It looked like a firestorm.
Clouds of white, black, gray, swirled and billowed in the high mountain winds, turning oily-orange each time a fireball or 300-foot flare attacked and devoured another Ponderosa pine in the western flank of the Wallow Fire.
|Burnout ops Produce a spectacular display south of Greer, Az.|
|Evacuees share news of the Wallow Fire|
I began the four-day journey photographing folks who had left their homes and who had not slept much in their gymnasium home. Gracious and accepting of the historic nature of their experience, the Coffmans experienced their emotions unperturbed as a Republic photographer and I made emotional images. About 75 people had spent the night, but even more would arrive when the Salvation Army began serving lunch.
|the Salvation Army keeps evacuees fed at the shelter|
|Families take shelter at Pinetop school|
Firefighters converge from across the country, working in altitude-thinned air thick with smoke, for 12-16 hour days of hard physical labor, spending their nights in tents in dusty fields.
Upside-down, they battle, they worry about their progress and they themselves inside-out trying to make a difference.
|Hot shot crews set a burnout to stop the Wallow Fire.|
On my second day of coverage, we approached a crew setting a burnout from the edge of the road, working to form a containment line by taking away fuel that the main fire would use to pick up speed to jump the road. After shooting for half an hour, we loaded up again to caravan toward Alpine.
|Just as we slowly pulled alongside, a large bush flared.|
Yikes, that was exciting….
|A Surprise, Az. FD, crew mops up near Greer.|
As reporters and television photographers interviewed the firefighters who saved most of Greer, a brush truck and mop-up crew from Surprise (near Phoenix) worked their way along the road, attacking smoking holes, chopping up and extinguishing smoldering stumps. A day of low expectation had suddenly yielded another piece of the story, another aspect of fighting a massive, historic blaze that ultimately came down to four-man crews ensuring that the blackened landscape was completely free of fire.
|Families with animals opted to set up home in campgrounds|
With the day's results in hand and filed with the picture agency, it was time to take another look at the shelter and see if anything had developed. Turns out, the Red Cross had made the rounds of campgrounds in that area and discovered families with animals had opted to camp out. Volunteers were preparing to head out to deliver ice, food and other supplies to families who had no idea how long the might be using their outdoor homes.
|Camping evacuees unload ice from the Red Cross|
One group of families and friends suspected they might be in for the long haul and organized their camp into sleeping and community areas complete with an outdoor kitchen with hanging pots and pans, cooking and food-prep surfaces. They were making the best of a tough situation.
By the fourth day the information officers were not sure whether they could get us out to the fireground. Commanders were very concerned about the effects of the increasing winds. The respite from fire-growing high winds had ended and everyone was worried.
|German journalist Thomas witnesses the firestorm|
While much of my work these days has had more of a commercial mission, news is in my blood, and will likely always be a part of my photographic diet. It is difficult to not be involved in documenting such a historic event in our state as it affects so many lives and will probably have many other ramifications for years to come. It's tough, dirty, stressful, fascinating and rewarding work to be a part of making the record and bringing home views of an event to inform the general public.
If you missed it, there are more images downpage (a few repeats) as well as many up at the agency archives at Corbis: http://www.corbisimages.com/Search#p=1&s=50&sort=2&pg=Rick+D%27Elia