ACTON, CA - AUGUST 30: A Los Angeles County fire fighter sprays water on burning trees as he fights the Station Fire August 30, 2009 in Acton, California. The out of control Station Fire has burned more than 35,000 acres and is burning towards homes from Pasadena to the Antelope Valley. The wildfire, which broke out Wednesday afternoon near a ranger station and the Angeles Crest Highway above La Canada Flintridge, has forced thousands of evacuations as nearly 10,000 homes are threatened. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Shooting in Hell: What It's Like to Photograph Wildfires

A photographer talks about the dangers and rewards of capturing firestorms.

Not many disasters, whether natural or manmade, are as viscerally powerful or visually arresting as wildfires. And unlike an earthquake, for example, which might last mere seconds, a wildfire is a slow-motion cataclysm that can rage for days or even weeks. For Getty Images photographer Justin Sullivan, covering wildfires — especially in his native California, where he has been photographing the Carr Fire — has become something of a minor obsession. Here, he talks with FOTO about what makes for a powerful fire picture; staying safe while covering firestorms; and when it's time to put down the camera and help people in need.

CLEARLAKE, CA - AUGUST 03: A Cal Fire firefighter is silhouetted by his headlamp as he monitors a backfire while battling the Rocky Fire on August 3, 2015 near Clearlake, California. Nearly 3,000 firefighters are battling the Rocky Fire that has burned over 60,000 acres has forced the evacuation of 12,000 residents in Lake County. The fire is currently 12 percent contained and has destroyed at least 14 homes. 6,300 homes are threatened by the fast moving blaze. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images) Justin Sullivan/Getty Images EVER-CHANGING "I don't consider myself a 'fire photographer,'" Sullivan told FOTO. "But there's a group of us in the Bay Area who end up working together on wildfires. We're all drawn to fires for a number of reasons. For one thing, a wildfire is ever-changing. It's not like covering a flood, where you go and shoot a week of receding waters. A fire is fluid from the get-go, and then there are pockets of time during the day, like the late afternoon, when the wind routinely picks up and things can get pretty chaotic really fast." [Pictured: Light from his headlamp silhouettes a firefighter as he monitors a backfire lit near Clearlake, California, August 2015.] FRESH POND, CA - SEPTEMBER 17: Embers swirl around firefighters as they monitor a backfire while battling the King Fire on September 17, 2014 in Fresh Pond, California. The King fire is threatening over 1,600 homes in the forested area about an hour east of Sacramento and has consumed over 18,544 acres. The out of control fire is 5 percent contained. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images) Justin Sullivan/Getty Images WHERE THE ACTION IS Sullivan grew up in Los Angeles but has called the Bay Area home since he was 12. Today, he lives in a small town just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. "In the 1990s I was studying to be a paramedic,” he said. “But one day I made the decision to pursue photography instead. I had been taking pictures during 'ride-alongs' as an EMT, and found that I enjoyed the rush of not only racing to wherever the action was, but capturing those moments, too." In the two decades since then, Sullivan has covered more than a dozen wildfires, most of them in California, many of them among the deadliest and most destructive on record. [Pictured: Embers swirl around firefighters as they monitor a backfire while battling the King Fire in Fresh Pond, California, September 2014] GLEN ELLEN, CA - OCTOBER 09: A resident rushes to save his home as an out of control wildfire moves through the area on October 9, 2017 in Glen Ellen, California. Tens of thousands of acres and dozens of homes and businesses have burned in widespread wildfires that are burning in Napa and Sonoma counties. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images) Justin Sullivan/Getty Images HELPING HAND Every journalist grapples with the ethics of the profession. For instance, Kevin Carter's unsettling, Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph from South Sudan in 1993 still sparks intense debate today about whether Carter had a moral responsibility to intercede in the grim scene before him. Asked if he had ever found himself in a situation where he was compelled to put down his camera and help a person, Sullivan replied without hesitation. "Yes. During a fire that burned through Napa and Sonoma in October 2017, I came across a man running around frantically trying to save his house (above). The fire surrounded the house but, somehow, hadn't yet reached it. A fence around the house was on fire, and I helped him knock it down and put it out so the flames wouldn't burn deeper into his property. I am first and foremost a human being, and I'm not going to let someone's house burn to the ground so that I can keep taking pictures. I'm just not."

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SANTA ROSA, CA - OCTOBER 11: An aerial view of homes that were destroyed by the Tubbs Fire on October 11, 2017 in Santa Rosa, California. Twenty one people have died in wildfires that have burned tens of thousands of acres and destroyed over 3,000 homes and businesses in several Northen California counties. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images) Justin Sullivan/Getty Images JAW-DROPPING Even after decades of covering fires, Sullivan can still be astonished by what he sees, and by the sheer destructive power at work. "I heard that a neighborhood in Santa Rosa was destroyed during the Tubbs Fire in October 2017, but until I saw it from the air I had no conception at all of the scale of the devastation," he said. "With most wildfires, even in neighborhoods like this one, the fire sort of jumps around, destroying a home here, but leaving another one over there standing. But this was something like a square mile where every house was burned to the ground. It was just jaw-dropping, like nothing I'd ever encountered in all the years I had covered fires." CLEARLAKE, CA - AUGUST 02: Oceanside Fire Department captain Greg DeAvila shoots a flare into dry brush during a burn operation to head off the Rocky Fire on August 2, 2015 near Clearlake, California. Over 1,900 firefighters are battling the Rocky Fire that has burned over 46,000 acres since it started on Wednesday afternoon. The fire is currently five percent contained and has destroyed at least 14 homes. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images) Justin Sullivan/Getty Images FIGHTING FIRE WITH FIRE The physical intensity of covering wildfires is not something the general public might give much thought to. But as Sullivan pointed out, "when photojournalists cover fires we're wearing the same protective gear as the firefighters. We're wearing fire suits, helmets, everything. I remember walking into a restaurant to have breakfast one morning with some other photographers while covering a fire and everyone in the place started applauding. When we told them sorry, we're just journalists, we don't deserve that, people said no, we did deserve it, because we were putting ourselves on the line to get the story out there. That sort of validation of what we do, by the people we do it for, is so gratifying." Pictured: Oceanside Fire Department captain Greg DeAvila shoots a flare into dry brush to try and head off the Rocky Fire on August 2, 2015, near Clearlake, California.
LOWER LAKE, CA - JULY 31: Flames from the Rocky Fire approach a house on July 31, 2015 in Lower Lake, California. Over 900 firefighters are battling the Rocky Fire that erupted to over 15,000 acres since it started on Wednesday afternoon. The fire is currently five percent contained and has destroyed three homes. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
MARIPOSA, CA - JULY 18: The Detwiler Fire burns in the hills above town on July 18, 2017 in Mariposa, California. More than 1,400 firefighters are battling the Detwiler Fire that has burned more than 25,000 acres, forced hundreds to evacuate and destroyed at least 8 structures. The fire is five percent contained. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images Justin Sullivan/Getty Images WEED, CA - SEPTEMBER 16: Kathy Besk (L) cries with her daughter Shelley Besk as they stand in the burned-out ruins of their home on September 16, 2014 in Weed, California. Fueled by high winds, the fast-moving Boles Fire swept through the town of Weed yesterday, burning 100 structures that included the high school and a lumber mill. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images) Justin Sullivan/Getty Images QUIET AND DEEP On one level, the appeal of photographing wildfires is not hard to fathom. After all, fires are inherently dramatic — they can be simultaneously terrifying and gorgeous. However, Sullivan noted, "a successful fire picture doesn't necessarily need to have any fire in it at all. They can be quiet moments, too. This picture is a good example. These two women, a mom and daughter, are hugging in the middle of this terrible scene because firefighters just found the mom's wedding ring, and returned it to her. So this is one of those quiet shots that, I think, has tremendous resonance." [Pictured: Weed, California, September 16, 2014.] LAKEPORT, CA - AUGUST 01: A firefighting aircraft drops fire retardant ahead of the River Fire as it burns through a canyon on August 1, 2018 in Lakeport, California. The River Fire has burned over 27,000 acres, destroyed 7 homes and stands at 38 percent contained. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images) Justin Sullivan/Getty Images RED AHEAD "If you're a credentialed member of the press, you can effectively go anywhere within a fire that's burning in California," Sullivan pointed out. "Cal Fire (the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection), the agency responsible for fighting fires statewide, conducts training courses in newsrooms, so journalists know how to act and react in these situations. There's no statute that says you have to have that training — but if you value your life, I can't imagine why any journalist wouldn't take advantage of it." [Pictured: A plane drops fire retardant ahead of the River Fire as it burns through a canyon on August 1, 2018, in Lakeport, California.]
CLEARLAKE, CA - AUGUST 03: A Cal Fire firefighter moves away from a tall flame as he uses a drip torch to burn dry grass during a backfire operation to head off the Rocky Fire on August 3, 2015 near Clearlake, California. Nearly 3,000 firefighters are battling the Rocky Fire that has burned over 60,000 acres has forced the evacuation of 12,000 residents in Lake County. The fire is currently 12 percent contained and has destroyed at least 14 homes. 6,300 homes are threatened by the fast moving blaze. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
O'BRIEN, OR - AUGUST 4: Rogue River Hot Shots Megan Kruse (R) and Jason Barber (L) take a break after igniting a burnout in the Siskiyou National Forest August 4, 2002 in O'Brien, Oregon. Fire Crews continue to light burnout fires to try and stop a188,000 acre fire in the Siskiyou National Forest. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images Justin Sullivan/Getty Images REDDING, CA - JULY 27: A view of homes that were destroyed by the Carr Fire on July 27, 2018 in Redding, California. A Redding firefighter and bulldozer operator were killed battling the fast moving Carr Fire that has burned over 44,000 acres and destroyed dozens of homes. The fire is 3 percent contained. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images) Justin Sullivan/Getty Images BE PREPARED "To do our jobs the best we can," Sullivan said, "we have to know what we're getting into. The Cal Fire training is so helpful, because we learn about how to react when the wind shifts, what gear we need to bring, what helmet to wear, all of that. I'm not going to say that I've never felt my life was in danger while covering fires, but I can't say that I was ever in such a bad situation that I felt like my number was up.” [Pictured: Homes destroyed by the Carr Fire on July 27, 2018, in Redding, California.] SANTA ROSA, CA - OCTOBER 23: A figurine that was found at the site of a home in the Coffey Park neighborhood that was destroyed by the Tubbs Fire on October 23, 2017 in Santa Rosa, California. Residents are returning to their homes after a fast moving and deadly widlfire destroyed 8,400 structures and claimed the lives of at least 42 people. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images) Justin Sullivan/Getty Images FIGURINE IN RUINED LANDSCAPE A figurine found at the site of a Santa Rosa home destroyed by the Tubbs Fire in October 2017. The fast-moving wildfire destroyed thousands of structures and claimed the lives of at least 22 people across several northern California counties. CLEARLAKE, CA - AUGUST 01: Cal Fire firefighters watch a large plume of smoke as it rises from the Rocky Fire on August 1, 2015 near Clearlake, California. Over 1,900 firefighters are battling the Rocky Fire that burned over 22,000 acres since it started on Wednesday afternoon. The fire is currently five percent contained and has destroyed at least 14 homes. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images) Justin Sullivan/Getty Images SCARY BEAUTIFUL Any photographer worth his or her salt will , of course, not only look to cover a fire responsibly and thoroughly, but will also try to take memorable pictures. For Sullivan, shooting wildfires is a chance to cover major news while also occasionally capturing the breathtaking sights that can emerge from an inferno. "Flames lighting up smoke or clouds, or an unexpected combination of colors will suddenly grab your attention, and if you're ready for it, if you're in the right spot at the right time, you might get a picture that's not only newsworthy, but beautiful" he said. [Pictured: Cal Fire firefighters watch a large plume of smoke as it rises from the Rocky Fire on August 1, 2015 near Clearlake, California.]



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