with a crew in Hayfork recently
. As reported on NationalGeographic.com, he says that he was captivated not only by the culture and work of firefighters, but by the nature of the fire itself and its role in the ecosystem, saying, "In my time shooting forest fires, there’s one thing that has become perfectly clear to me. Fire always finds a way. Forests like fire. It’s as if the forest has a ravenous appetite for fire because it knows it needs fire to stay healthy."
We emailed Thiessen to see if he could tell us some more about his work, and he took some time off from his current assignment to get back to us.
What kind of equipment do you use, and does the unique lighting in wildfires provide special challenges?
I use professional digital cameras. In my case I use two Canon 5D Mk III’s with a variety of lenses. The air is so dusty and dry I try to avoid changing lenses as much as possible to prevent dust on my imaging sensor. I usually keep a 24-70/2.8 zoom lens on one and alternate between 100-400/4-5.6 for daytime and the 70-200/2.8 for night.
During the day I love the way the trees and smoke filter the sunlight into light rays. It can be spectacular but only lasts for a split second as the smoke drifts into the right spot for an instant.
At night fire can be beautiful. I like to over-expose the flames so they get “white hot” and the smoke captures the fire light and Illuminates the scene.
What steps to you take to provide for your own safety, and to accommodate the firefighters so you’re not in their way?
In the late ’90s I took the time and effort to become fire line qualified. This means I have taken the basic firefighting classes and each year I take the refresher and pack test. It makes such a difference. It seems every firefighter has had a bad experience with media. I’m always fighting that battle when I work with new people. But after a while they get to know me and they become more comfortable with me. My real calling card is my photography. When I show them my years of fire photography it speaks to my fire experience which means they become more comfortable with me sooner.
Have you visited any of the areas you’re photographing prior to the fire, and does watching it burn spark an emotional resonance in you?
Unfortunately I haven’t had the pleasure of visiting the Hayfork area before this fire. It’s always tragic when you visit areas where homes have burned. The fire takes over so quickly residents are lucky to get out with their lives. Fire is indiscriminate, it’s just doing what it has always done for thousands of years.
When you got off assignment in Hayfork, did you visit anyplace else in the region, and did you enjoy your visit?
The people of Hayfork were so kind and generous. I spent most of my time on the fire line but did get to town a few times on my last few days. Unfortunately I had another work assignment waiting for me at our headquarters in Washington, DC so I had to drive back to Sacramento and fly home.
For more pictures by Thiessen and information about how wildfires are fought, check out the full article
, "A Photographer Inside the Wildfires" on National Geographic's website.
As Thiessen says, it's unusual to get photos from inside the action. (Remember, drones are still not okay
!) We were lucky to get some more candid shots, this time from an amateur photographer, of a California Conservation Corps crew from Fortuna also on the frontline of the Route Complex wildfire. The CCC is a youth workforce development program that routinely sends its corpsmembers (ages 18 to 25) to national emergencies.
According to the Fortuna Conservation Supervisor Raquel Ortega, all crews except one are currently out on wildfires.
Many corpsmembers do camp support
, but the organization has also trained 30 wildland firefighters in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service. These are their photos:
As a record number of wildfires roar through the American West, at least one nationally famous photographer paid a visit to our corner of the world to document this unique moment in national history, and the men and women who work to put out the flames. Mark Thiessen, a photographer with National Geographic, embedded