One of the most exciting topics for me to cover during my time as a professional newspaper journalist was fires and firefighting, and the potential for great images is there for anyone who approaches the matter with a little preparation and knowledge.
Fires and wildfires are often tragic events that require massive amounts of resources to combat, and often leave a trail of damage and even death in their wake, so they are not matters to trifle with. But, at the same time, they also deserve to be covered extensively to highlight the efforts of community firefighting. On top of that, the very nature of fire means that well-captured photographs are typically extremely impactful and exciting to capture. If you decide you want to dip your feet in these waters, it is very important to approach it cautiously and with extreme deference, or you risk your own life, the safety of others, and waste precious time and resources by impeding the efforts to fight the fire from emergency response.
If you are a journalist with press credentials, you do have an advantage over a photographer who just wants some cool fire photos. First off, your access is typically a little better. I spent years building a good relationship with the various firefighting crews in the area I covered, which was made up of 13 municipalities and was a very rural but sprawling area in Central Utah. That relationship helped me a lot in my pursuit of good fire coverage, as fire crews who trust your judgment as a journalist are much more likely to allow you to have closer proximity to the fire itself.
It is very important that in the pursuit of your fire photos, you do not ever create a situation where you put yourself in the kind of danger that crews might need to spend time evacuating you from the area. They have much more vital work to be doing. Building trust with your local fire crews means they are less likely to simply deny you any coverage access at all, but it is still possible.
A good way to start building trust with your local fire crews is to get to know them in advance and find out if they have any controlled burns planned that could provide an opportunity for you to safely get your feet wet in the business of covering and capturing fires. These controlled burns are often used for training purposes, safe building demolition, excess fuel reduction, or a combination of two or more of these things. Because the fire crews light the fire intentionally and eventually extinguish it with the entire process carefully planned and controlled, the safety factor is higher, and more likely that they will allow you access to cover it, as they don’t have to concern themselves as much with the wellbeing of nearby citizens.
Never ever show up at an active fire and insist on access to the area, you will only burn your bridges with them (no pun intended). Even if you are a credentialed journalist, this is just a quick way to make sure they make it difficult for you to get your photos on future fires as well.
With the extreme drought and fire risk our desert state often has during summer, wildfire becomes a big problem. If a fire starts and spreads, main access roads will be blocked by emergency responders, and although you can often find back roads that allow you a better shot angle, be careful about just how close you get. Wildfires can spread extremely fast, especially in dry and windy conditions. Before you get near any wildfire, be certain you are well acquainted with your best escape route and any others you might have in case something drastic happens and the fire begins to threaten your position. Do not wait until the last minute to get out.
When covering a fire in daylight, I am a fan of high-quality, versatile zoom lenses to allow you to move quickly and be able to get multiple compositions without swapping lenses too much in conditions that are likely to be dusty and smoky. Most recently, I have taken a liking to the extremely flexible and relatively new Tamron 18-300 for my Fujifilm camera systems. For a lens with such an extreme zoom range, it does very well on image quality for my needs, and the in-lens stabilization helps a lot at the long end and as the light dims.
If a fire is still burning after dark, I always make a practice of getting some night photos if possible. For this purpose, I have found a fast standard prime is a good choice, and at wider apertures like F1.8 or F1.4, sometimes the light of a fire is bright enough to let you shoot handheld, but it’s a good idea to bring along a tripod, even if you do have a camera body with stabilization built in. A tripod-based long exposure at night can be an especially cool shot to capture.
A number of websites will allow you to listen in on local emergency radio systems, and during my time as an active print journalist I always had one on quietly in the background, and when the calls come through you can discover the locations of active fires in essentially real-time. I have even been able to arrive before the emergency response, but if this happens, it is vital you take care about keeping your distance and that you and your vehicle are not blocking any necessary access for the fire crews when they arrive.
If you are like me, and frequently use a drone for photography purposes, you must resist the urge to put it in the air, as a fire frequently requires air support, especially wildfire, and if a drone is spotted in the sky, air fire crews must stay grounded until it is gone. Criminal charges can be leveled against you in some situations if you hamper the air response in this way. That being said, don’t forget that the air response can provide some cool photos too, such as the planes that fly over active fires and release a bright red flame suppressing powder. A long lens will be necessary to get a good shot of this usually, but it’s worth it if you can to show the bright red powder cascading across a line of burning trees.
It is absolutely vital that you never try to enter any burning structure or wildland area for the sake of your coverage. The speed that a raging fire can travel is faster than you can run, especially loaded down with gear.
If you take care to be responsible, safe, and extremely mindful of your impact on the fire crew’s ability to fight the fire, a photojournalist can get some very impressive shots. Be open-minded in your coverage and think about any negative impact your presence or actions may have. Stay safe, and good luck.