Wonderful Machine interview on wildland firefighting
Photographer and Firefighter Blake Gordon Documents Western Flames
Dec 10, 2018
Carbondale, Colorado-based Photographer Blake Gordon has always been interested in the intersection of culture and nature, but his interest was piqued after working with the Nature Conservancy. Since becoming a firefighter, Blake has captured unique photographs that not many others would have been able to because of his proximity to the flames and experience in extreme environments.
How did you prepare technically to shoot the fire?
I’ve shot a lot in extreme environments, particularly while ski mountaineering, and there are many compromises to make. Anticipating a moment and knowing when and how you can shoot is paramount. There is a dance with documentary work and you’re not often in the director role. You want a setup that gives you enough tools to make the images you want to but also is as simple, manageable, and robust as possible. If you let the camera manage you it can quickly become a safety issue. Situational awareness is the highest priority in the fire environment and that’s one reason why I enjoy it.
How did you plan to photograph the fires and remain safe?
Safety is always the top priority and continuing to learn about fire and how to operate in that environment as a firefighter has been very helpful. During the Lake Christine fire, I was a public observer and stayed well out of the way of the emergency response as they were occupied with saving lives and protecting property. During the fires I’ve worked, I’m first and foremost working as a firefighter and there is a huge focus on safety as it can be a high-risk environment. There are times when we’re observing the fire and on standby and those are times when it’s possible to capture a moment. Visiting the burn scar after the Ryan fire, I needed to be very aware of trees that were compromised by the fire and could fall with the slightest wind.
How did you originally become interested in fire and its function in the environment?
I’ve always been interested in fire and my undergraduate studies in landscape architecture gave me the skills to look critically at the complex relationship between nature and culture. Wanting to further explore wildfire, I eventually decided to just get my training and work on the ground. I enjoy exploring an environment through study and art but there is also something irreplaceable about interacting with it in a fundamental, physical way—and wildland firefighting is extremely physical work.
Can you give me a recap of the 2018 fire season?
Fires occur through the West every year in large numbers—though this year there was a higher number of larger, more destructive wildfires. The three primary factors contributing to this were increased forest density and fuels from a century of aggressive fire suppression, more people living in fire prone environments, and climate change. The natural process for the ignition of wildfires is lightning, though it’s worth noting that many wildfires are started by human activity, both unintentional and intentional. These factors are very influential in California which has been in a historic drought for the past 5 years.
The Lake Christine fire erupted just a few miles from my home and burned to the edge of two nearby towns. I wasn’t called out on this fire, but watched it closely and it was fascinating to see the management response to the fire as well as the chaos and fear that comes with having an event like this occur in your community. Fortunately, the fire crews did an amazing job and there was minimal property loss and no fatalities.
How do you see this work developing?
Wildfire is a complex and fascinating subject and I’ve enjoyed learning about it on the ground. It’s an inherent and impactful part of the ecology in most Western lands and is also a growing issue so there are a ton of potential stories. Understanding the wildfire world creates opportunity to authentically share that wild world.