Behind The Shot: ‘USA Wildfire California’ by David McNew – Banning, California

A smouldering mountainside is seen under the stars at the Silver Fire near Banning, California August 7, 2013. The fire broke out shortly after 2 p.m. near a back-country road south of Banning, about 90 miles (145 km) outside Los Angeles in Riverside County, and within hours had blackened more than 5,000 acres, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Daniel Berlandt said.  REUTERS - David McNew

USA Wildfire California by David McNew

The Silver Fire erupted mid-afternoon this last Wednesday, August 7th in the San Jacinto Mountains south of Banning, California. Two hours later, I was on assignment for Reuters and progressing toward it in rush hour traffic almost a hundred miles away as the fire grew at a rate of about a thousand acres per hour. Reporters in the sky estimated the front to be ten miles wide. Structures were burning. Firefighters had already been injured and a resident was badly burned. Low humidity and drought-desiccated vegetation were feeding the latest in a series of wildfire disasters to hit the West this year.

By the time I punched through the fire front and made my way up the winding two-lane mountain road to the backcountry homes and ranches of the Twin Pines Road area, many were already fully engulfed in flames – walls collapsing, impossible to save. The scene was typical of major wildfire disasters in California: firefighters rushing past burning structures in search of something or someone to save; an occasional resident holding an impotent-looking garden hose; a few news crews and photographers assessing the situation, looking for safe zones and deciding where to go next.

As day became night, it was time to head down the mountain to find a cell phone signal with which to file my pictures to the Reuters international photo desk in Singapore. I paused along the way for one more scene. It was familiar and weirdly tranquil. I’d found solitude among the freshly burned mountains in the dark calm of night. Far from busy firefighters and sad scenes of loss, the immediate aftermath was quiet except for the crackling of flames all around, like thousands of peaceful campfires under a starry sky. It was a sad beauty that would give way to an ugliness at dawn which will take many years to fully heal.

Wildfires can be dangerous and terrifying, gripping, sad and disappointing. They are one of the great forces of nature to be respected, never taken lightly. In fact, most wildfire injuries and fatalities are said to occur when the situation appears rather benign. Anyone who goes near one needs to learn all they can about fire behavior and safety. They should be properly clothed and equipped with PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) and know how and where to deploy their fire shelter, also known as a “Shake ‘n Bake” bag, in case this last resort fire survival tactic is needed.

Always chat with firefighters and fire safety officers along the way for advice. Never get in the way of firefighting resources and be sure to park in the direction of the best escape route. Be on the lookout for overhead power lines, downed live wires and pre-heated partially-burned vegetation. Watch out for fire downhill and know where it might go when the wind shifts. Be aware of local thunder cells and pyrocumulus clouds that often form above big fires and can create strong chaotic winds that blow flames quickly in unexpected directions. Travel only from safe zone to safe zone. When firefighters retreat, you retreat.

It should be noted that California law allows legitimate representatives of news media outlets access to disasters such as wildfires to be “the eyes of the public” under California Penal Code Section 409.5(d). Although federal law can trump state law where federal agencies are in command, such as in national forests, they usually try to respect the state’s tradition of media access. In other states, such interagency cooperation is not protected and law enforcement officials routinely threaten to arrest any journalist found in the vicinity of a wildfire.

I used an old small Gitzo tripod and ball head that has been in the lock box of my car for many years – small enough to hang from a camera bag strap and sturdy enough for long exposures with short lenses. I often work fast and light, and bean bags are also part of my standard arsenal of tools for camera support on the ground, on fences and boulders and against light poles. I no longer sew them myself as I once did and I don’t buy them. These days, I have a box of cotton geologist rock sample bags. I just pour in a standard 16-ounce bag of beans from the grocery store, tie it off loosely and I’m good to go. Pocket-sized bags need only half as many beans. I also keep some empties in my travel bag.

When I’m shooting with big lenses from the car, a few bean bags on the car roof can be more stable than a thousand dollar tripod when the wind is calm. When the wind gets strong enough to shake the car during long exposures, I look for suitable boulders. For this image, I used an exposure of 10 seconds at f/1.4, ISO 400 and a 24mm lens on a Canon EOS-1D Mark IV camera, which results in an effective focal length of about 31mm. To focus on infinity in the dark at f/1.4, I select distant lights or the moon then recompose the frame.

Despite the destruction, California fire cycles are normal and crucial to the health of the natural environment and for the prevention of even worse future fires that can burn so hot as to permanently destroy forests, turning them into brushlands. For a limited time, you can see more of my Silver Fire images in a Yahoo news picture search available here, and this picture and two more of my Silver Fire images were among the Reuters editor choices for that week. – David McNew

Equipment and settings: Canon EOS-1D Mark IV, Canon EF 24mm 1.4L II lens, Gitzo tripod and ball head – 10 seconds at f/1.4, ISO 400

Follow McNew on Facebook and Twitter. His portfolio can be found at his website, DavidMcNew.com. His motion work is available on Vimeo.