Wildfire Photos Don’t Tell Whole Story

While we’ve seen many stories about the recent wildfires on the West Coast, words can fall flat in conveying the  gravity of what wildfires are like in person. In those cases, photographs often are able to portray the chaos of the moment much more effectively. But pictures associated with wildfires usually represent only a small portion of what wildfire looks like, according to an article from ProPublica  

Interviews highlighted three key conclusions about the relationship between photography and wildfire. First, photos of fire often instill fear but don’t show productive fires, which are important for the public to see in order to understand and support managed burns. Next, it sets an unnecessary precedent that fire should be struck with military-style force, which isn’t always the best choice and could waste money and resources while being ineffective. Finally, photos can make fires look like they are more widespread than they actually are, even in the case of large wildfires.   

Noah Berger, a freelance photographer who was a finalist for a Pulitzer in photojournalism for his work for The Associated Press, told ProPublica, “Even on these big fires, especially after the first day, it’s often hard to get yourself in position to get the fire photos … on these fires, not even massive ones, to drive the perimeter can take you four hours on [a] dirt trail.”  

Another freelance photojournalist, Josh Edelson, said in a ProPublica interview, “If there’s one fire where there’s, like, two structures burned, and I, as a photojournalist, I’m lucky enough to have captured one of them … then the story might show as like ‘Oh my God, there are houses on fire, everything’s burning.’ But it might just be one house.”   

Not only are the photos sometimes misleading about fire, but they can confuse people about what firefighters are actually doing.   

Tim Ingalsbee, a former firefighter and certified wildland fire ecologist with a doctorate in environmental sociology, told ProPublica, “Those dramatic images where you see a bunch of firefighters and there’s a big flame and there’s a truck on the side? That’s usually someone lighting a backfire. To get a clean frame of a firefighter with a flaming edge [you usually have to shoot] when they have a drip torch in hand. That’s where they’re actually creating the new fire that’s with their burnout, the backfire operation. It drives me crazy.”  

These photos can also create the idea that all fire is bad, and it’s simply not, according to Eric Knapp, a research ecologist for the U.S. Forest Service and amateur photographer.   

“I look at pictures like this and I don’t see fire having destroyed those acres,” Knapp told ProPublica. “Maybe rejuvenated? In all likelihood, this is going to be spectacular next spring. You want to go see great wildflowers? Go next spring. I often take my camera out on fires, and when I look at the images afterwards I kind of shake my head and go, ‘Wow, I didn’t really capture the reality here’ because I mostly took pictures when things got exciting…If you really want to capture what fires are doing in the system, you have to capture all of that fire, even when it’s not as exciting.”  

Jonathan Pangburn, a forester in the San Benito-Monterey Unit of Cal Fire says that the photos can miss the human element. He said sometimes there are good photos, but people are missing the heroic efforts to protect lives during mass evacuations – before the flames hit.  

“I happen to be on the Bear Fire right now. There’s fire on both sides of the Feather River, and the Feather River is just a very steep gorge in many places. And firefighters are having to cut line while rappelling down just to try to make sure the fire stays out of different communities,” Pangburn said. “I’m not taking anything away from the amazing photojournalists out there, but that’s just too remote. They’re not out there. They’re not going to get photos of that.”  

Kyra Young