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.


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 Fire Continue reading “Two days in the life of a wildfire photographer”

The spread of the Pilot Fire slows

The fire is burning near Crestline between Silverwood Lake and Lake Arrowhead in southern California.

Above: A retardant-coated truck near the Pilot Fire, August 7, 2016. Photo by Jeff Zimmerman. More Pilot Fire photos.

(UPDATED at 8:16 a.m. PDT August 10, 2016)

The Pilot Fire near Crestline, California did not grow as much Tuesday as it had in previous days. A mapping flight at 1:30 a.m. Tuesday determined it had burned 7,522 acres. Wednesday morning the incident management team reports it is now at 7,861 acres.

Many incident management teams pull out of the air a grossly understated “containment” figure (which is the reason we rarely include that statistic), but Dave Bently, a spokesperson for the fire, said the fire is 64 percent contained, meaning in this case, he said, that they have a fireline around 64 percent of the perimeter. Which, by the way, is the definition of fire containment. Kudos to the team for making the containment number meaningful.

The map of the fire shows the fire perimeter from the Tuesday morning mapping flight, plus heat detected since then by a satellite. From 200 miles above the Earth the sensor only detects large heat sources, so there are likely many more small hot spots. But it is significant that all of the heat sources found are within or very close to the earlier perimeter. The accuracy of the satellite-detected data is supposed to be within 375 meters (1,230 feet). Scroll down to see other maps.

Pilot Fire map
The red lines was the perimeter of the Pilot Fire at 3:34 a.m. PDT August 10, 2016. The red and brown squares represent the location of heat detected by a satellite in the following 24 hours.Click to enlarge.

The numbers:

  • 1,746 personnel
  • 105 engines
  • 46 hand crews
  • 8 dozers
  • 8 air tankers
  • 12 helicopters

The incident management team has posted information on InciWeb about evacuations, road closures, trail closures, smoke, and drones, all of which are important, but there is not a lot of information about the fire itself such as the fire activity over the last 24 hours, where it was still spreading, what firefighters are doing, the use of aircraft, and where the open fireline is. Mr. Bently said that information was not available but should be later in the day.


(UPDATED at 6:55 a.m. PDT August 9, 2016)

The Pilot Fire north of Crestline, California continued to be active Monday on the west and south sides. The incident management team is calling it 6,963 acres.

At least 5,200 homes are under voluntary or mandatory evacuation orders.

Map of the Pilot Fire
Map of the Pilot Fire as of 1:30 a.m. PDT August 9, 2016.
3-D map of the Pilot Fire
3-D map of the Pilot Fire, looking south, as of 1:30 a.m. PDT August 9, 2016. Click to enlarge.

Continue reading “The spread of the Pilot Fire slows”