Two days in the life of a wildfire photographer

A behind the scenes story of action photography at a fast-moving wildfire in southern California.

Pilot Fire
A dozer tender on the Pilot Fire August 7, 2016. Jeff Zimmerman photo.

Since Jeff Zimmerman retired as a fire captain he spends much of his time photographing fires in California, getting up close and personal with the action. The state has a different, some would say more enlightened, way of handling the media at emergencies and disasters than some other areas. There are few restrictions as long as they do not interfere with incident operations (see California Penal Code 409.5d).

Jeff covered the Pilot Fire that so far has burned almost 8,000 acres in southern California near Crestline. He was there for the first two days, took these photos, and wrote down some of his thoughts.

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By Jeff Zimmerman

During the late afternoon of August 7, 2016, I received word from Tod Sudmeier about a fast moving wildfire along Highway 138 and Pilot rock in San Bernardino County. The first reports were that the fire was not accessible so I did not pay much attention to the pager. An hour after the initial alert rang out, the fire was reported to be a 1,000 acres and moving towards Highway 173 in Summit Valley. With this new information I responded from Towsley Park, cutting my nature hike short.

There was sweltering heat once again in Southern California, which appears to be the new norm, as monsoon moisture had moved to the east and relative humidity was rock bottom. The skies above the desert were clear blue but temperatures were soaring to triple digits.

Pilot Fire
PIlot Fire August 7 2016. Jeff Zimmerman photo.

Once again responding up the long trek of Highway 14 as I have numerous times before, I went east onto Pearblossom Highway and over the summit to Highway 138. A large plume of smoke was clearly visible — another major emergency wildfire threatening homes, chewing through decades old brush, threatening human and animal life. Insatiable flames were bearing down on rural ranches as people packed up livestock in trailers to get away from the menacing flames. Air tankers roared into the valley to cut off the advancing fire from the 17525 block of Highway 173. The fire was marching northeast at a rapid clip, dozers frantically working the fire line to halt advancing flames, but with little success.

This had the makings of yet another dangerous fire, probably human caused, possibly by negligence, hopefully not by arson. I continued through the flame front as the fire jumped Highway 173 and into the spillways of Lake Silverwood. Always moving to stay ahead of the flames, only powered by pure adrenalin and Gatorade, I reluctantly moved up canyon, seemingly to dance with the red devil. By nightfall it was evident that the fire was creeping up the steep brush covered desert slopes moving towards Lake Arrowhead up old Highway 173 into no man’s land. Old Highway 173 is now abandoned and will tear the front end off your vehicle off if you attempt to traverse it.

By twilight it looked as if a nuclear bomb had dropped over Summit Valley and ash was raining down on Hesperia nine miles to the north. Curious onlookers were wondering just how far this fire would travel and could it make it into Hesperia proper. Day was turning to night so a few more hours of shooting then it was time to call it quits.

At 11 p.m. I realized I needed to leave the scene, upload a few images, and get a few hours of rest. By 1 a.m. I arrived home, transferred photos into my computer, took a quick shower and went off to bed. Oh, how I know too well, the magic hour of 2 a.m.; finally some badly needed rest on an old lumpy mattress. I always hate those nagging heat cramps being so dehydrated; now the push is on to get fluids back into the body.

At 6 a.m. I was back at my daily chores, watering the crops, charging camera batteries, double-fisting coffee, grabbing a quick bite to eat, and then out the front door. I met Bernie Deyo in Palmdale at Ave S Park-and-Ride and it was off to the races again. The smoke was already billowing along Highway 173 at 10 a.m. We made a quick stop at Highway 138 and 15 freeways to stretch, pick up lunch at Del Taco. Then it was back onto the firelines.

By noon the fire was rolling, boiling behind homes. Structure protection was now in place and San Bernardino County firefighters from Medic Engine 224 were hunkering down behind a home with a charged 1 ½ inch hose line trying to protect the residence from fire. We parked facing out on a small dirt driveway, ready to escape the flames at a moment’s notice.

PIlot FireThrough the thick pall of smoke we heard a jet engine, first a lead plane, then the DC-10 with its 11,600-gallon load of retardant coming directly at us. Taking a prone position on the ground we knew what was going to happen. Red Phos-Chek was going to hit the flames and everything else too, the driveway, fence lines, the fire engine and then onto us. The flames were quelled for a moment then roared back to life, leap frogging over our position and then onto the next home, skirting through the back yard, over the dozer line and once again roaring over Highway 173.

 

PIlot Fire

My truck was now covered in retardant; we frantically wiped off the windshield to get the red slurry off before it completely dried and caked on. We jokingly wrote my radio number, EPN 409 onto the windows in the thick goo as we tried to clear away the muck on the rear view mirrors. Our backs were covered pink, retardant dripping from our helmets; I took a few stills of the firefighters in front of us heavily doused in pink retardant. Slipping down the driveway in the slimy goo, it was back to the truck.

PIlot Fire

We climbed in and advanced to the old abandoned general store on Highway 173. Crimson walls of flame were now encircling the dilapidated building. The fire made a direct hit; once again firefighters tried to hold the lines, choking smoke in blinding ash-laden air, our eyes stinging, burning ash raining down on our tenuous position. I donned my goggles to no effect, my eyes frantically watering pushing out the soot and sweat from my badly irritated eyes. After ten long minutes the flame front had passed, moving north over Highway 173. I said good riddance to the flames with the beloved famed fickle finger of fate award.

Pilot Fire RJ85
An RJ85 air tanker drops on the Pilot Fire, August 7, 2016. Jeff Zimmerman photo.

Heat exhaustion was setting in from wearing layers of 7.5 oz. Nomex long sleeved shirt and trousers, a hard hat, while carrying 20 pounds of camera gear, fire shelter and Nomex shroud, all worn for the past two days in 98 degree temperatures.  I made it back to the truck, downed a quart of Gatorade and went right back to work.

Being a retired fire captain I push the envelope in these firestorms while trying to beat lady luck. At age fifty five I’m old enough to know better than to tempt fate or bring on a heart attack. One would hope that with my experience, I would know my personal threshold and to clarify the blurred lines of demarcation, knowing when enough is enough. That irritating tightness in the chest that I know well is a warning sign; however news editors only use the really amazing and spectacular exclusive images so I continued to push on trying to beat the odds. Wagering against wildfires comes with staggering odds and can come with tragic loss.

Air tankers overhead continued to bombard the area with retardant, people were scurrying leaving with a few possessions in pickup trucks and trailers, scurrying down canyon, their cars and trucks covered with dots of pink retardant.  Dust-covered fire engines were moving slowly and cautiously down canyon to try and cut off the flames but without much success. By 6 p.m. the sun was starting to descend into the western horizon and the flame front began slowing to a crawl. With hopeful optimism the flames might stop advancing at a hastily constructed fire break built by a dozer. Crews advanced a 1 1/2 inch hose lines up the steep slope. Air tankers reinforced the fire break and it appeared to hold. It looked like the southern flank may be contained. I was optimistic at the sight.

Pilot Fire
A dozer builds a fireline near a retardant drop on the Pilot Fire August 7, 2016. Jeff Zimmerman photo.

I could not see up canyon towards Arrowhead from Highway 138. There was just too much smoke obscuring the northern view of the mountains behind Lake Silverwood. I wondered what will the fate of the community be? I thought to myself, time will tell as the morning sun rises on day three of the Pilot Fire.

As I prepared to leave for home, a family in a passenger vehicle stopped to take a picture of the oddity of my pink truck at the wide turnout on Highway 138; I told them it was just another day at the office and the woman chuckled as she took her picture. As the sun set, I waved goodbye to the curious onlookers.  Exhausted, sweat stained and partially pink, a sight to behold I am sure, I started to make the long trek home.

Nobody would ever believe these stories unless I had video and stills to prove it. After a few hours of rest, now it’s time to cover the next story.

Jeff Zimmerman
August 9, 2016

8 thoughts on “Two days in the life of a wildfire photographer”

  1. Jeff Zimmerman is a man with a story telling gift through his camera lens. His lifetime for fire experience tells him where to be to take the shots that tell the story of these monster fires. Jeff is also a gentleman. He donated almost two weeks of his time to help document the aftermath of the Esperanza Fire and the loss of the crew of Engine 57. He was among 12 still and video shooters who shared the around the clock efforts of the SBNF, the management team, the family teams and a host of allied agencies over a two week period to put together the funeral, graveside, and Memorial services for the Engine 57 crew. His amazing photos were touching and on point. The children who were too little to really comprehend what went on…..will be able to look back and see that their father or brother properly honored. He’s a damn good shooter but he’s also a damn good human being.

      1. You didn’t think I’d forget your contributions to our effort and countless others….just going through some of the DVD’s and we would not have been able to tell the poignant story without your work.

    1. nice to see that there still are some real people left in this world of “keep your distance” and “its not my job”………….and lazy kids who expect others to do for them.

      Good on ya Mr Zimmerman.

  2. Hi Jeff, great reporting, great pictures. My company, Anchor Point, is currently updating the CWPP for the Mountain Rim FSC, all the affected communities in the Pilot Fire as well as working with the Inland Empire FSC. I would love to incorporate some of your photos into the report. Please contact me at cwhite@anchorpointgroup.com if you are interested.

    Chris

  3. Firefighters are superhuman to begin with, but the work you are doing to document the fires is of such great importance. The photos are spectacular and your writing is so descriptive and educational. God bless all of you who risk life and limb and suffer all that heat and exhaustion for hours, days and weeks to protect the rest of us. I always pray for you and I know you will be rewarded in Heaven.

    1. Mrs Frazier I am from Rome,Ga and seen what you replied to Mr Zimmerman and just wanted to agree with you on all you said.Just wanted to say that it was very nice of you to say what you said about Firemen and all that is acquainted.

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