It cannot be overstated just how brave firefighters are. Their job is to run toward the flames when, as humans, our natural reaction is to run the opposite direction. In fact, on June 28, 2013, 19 firefighters with the Prescott Fire Department’s Granite Mountain Hotshots, perished during the Yarnell Hill Fire. It was the greatest loss of firefighters in the U.S. since the September 11 attacks in 2001.
When I made the image above, we in the press corps were still thirty minutes from being taken to document the largest wildfire in Arizona history.
Most people will never get as close to an amazing natural event as I did that day, nor will they ever be on a press tour with the access we’re granted to bring images and information to the masses. This article seeks to give a behind the scenes look at covering a major news story.
Now, I’m the host of the Lens Shark Photography Podcast and freelance, but four years ago this month I was staff photojournalist for the White Mountain Independent in eastern Arizona’s beautiful White Mountains.
Saturday, June 4, 2011
This day, I was shooting “Pow Wow in the Pines” just as I had in the years previous. The difference this year, a giant plume of smoke from the fairly nearby Wallow Fire was ominously looming over the horizon.
I was warned ahead of time that my Editor might be calling me. I kept checking my phone, but the call never game. As I’m shooting the pow wow, I get a tap on my shoulder. It was him. He came up to the Pow Wow to personally give me my assignment.
Document Greer, AZ as it may not exist in a few days time. Yeah, that was pretty ominous.
I wrapped things up and headed 35 minutes down the road to Greer. I made the turn toward Greer and pulled up next to two Apache County Sheriff Office deputies. They were keeping an eye on things and making sure people weren’t coming into Greer to rob people who had already evacuated. I showed them my credentials, got the 411 on the status of the town, then headed in.
I got all the obligatory shots documenting the town, evacuations, then headed deep into Greer until I got to a road that the U.S. Forest Service closed as it led to the fire.
I had never been to Greer before. We rarely covered the town as not much happened there, but with the fire raging not far over the tree line, now was its time for some coverage. I shot the heck out of Greer that day. Many were saying that they may not be able to save the town so it was photograph it now or lose the opportunity forever as it may be moonscape’d soon.
Having never been there before, I didn’t have a frame of reference, but wow was it eerily quiet. Ghost town quiet. I ran into Associated Press photojournalist Jae C. Hong who was decked out in bright yellow wildland fire gear and heard that a photojournalist I greatly admired, now a friend, Jack Kurtz of the Arizona Republic might be in the area.
What would become Arizona’s largest wildfire dominated much of my life for a solid month. The press pushed for access to the fire and finally they let us in a full 10 days later. They took us just 300 feet from the fire and it was the most amazing natural thing I had ever seen.
Being nearly summer, my plate was already full with assignments from area festivals, concerts and the like. The Wallow Fire cranked things up a few notches and made June 2011 my busiest ever as a newspaper photographer.
When the fire raced toward our coverage area, we requested access to cover the fire and were denied. The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) decided to provide their own photos and video to the media rather than let us in to cover it ourselves. The press doesn’t take too kindly to being told no…especially by government. After nearly two weeks of requests and possible legal action, the government finally agreed to a media tour of the fire.
Here’s how things went down once we were finally granted access…
Tuesday, June 14, 2011
I arrived at our Springerville satellite office just after 9 am to meet up with one of our reporters for the daily press briefing at Round Valley Primary School. But this day would be different as the USFS would finally be allowing us to cover the fire.
During the daily press briefing, the USFS and others involved in managing the Wallow Fire would show us updated maps with the fire’s progression and answer questions. This would typically last about 30 minutes.
Unlike all the other days, we were going to the fire rather than heading back to the office.
So we loaded up in vans and off to the fire we went.
About 30 minutes after leaving the morning press briefing in Springerville, we arrived in beautiful Nutrioso where the press convoy stopped for a press safety briefing.
At this briefing, officials made it very clear to us that they would be taking us close to the fire and that while they were reasonably certain we would be fine, being in close proximity to a wildfire of this size was inherently dangerous.
They made it very clear to us that they were in charge and while we would be able to photograph the fire, it would be from a fairly restricted area. We were told that we were not allowed to wander off and when they said it was time to go…it was time to go. This was not up for debate. Everyone agreed and we headed down the road to an area about 3 miles east of Alpine, AZ.
We arrived at an area down the road from where we would be photographing the fire and as we waited, a crew from government-owned China Central Television (CCTV) reported on the fire.
Just a week earlier, this reporter and his cameraman were in Joplin, Missouri following the devastating tornado which claimed 158 lives and leveled portions of that town.
In addition to the Chinese crew was a writer/photographer from a firefighter magazine out of Germany as well as newspaper and television crews from Phoenix.
This was a major story leading the news for weeks in Arizona. It made not only the national news, but world news as well.
In time, they would all leave, but this was my area of operation. I was the visual storyteller in this section of our great state.
Finally, U.S. Forest Service officials gave us the OK to hoof it up a dirt road with our gear to the area they chose for the media to view the Wallow Fire. As the USFS had command of the area so people couldn’t just saunter in there, we had to be escorted in and escorted out. The only people allowed in the area were firefighters and law enforcement. Anyone trying to get close to the fire would be arrested.
When we reached the top of the incline you see in the photo above, one of the television cameramen asked “So where’s the fire?” To which a USFS official replied “It’s coming.”
The thought of Arizona’s largest wildfire coming to us was unnerving. We weren’t taken to where it was already burning. It was coming to us. And with that, of course, came some inherent danger. Due to that fact, the USFS kept a close eye on where the fire was moving and made sure to move the convoy vehicles up the hill to where we were shooting from and parked them all so they were facing in the direction we could egress. If the fire were to get too close, we needed to pack up and get out of there quickly.
What you see in the photo above is the most amazing natural occurrence I’ve ever witnessed. It changed me. I have a renewed appreciation for nature and a deeper understanding of just how quickly things can change.
Moments earlier, the scene above was a beautiful expanse of forest. Then a small flame appeared. Before you knew it, the massive wall of flames you see above.
As the fire raged, the smoke blocked out the sun and what had been a really hot June day turned quite cold as the temperature inversion happened. We went from being warm and sweaty to feeling fairly cold. It was quite an experience and one for which the USFS hadn’t told us about. I think they saved that for their amusement.
In the upper left third of the photo at left, you’ll see the same tree which was engulfed in flames in the previous photo.
Though horribly burned, I remember thinking at the time that there was something quite beautiful about it. Much like the sad Christmas tree from Charlie Brown.
Sad, but beautiful in its own way nonetheless.
Forest fires create colors for which I had never seen before. Everything was influenced by this murky, brown color. Nothing looks good in that light, but a forest fire.
Not long after I shot this photo, the USFS informed us that it was time to go. A couple of cameramen from the television stations stalled a bit so they could get shots of fires which were popping up around us as embers hit the forest floor. The USFS very sternly told them “We need to go! NOW!” They collapsed their tripods and we hustled out of there as quickly as we could. I wouldn’t say we were in immediate danger, but fire crews needed to get in there and put down the fires that were popping up all around us.
They promised they’d take us close to the fire and they weren’t lying!
June 14, 2011 is a day I shall never forget as I witnessed the great power of mother nature closer than anyone ever has business being. If you’re that close, you’re either a firefighter or you’re a fool playing carelessly with their life. As a photojournalist, it was an amazing experience.
Four days later, we headed back to an area not too far away from where we witnessed the fire only this time it was members of Congress. Specifically, Sen. John McCain, Sen. Jon Kyl, Rep. Jeff Flake and Rep. Paul Gosar. A little less than three years earlier, John McCain was on the campaign trail running for President. This day, he and the other members of Congress were on a mountainside overlooking an area called “The Blue”.
Saturday, June 18, 2011
The press corps arrived in advance of the members of Congress to interview the Chief of the Alpine Fire Department. After waiting a short while, Sen. John McCain and the others arrived. In this photo, note the burned out forest in the background. Also, note the Secret Service agents. As a former candidate for President, Sen. McCain enjoys around-the-clock protection.
The photo above was taken during the brief, 12 minute photo-op which was set up overlooking an area near Alpine, AZ called “The Blue”. Those of us in the pressed chuckled at how we and the members of Congress had to drive 35 minutes or so each direction for a 12 minute photo-op. But hey, it looked good on television and in newspapers around the world.
If Sen. McCain looks uncomfortable in this photo, it’s because he was. While doing a press conference following a tour of areas burned by the Wallow Fire, Sen. McCain made news for seeming to blame Arizona’s wildfires on illegal aliens. Within the hour, his comments had made news around the world and he later had to clarify his statement.
Tuesday, June 21, 2011
17 days after my assignment to document Greer in case it didn’t survive, my Editor sent me back into Greer to photograph the aftermath as residents returned. As you can see in the photo above, Greer, AZ, known for its beautiful views of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, was significantly scarred by the Wallow Fire.
Greer, AZ, an area with fairly expensive real estate, was changed in a way which will take many decades to recover from. As you can see by the photo above, the fire came over the top of the ridge, decimating everything in its path before firefighters stopped if from rolling into town.
As I made my way deep into the heart of Greer, I came across a house completely destroyed by the fire with metal melted up high in a tree. It was particularly odd as the house right next door was left unscathed. Thirty or so feet made all the difference for this homeowner. Most homes and businesses in Greer were spared, and while still a beautiful town, it’ll take many decades before it looks like it once did.
The Wallow Fire, which was started by brothers who abandoned their campfire, burned from May 29 to July 8, 2011, claimed 538,049 acres and cost an estimated $109 million.
As a photojournalist, covering Arizona’s largest wildfire made for quite an intense month of my life. While I shot many other assignments during that time, the Wallow Fire dominated each day. You never know when you’re going to get a call which changes your day and sends you on quite an adventure.
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Photos © White Mountain Publishing Company