Portraits of firefighters taken at their place of work

Mayson Lisonbee, 21, sawyer
Mayson Lisonbee, 21, sawyer on the Salt Lake Unified Fire Authority crew. National Geographic photo by Mark Thiessen used with permission.

Regular readers of Wildfire Today are familiar with some of the work of photographer Mark Thiessen. The fact that he works for National Geographic should tell you a lot about his skill with a camera. Mark recently posted an article that included portraits of wildland firefighters.

Portraits are frequently taken in a studio, or for a couple about to get married, they can be shot outside in nice, clean, pretty places. One reason for that is that the conditions need to be carefully controlled if you want predictable, good quality, well-lit photographs. The environment where wildland firefighters work does not have anything in common with a photographer’s studio or a city park, but Mark did not let that stop him from hauling lighting equipment out to the fireline where he took portraits of members of the Salt Lake Unified Fire Authority crew, a Type 2 Initial Attack Crew, where they were working on the Fork Complex of fires near Hayfork, California.

In a second article he describes how he shoots the photos and the equipment he hauls around.

Here’s an excerpt from Mark’s article:

On the last day [of their 21-day assignment], Cody Werder, a Los Angeles city firefighter said, “We have a new appreciation for how hard these handcrews work. It’s unbelievable how hard they work and are so knowledgeable.” He jokes, “fighting structure fires is like child’s play.”

Be sure and check out the other members of the crew in the first article.

National Geographic’s wildfire photos

wildfire Firing device
Division Supervisor Jay Walter starts a burnout deep in the forest, firing Quickfire Hotshot flares (nicknamed “sausages”) that burn like fireworks when they land. Photo by Mark Thiessen for National Geographic, used with permission.

Mark Thiessen’s photographs of wildfires are being featured at two National Geographic websites, A Photographer Inside the Wildfires, and Proof: Picture Stories. Excellent work from Mark, as usual.

Views from behind a National Geographic lens

National Geographic photographer Mark Thiessen has been capturing images of wildfires for decades. Qualified as a wildland firefighter, he has been able to access areas that most photographers can never see. Below are two videos that highlight some of his work.

The first one is rather general and explains what he does on a fire. The second is about the Crown Fire Experiment in the Northwest Territories of Canada, which is an effort to research fire behavior in crown fires.

National Geographic wants photos from firefighters

NatGeo YourShot

National Geographic wants firefighters to send them photos taken at wildland fires. The images above are a brief sample of some that have been submitted. So far they have 268 photos.

Here is a copy of a blog entry at their website written by Mark Thiessen, a staff photographer for National Geographic.


“I’ve been shooting wildfires for nearly 20 years, and I’m always impressed by the photographs taken by firefighters. It usually goes something like this: “Hey Mark! You should have been here yesterday, check this out!” And they whip out their cameras and show me killer images that I wish I had shot. It never fails. Everyone says, “You should have been here yesterday!”

At Your Shot we want to give you, the firefighters, an opportunity to share your images far and wide. Upload your images to yourshot.nationalgeographic.com using the hashtag #Wildfire2014(Those of you not in the fire community, you can still participate by engaging with the photos that come in by commenting and favoriting the images and sharing your own stories).

You are right in the middle of it and have the unique opportunity to show your friends and family what it’s like to be on the inside. Maybe it’s a dramatic burnout operation at night, a portrait of your soot-covered squad boss during mop up, or a Nomex (fire-resistant suit) so dirty it can stand up on its own.

The key to getting great fire pictures is being there for the next “yesterday.”

A few disclaimers:

DON’T BURN YOUR BUDDY: If you include firefighters in your pictures, make sure they’re wearing appropriate PPE for the situation.

STAY FOCUSED: Don’t let your desire for a great shot distract you from your firefighting duties.”

A look inside a forest fire

This video from National Geographic’s site shows the interior of a forest fire that was shot in Canada’s Northwest Territory during the International Crown Fire Modelling Experiment. I would not want to depend on a fire shelter to protect me during conditions like this.

On the National Geographic site, one of the comments asked, “Can someone tell why the heck they are burning this forest in the first place?”

Franco Nogarin replied: “We burn this forest so that we can know exactly how fire behaves under certain conditions. Nature burned the forest regularly as a natural occurrence before we (humans) settled everywhere, So its not hurting anything to burn these sections of forest in the name of Science. The benefits are that we we have very precise information about how wildfire works, We know what prevention measures work and which dont under specific conditions. These are not things we want to learn by trial and error in out of control wildfires 😉 ”

In addition to fire behavior experiments, quite a bit of other research is conducted during these fires, including measuring the effects on personal protective equipment, fire shelters, and various types of building materials.

Below is a still photo from the experiment.

Northwest Crown Fire Experiment
Northwest Crown Fire Modelling Experiment. USFS photo.