Photographing a Wildfire Safely

By Sara Goodnick

We in the western U.S. expect wildfires here during the summer months. They tend to begin in May or June in the Southwest beginning a long march north to the Northwest. Even Alaska experiences many of them. Many countries experience tragically large wildfires.

Pictured here is something you never want to see on the hills near your home.

We wait, watching the skies in anticipation feelings dread as each one is born and eventually dies. Wildfires bring a host of feelings to observers. If lightning-caused, they are more acceptable than those caused by humans, but the damage is the same. Humans cause the vast majority of the worst fires. During the wildfire season I scan the skies constantly when outdoors, looking for signs of smoke. When outside every night admiring the stars or storms, I sniff the air like an animal for any whisper of smoke.

Evening becomes a mesmerizing night and a nightmare.

There is a strange terrible beauty to them. We stand small and humbled before this raw unbridled power of Nature. We grieve for the loss of the landscape and the wild animals we have come to love. Photographers have an urge to capture and record the smoke, flames, wind, and firefighters, as they work through these feelings.

We cannot stop looking or photographing

As I write this, a very large one, the Bush fire, is raging a few miles away. It began 3 miles from our home out in a small neighborhood surrounded by Sonoran Desert with a car fire on the highway. Fortunately for us, it was driven away from us and into the national forest and wilderness by strong winds.

All roads around us were blocked off but being relatively close for 4 days and in a safe place, I was able to make some captures and also to observe actions and reactions of people around me.

If you are in a position to photograph a wildfire, there are some important things to take into consideration

  1. DO NOT FLY A DRONE OVER THE FIRE OR ANYWHERE NEAR IT!!! All aircraft fighting and observing the fire will be grounded losing valuable time. Plus, it’s illegal. You could incur civil penalties that exceed $20,000 and face criminal prosecution.
  2. A wildfire can move as fast as 125 mph! You will not be able to outrun it. See the images below. In less than 12 minutes I recorded a small flame that appeared in the dark grow quite large and move quickly up the side of a mountain. It was stunning.

  1. Do not trespass on private property! The property owners don’t need distractions and they will be very nervous about strangers coming by to take a look since some of those strangers might be scouting the homes with nefarious purposes in mind. Rural folks are usually well-armed and quite ready to defend their homes and families. Stay on public rights-of-way, do not cross over barriers erected by authorities, and ask permission if you have a good reason to enter private property.
  2. Avoid smoke inhalation. If you can smell the smoke it is getting into your lungs and could cause long term damage. Wear a mask and don’t stay out in it too long if you really, really have to get that shot.

As for photography, here are some tips:

  1. Best time: sunset and early evening, possibly sunrise. Wildfires tend to lay down at night leaving a smoky haze over everything in the morning. It can make a nice image, but it will have a different feeling. Midday can work as well, if there is a story to be told.

  1. Use a tripod.
  2. Experiment with different settings. Aperture priority is great at f/8 or f/11, but if you want to freeze the action shutter priority might be best. Remember you can use exposure compensation as the light changes. At night I went to Manual mode for the added control. The difficulty at night is the fact that the flames are moving very fast, so you will need a high ISO and fast shutter speed. Some cameras’ limitations will be the deciding factor.

  1. Assuming you are several miles from the fire, pre-focus on your distance. Use the hyperfocal calculator if necessary, then use a piece of electrical or gaffer’s tape to keep the focus as you zoom in and out to change your composition. This is especially helpful as it gets dark.
  2. Composition! Experiment with different compositions keeping in mind a foreground, middle ground and background can add interest and perspective.

Above all, stay safe

Sara Goodnick is a Photo Guide with Arizona Highways PhotoScapes.