Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Firestorm recap

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.
As I stood on the road photographing alongside four colleagues, flames from a burnout operation marched over the ridge a mile in front of us and made its toward the edge of a vast meadow that lay between us and the forest carnage, a fire break. The scale made it among the most impressive displays of natural force I'd witnessed. If not for the firebreak I might have been terrified.

Evacuees share news of the Wallow Fire
We always photograph the best of what is available and always hope for something more significant. We do not hope for disaster, only that when it does strike that we may be able to effectively document its most important effects.

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
I ended this journey feeling as if I had accomplished more than at any of the handful of past major Arizona fires that had presented opportunities to document history; feeling tired, feeling a form of jetlag, and finally being relieved to be out of the smoke.

Families take shelter at Pinetop school
When the landscape burns, it turns lives upside-down. Worried parents and small children leave their homes to sleep in school gyms, never knowing if they will see their home again, intact.

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.
Covering the Wallow fire was documenting history. It is the largest monster to ever consume land in Arizona, at least for as long as anyone has been writing it down.

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.
As firefighters continued to set the burn walking south along the road, we watching this through the lens and the car windows. We weren’t sure whether to shoot or shield from the heat as the burnout found larger bushes of fuel. Of course we shot, as a wave of intense heat washed over us until we began shouting at the photographer driving our vehicle, GO, GO, GO!!! It soon become clear just how hot things had become as the photographer to my left, closest to the flames, realized his fingers no longer had the hair with which they had started the day.

Yikes, that was exciting….

A Surprise, Az. FD, crew mops up near Greer.
The next day the information officers confessed that they had only been able to arrange some interviews in the field with a crew that had made the stand a few days earlier to protect Greer. I had already learned that with 4,000 personnel working the fire, we never knew what we’d find while moving through the area. We knew very well that we might find nothing, and we just might come across something worthwhile.

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
In spite of that concern the information folks knew we needed to continue covering the event and a Pinetop fire officer knew just where to take us. It was then that the five of us found ourselves witnessing the unfolding 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:

Friday, June 10, 2011

Wait, Slow down... Noo, go, go, go

We caravanned to the fireline where hot shots were setting back burns to cut off fuel to the fire along US 180 north of Alpine. Some trees flared up big as we moved passed slowly, making pictures from every opening of the vehicles. And then the bush flared just as our lea car came to a stop. We continue to shoot as it got pretty toasty... go, go, go! That was HOT.  Okay, I admit it, a little exciting.

Passing the time at the Pinetop/Lakeside shelter.

Conferring on fire progress
Fire crews continue to arrive an grow the force in battle with the Wallow fire.

Evacuated residents of Eager watch the

plume consume more land around the town

Firefighters check fire progress before hearing into the field for the night

Burnout operations along HWY 180

Looking out for spot fires along the line

A bit close for a bonfire....

Five of us, The Republic, The Star, AP and Getty along with my representing EPA, crammed in one car with all of our gear,  made our way through fireground in a forest service convoy run by an information officer who understood what we needed and did his very best to find it for us. Public shoutout to Steve of Orange County FD and his great work! Hard work in a day of some rewards.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Wallow Fire Part 1

So, a sort of last minute call sent me to Showlow an beyond to try an work through the silly red tape that surrounds these fire events and make some meaninful photos. Its tough when you can't tell whether you fell short in your own performance as the photographer or that the space in which were allotted as just pretty darn useless? 
Ask me again tomorrow after a media tour with information officers from the forest service. Hoping my A game shows up too.