fire can expand to include the positive connotations of fire and reduce the feelings of extreme fear from wildfire. The level of fear and anxiety that many people attach to fire is not set in reality but instead in past experiences, fear of the unknown, and catastrophizing. It is natural and instinctive to have a fear of fire, just as we would be afraid of stepping into a roaring river. But the level to which many modern humans fear fire is extreme. A step in the right direction is reframing fire in the media, and that has begun to occur. The more images of good fire that are circulated, the better. My hope is that with images such as the ones in this article, the public can rediscover the beauty and significance of fire.


Check out more images by these wildfire photographers:


"It is natural and instinctive to have a fear of fire, just as we would be afraid of stepping into a roaring river. But the level to which many modern humans fear fire is extreme. A step in the right direction is reframing fire in the media, and that has begun to occur...
The more images of good fire that are circulated, the better."
Orange-red rays fan across the sky, where a celestial body peers through the haze.
Night Long Exposure. Sunlight Mesa RX prescribed fire at night on the Bighorns in 2015. This shot is a long exposure of the firing operations happening around 1:00 am. Kyle Miller Photography

The impact of fire that affects the largest number of people is air quality issues from smoke, ash, and other particulates in the air. Wildfire smoke effects are particularly harmful for vulnerable populations, including those experiencing homelessness, people with asthma, and those with severe health issues. The poor air quality can last weeks in extreme cases, and smoke often travels hundreds, sometimes thousands, of miles.


A red sun overlooks a two-lane highway. The entire image is dark from smoke and haze; it appears that a mountain's silhouette appears against the bottom half of the sun, but it is otherwise indistinguishable from the dark gray sky.
Tinted orange by wildfire smoke from Oregon and southern Washington, the sun sets behind a hill on September 9, 2020 in Kalama, WA. (DAVID RYDER//GETTY IMAGES)

For large wildfires, it can take weeks from first ignition to a fully extinguished state. After the main firefront passes, firefighters follow up with "mop-up," a stage of wildland firefighting that aims to fully extinguish remaining smoldering or burning materials in order to prevent reignition or stop a spotfire before it spreads. This involves a combination of covering burning materials with soil to cut off oxygen supply and strategic application of water. In a prescribed fire, mop-up is also used to ensure the fire is contained inside the area that land managers want to treat with fire.


"My hope is that with images such as the ones in this article, the public can rediscover the beauty and significance of fire."

Fire burns within the trunk of a tree in the forest. The flames hollow out the heartwood and lick at the air outside the cavity.
A tree burns in a blackened forest at dawn on August 30 after the Caldor Fire tore through Twin Bridges, California. Karl Mondon/Digital First Media/The Mercury News/Getty Images.


Among burned out cars and rubble from destroyed structures, a young woman cries next to her boyfriend as they take stock of the Dixie Fire's aftermath on their home.
Riley Cantrell cries while she and boyfriend, Bradley Fairbanks, view what's left of her mother's home in Greenville, California, on September 4. It was destroyed by the Dixie Fire. (Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)

Megafires in California have caused significant emotional trauma for the population. Portrayal of positive impacts of fire and hope to rediscover the beauty of fire are not realistic nor need to be prioritized for many individuals. My heart goes out to the billions devastated by megafires across the globe. However, there are many who have gone through trauma and have taken it upon themselves to become more informed on topics relating to wildfires, including wildfire prevention, home hardening, defensible space, and/or evacuation.


Trees in a secondary-growth forest are blanketed by a layer of what could be snow. Rather, the blackened trunks and forest floor are thickly coated in ash from the Windy Fire.
A forest of ashen trees stands in the wake of the Windy Fire, south of California Hot Springs, on September 27, 2021. David McNew/Getty Images.

If you live in California, you are a human living in an ecosystem that requires fire. I hope that you take it upon yourself to prepare for the event of a wildfire. Saving lives is always the first priority of firefighters during any fire. However, the sooner they can focus all their attention on secondary objectives such as slowing and stopping the fire, protecting cultural resources, or extinguishing homes, the better. Preparing yourself and your home for a wildfire event frees firefighters to save the lives of other individuals and get to their secondary objectives, like protecting structures and reducing the footprint of the fire.


Consider answering and taking action on a few of the following questions:

  • Are you signed up to be notified of a wildfire in your area? Even during the night?

  • Do you have an emergency bag? Are you able to leave in 15 minutes?

  • Highlights: important documents, food, water, clothes, be ready for loss of power, and cell service

  • Are your more vulnerable family, neighbors, friends, and pets ready? If not, can you make a plan to include them?


A female evacuee of South Lake Tahoe fires sits in a camping chair among tents, hugging her dog. In the foreground of the image, a woman in a red shirt stares into the distance; her expression is grim, and the photograph has her out of focus.
Veronica Foster, an evacuee from South Lake Tahoe, California, hugs her dog, as she and her co-workers gather outside an evacuation center in Gardnerville, Nevada, on August 31 after the Caldor Fire. Dai Sugano/Digital First Media/The Mercury News/Getty Images.

I conclude with a couple photos of individuals working in wildfires below as a reminder that there are many people who dedicate their lives to a variety of professions that keep the public safe in the event of a wildfire. Of course, there are wildfire firefighters and municipal firefighters. There are also foresters that see to the health of our forests, photographers that document fire, and public safety officials that plan for notification and evacuation of the public.


A silhouetted wildland firefighter in action against smoke and silhouetted/backlit trees.
Kyle Miller Photography

My knowledge of wildfires is thanks to former and current wildland firefighters, environmentalists, and administrators at GrizzlyCorps. I am thankful to all the professionals who taught, mentored, and worked alongside me for the last year and a half. Thanks to the GrizzlyCorps program, I have had a fellowship with both the Marin Wildfire Prevention Authority (MWPA) and the Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program (FFRP), in which I have learned and grown tremendously.









A group of four firefighters stand between two trucks - each reading "Wyoming hotshots" - against a low-sun sky.
End of Shift. Kyle Miller Photography

91 views0 comments

Comentários


bottom of page