You really got into the thick of things for this assignment. How were you able to get into the middle of the fires?
I went to fire school. I did that on my own as a personal project ten years ago and I've shot fires in six of those years. Once you go through the five-day fire school, you just need to get a one-day refresher every year, and then you get a red card certification. A red card makes it a lot easier when I show up at a fire—if the firefighters see a photographer who is red carded, it opens a lot more doors. There isn’t the whole issue about having to get a media person to escort me. I’m always escorted, but I can go in with a fire crew or the division supervisor.
How do you prepare to shoot in a fire?
When I arrived in California, I didn’t have time to prepare—I changed into my fire clothes in the airport parking lot and went right to the fires. My goggles were buried deep down in my suitcase, so I went the first day without them.
How did that go?
There’s a picture of a blizzard of sparks—that got all down my neck and in my ears and eyes. I looked at my eyes in the mirror of my car after the first night. I couldn’t recognize myself they were so bloodshot. I had to wash them out.
If that’s what happened to you, what did you do to protect your camera equipment?
The worst thing about fire is not the heat—it’s the dust. The road turns into cake flour, and the dust is like powdered sugar. It’s the worst. You get this dusting sand in your teeth just from the blowing embers. Every time you change lenses you have that getting into the camera. It’s not so much a problem with the lens, because you can wipe that off. It’s getting it on the chip.
Did that happen to you?Yeah. That was a huge problem. In those six weeks [on assignment] I was in a dirty environment all the time. I tried to keep the cameras clean as best as possible, but it was a loosing battle. With one of my cameras, when I hold it up to my face—even though I’ve cleaned it—I can still smell that sweet smell of smoke.
Was there ever a time when you thought, What am I doing here?
In Smiley Park in southern California. I found myself on this street and seven houses were burning around me. I wanted to see what was down this one road that was blocked by a tree. I hopped over the tree, and all of a sudden the wind shifted, and I became enveloped in smoke—I couldn’t even see my feet. I thought maybe I died—maybe I died, and this is what heaven is like. When you’re in that situation, you can’t see anything because of the smoke. I could hear propane tanks exploding. I walked by one garage and heard what sounded like Chinese fireworks going off—it was ammunition exploding. Power lines were falling down.
What did you do?
The street was a deep-cut road, so I backed out using my hand to feel the side of the road because I couldn’t see anything with the smoke. I probably wouldn’t do that again. I would want somebody with me.
Any other situations where you tempted fate?
I was in a helicopter over Lake Arrowhead [California] shooting aerials. It was really rough up there. We were the only aircraft in the air over those fires. The air tankers weren’t allowed to fly, because the winds were too strong for them. So that picture in the story where you see a bunch of homes burning down from the air—those are million-dollar mountain homes, and that’s when you need the air tankers the most. But it was just too windy for them.
So would you consider this one of your more physically demanding assignments?
Oh yeah, and it’s also mentally demanding. I didn’t take a day off for six weeks. Sometimes I would shoot all night long, because I wanted to shoot the nighttime backfire operation. I knew if I really pushed myself, I would get really great pictures.