Working In Hell: What It’s Like To Be A Photographer Inside A Wildfire

A photographer shares the dangers and rewards of capturing the flames.

Photographer running from the blaze
Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

A photographer shares the dangers and rewards of capturing the flames.

As one of the most destructive wildfires continues to rage across Northern California, firefighters are not the only people working in the blaze. Feeling the heat, smoke and flames, photographers are also on the front lines, fighting to capture the images with each snap of the camera.

No other natural disaster is as powerful or as visually stimulating as wildfires. The ever-changing and growing flames can rage for days, weeks or months, creating a catalyst for stunning imagery which allows the world to better understand the destruction. To capture these invigorating photos, photographers must work in the danger of the flames, which can warm the surrounding air up to 1,470 degrees.

Spending his summer capturing wildfires, Justin Sullivan is currently chasing the Carr Fire and opened up to FOTO about the heat. While the physical intensity of capturing wildfires is not a common thought, the danger is apparent.

“When photojournalists cover fires we’re wearing the same protective gear as the firefighters. We’re wearing fire suits, helmets and everything.”

Photographers capture dangerous moments amid the blaze
  Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

The risk is worth the reward though, according to the photographer. After shooting a fire, a few of the photographers gathered to eat breakfast at a local restaurant, upon walking in applause broke out.

“When we told them sorry, we’re just journalists, we don’t deserve that, people said no, we did deserve it,” Sullivan said. “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.”

Before stepping foot into the flames, many photographers partake in the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection training in order to better prepare for the flames. According to the California native, the agency gives training courses in newsrooms across the state.

The training did not prepare Sullivan for the moral dilemma photographers are continuing to face, to capture a shot or help a person. The ethical battle of the profession is a long one, dating back to 1993 with Kevin Carter’s, gut wrenching, Pulitzer Prize- winning photograph.

In a situation where he was compelled to put down his camera and lose a shot but help someone, Sullivan recalled a California fire from 2017 and said he will always choose people.

“I came across a man running around frantically trying to save his house. 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.”