Fighting fire with photos
By Jim Urquhart
Fire in the west has always been part of my experience. In the summer months I often find the blue skies replaced with a dark orange glow of smoke. With my chosen career path these smoke-filled skies can mean a busy time of year but they seem to have started later in the summer than usual.
I keep a complete fire kit (nomex shirt, nomex pants, emergency fire shelter, leather boots, leather gloves, helmet and goggles) in my truck from the time the snow melts in the spring to until several inches of snow have returned in the fall. I found you always have to be ready to go and nimble because in the heat of the west all it takes is one errant cigarette butt, one hot car engine parked in the dry grass or one well-placed powerful lightning bolt to be called to work.
The year’s fires began to take shape for me last week. During a camping trip bolts of lighting had started several fires that were visible on the way home. These fires for the most part were in unpopulated areas. Then an afternoon looking at photos with friends was interrupted with the news of fire breaking out east of Park City, Utah, of the hills above the Rockport Reservoir. I monitored the growth from afar through the night but when it was determined that it had begun to take homes I struck out to cover it in the morning.
Once on scene it became apparent that while the risk for more fire was still there, it was more or less going to be a mop-up operation for some time to come. Then we got word that two fires near the towns of Boise and Mountain Home, Idaho had been really demonstrating some aggressive behavior. I had a couple contacts from previous fires that I’ve worked on before that were assigned to work these fires. We chatted and I was on my way first thing the next morning.
As I neared the Pony and Elk Complex fires east of Mountain Home I was hit with a think wall of low level ground smoke about 60 miles away from it. I knew it was going to be a busy day so I called my wife and let her know everything was going well on the road. I also told her I was going to be swamped and not to worry unless she doesn’t hear from me until the next day. I had learned a valuable lesson the year before.
Last year while covering the Fontenelle Fire outside of Big Piney, Wyoming, my wife was able to witness the giant smoke column from about 20 miles away at our family’s cabin. As a fire heats during the day a monstrous column of smoke will lift into the skies fueled by its own heat and weather. This was the first time she had seen one build through the day and she knew I was at the base of it working. So while I was back in the canyon making pictures and documenting the action she became worried as the column grew and became even more so when she couldn’t reach me on my phone. When I returned to the cabin that evening pleased with my work the worry was still etched on her face.
I know now to call ahead and set a time for our next call well after I expect to be done for the day.
With the call done I set about covering the fire. Over the course of the day Jason Curry, whom I have worked with many times before and was now assigned as the Fire Information Officer for the Boise National Forest, and I made our way through the fire scene. We found most of the fire had moved on from the small communities in the area into the higher mountain peaks and that crews were mostly monitoring, constructing defenses and putting out hotspots. Although the massive flames were no longer happening there were plenty of images to make. I focused on the men and women doing their work in the hot ash to ensure the fire wouldn’t spark back to life again.
Midway through the second day we got word that the Beaver Creek fire outside Sun Valley, Idaho, had become aggressive. After discussions with editors and the public information officers it was determined that I should make my way east.
Once I arrived at the Beaver Creek fire I was amazed at how much energy it seemed to have behind it. It was angry and hungry. I was quickly taken to an evacuated neighborhood of exclusive homes to witness the fire making its way down the mountain. I hadn’t filed any photos all day because of the relocation and I knew I had to get something up on the wire. After setting up office in my truck and getting pics out I was soon able to witness a unique sight right from my truck. On the ridge line across from me a backing fire was making its way down the ridge. A backing fire is a fire that runs against the wind as it consumes fuel. In this case it was running down hill as well which is not the typical behavior for flames. I was so fortunate I had the perfect vantage point to witness this all night.
At that point I realized there was no way I was going to find accommodations in the area for the night. It is a resort community, it was the weekend now, there were area evacuations and it was late. So I took some jackets and shirts to cover the windows in my truck and I settled in for the night. I was unable to find my sleeping bag that I normally keep with my gear. I have no idea why I would have taken out of my truck for just this situation or where I would have put it. I was fine sleeping in the passenger seat until about 4am when the cold hit and I began to get really upset with my junior league mistake.
But the frustrations of the fitful night before were quickly forgotten when I remembered I kept a stash of camping food in my truck for just this occasion. An MRE of some type of chicken and feta cheese dish and a couple of cans of canned pears made the perfect meal to start the day.
After that first night I was able to share a room with a local photojournalist. Ashley Smith was great to let me bunk in the spare bed in his room and a hot shower after a night sleeping the truck was awesome.
He and I quickly determined that the two of us were going to be the ones producing the bulk of news still images from this fire and figured it was best to work with each other. This fire was taking place in Idaho and not California where members of the media are allowed to travel freely anywhere they please during these wildfires. We needed access and we needed the public information officers to get us past road blocks into the fire to witness the action. Together we could approach the PIOs as a united front to better focus our energies. This strategy worked very well to both our benefits and at times we were able to pull away from the television news stations covering the fire who were weighed down by all their equipment, constant updates and deadlines. We could go really look for images that told the story rather than a couple of trees on fire and we could afford to take a bit of time to make those images.
The thing is that covering fires is actually hard work. It’s hot, you’re packing a lot more gear than usual, you have to cover a lot of terrain and you’re constantly filthy and sweaty. My best nights of rest lately came after working the fire story all day. You are just flat-out exhausted.
And with that said, I have no clue how the firefighters can do what they do all day in and out during the summer. Younger men and women than I fight fire hand to hand in the dirt.
And that is just it. I am a transient to this story. Men and women are really hiking up and down the mountains all day and night to protect others homes and property. I just come in and try to share their story and the story of what takes place and then I leave. They are still there swinging their heavy Pulaski, digging fire lines, putting out hot spots and trying to protect your homes.