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What It's Like To Photograph Wildfires


Massive wildfires have bathed the West Coast in this orange smoky haze. The sunrise here looks like a faded orange moon, and in the mountains here in California, there have been unforgettable images - entire towns razed to the ground, incinerated trucks reduced to smoldering carcasses of metal framing and, at a charred gas station, a sign that still hangs but is an eerie husk of dripping plastic. Much of this surreal imagery has been brought to us by photojournalists braving harsh air and scathing heat. And one of them joins us today. Kent Nishimura from the Los Angeles Times.


KENT NISHIMURA: Thanks for having me.

CHANG: Can I just ask you, where are you at this moment?

NISHIMURA: I am actually currently in my hotel room in Clovis, just a 40-minute drive outside of the fire zone.

CHANG: OK. I know that you've been taking photos of the Creek Fire in the Sierra Nevada, which has burned through more than 100,000 acres at this point. I want to ask you because, you know, the rest of the world has been experiencing that fire through your photos, but as someone who's just there in the middle of it, can you just tell us, what has that been like?

NISHIMURA: It's been an experience, honestly. The best way that I can describe the sounds that, like, the fire makes - I mean, it sounds like bacon on a griddle. And as you get closer, there's almost like a menacing whooshing sound that - because of the weather that the fire generates. And it can be very hot. But, you know, these fires that have been breaking out are in these - in mountainous regions and small mountain towns. And they travel quickly, and they jump from place to place. I mean, they start spot fires all over the place. And it really - it's easy to get surrounded by fire.

CHANG: Well, what sort of precautions do you take? I mean, because from what I can tell from a lot of these photos, you're not that far from the flames.

NISHIMURA: Yeah. The important thing is having the right gear. Photojournalists, we all - we're all equipped - or we should all be equipped with the similar gear that the firefighters have, that includes Nomex, helmets, boots, et cetera.

CHANG: What's Nomex?

NISHIMURA: Nomex is, like, fire-resistant clothing.

CHANG: Got it.

NISHIMURA: So that includes a brush shirt, an overcoat and pants, as well as the boots, to protect you from the heat. One important thing that I would definitely say that has been happening a lot more recently is that, for the photographers, we've been grouping up and traveling with each other. And, yes, we're from either competing newspapers or competing photo agencies, but we do this to stay safe and keep an eye on each other's back. And especially if you're traveling into an area where the fires jump the road or there's a lot of debris on the road, if your car breaks down, you're stuck there if you're by yourself. Never travel alone. And having a buddy there means that if your car breaks down or catches fire, you can hop in with them and escape.

CHANG: Well, I'm curious. What images have you documented so far in these recent fires that you think will stick with you the most?

NISHIMURA: There's a photograph that I took at Shaver Lake Point looking from, like, boats docked on the shore towards the main road that kind of cuts through Shaver Lake. And the fire was approaching, and firefighters had started a background operation to burn off the fuel on the ground. The sky was, like, a deep orange. And there's, like, a haunting beauty to it but also just an underlying tone of, like, menace and devastation that is there. And, I mean, Shaver Lake is a popular, you know, destination for people to go and see. And it just kind of stuck with me that it's - the reality is, you know, like, this fire had made its way there, and it was threatening the town.

CHANG: When they look at your photographs, what do you hope people will ultimately take away from these images that you've been documenting?

NISHIMURA: I hope that they, you know, take away that the firefighters are doing everything they can, risking their lives to, you know, save towns and stop the forward progression of the fire and that fire is, you know, brutally, unrelentingly merciless. If there's a chance to get out and get to safety while you can, do it and take it before it's too late.

CHANG: Kent Nishimura is a photojournalist for the Los Angeles Times.

Thank you so much for taking some time to speak with us today.

NISHIMURA: Thanks for having me Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.