Photographer- Firefighter on Attacking Wildfires

By Tom Foreman
Inside Base Camp
May 7, 2003

The first time I encountered a full-blown, forest fire was in Yosemite National Park in 1990. My TV crew and I arrived in the town of El Portal well past dusk to find a blue gloom of night and smoke draping the tiny cluster of houses. All day, firefighters had been making a stand in the hills around town, and as we walked toward their position, we saw small blazes flickering everywhere. Our throats and eyes burned, the crackle of two-way radios echoed, and it looked like a miserable, slow night of waiting on the battlefront.

Then a puff of wind swept the valley. The flares a hundred yards away leapt skyward. The treetops exploded and the fire rushed upon our position faster than I ever thought possible. A team of firefighters emerged from the inferno yelling for us to get out. The flames roared overhead, and we ran.

People who face these fatally unpredictable fires, year in and out, are a unique breed; and Mark Thiessen is one of them. He is a National Geographic photographer who spends most of the year taking pictures of dinosaur bones, fossils, people; but Mark is also a trained wildland firefighter and every summer he heads west to fight and photograph.

Tom Foreman: You have described wildland fires as the only force of nature that man tries to control. What do you mean?

Mark Thiessen: Hurricanes; we run out of the way. Tornadoes; we run out of the way. But with fires, we try and control them. And a large fire, you can't stop it directly. You can just kind of herd it around a little bit. When I see a big raging front coming, I feel very small, very fragile. It's like standing in a pool of gasoline and you're just waiting for someone to light a match. If you're looking at a crown fire, a crown fire can put off as much energy as a Hiroshima nuclear bomb every 15 minutes.

Tom Foreman: And what you mean by that [crown fire] is where the fire is up in the tops of the trees and it's just rushing through?

Mark Thiessen: Right, 20 to 30 yards (18 to 27 meters) it can leap—in seconds. And you can't stop that, you just have to get out of the way and come back and fight it another way.

Tom Foreman: And yet, you want to be there?

Mark Thiessen: Yeah. It's not that I want to be there for my own personal thrill. I want to be there to capture this culture of the wildland firefighter. I want to show in my pictures the expression on the people's faces.

Tom Foreman: What do you think that you find so fascinating about fire?

Mark Thiessen: What I find fascinating about it is that it's one of nature's fiercest forces and it's unpredictable, and you're just right there looking at something that's been going on for thousands of years.

Tom Foreman: Unless you've been to a western wildfire, I think it's difficult to comprehend the ruggedness of the terrain and just how incredibly explosive these things can be.

Continued on Next Page >>


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