Pete Caster, the Lewiston Tribune’s photo editor, conducted a Q&A interview with Brian Amdur, a wildland firefighter and photojournalist.
Brian Amdur: For the last three summers, I’ve had the privilege to not only fight wildfires all over the American West, but to also bring my camera with me and capture images of this unique work environment. From fire-filled landscapes to ash-covered faces, I believe it’s important to tell and share the stories of the men, women and ecosystems that live with wildfire.
Pete Caster: How did you get into photography or photojournalism?
BA: Throughout my time at the University of Oregon (in Eugene), I didn’t know what exactly I wanted to study. I was on the fence about pursuing photography as a career and decided to instead commit to an education focused in environmental studies and sustainability issues. Towards the end of my studies, I found out about an environmental-focused journalism program within the university’s journalism school. Immediately I was hooked.
The program, Science and Memory, takes complex scientific phenomena and digests it to tell visual stories and communicate these topics through media. While at the time I never would have guessed I’d be taking pictures of wildfires, I knew that I wanted to combine my interest in the outdoors, environment and photography to bring visual stories to the world.
PC: What got you into wildland firefighting?
BA: I got into wildland firefighting because my younger brother got into it with his volunteer department. Some people travel after college; I wanted to try an experience that would challenge me while getting to see our changing climate up close. After my first fire season, I got the fire bug. I was hooked.
PC: What about your environmental science background helps you as a photographer/wildland firefighter?
BA: I think the most important part that I like to remember is that fires are a natural part of the ecosystem. There’re so many different species of plants that depend on fire as a natural part of their life cycle, and you have to recognize that fire most of the time is a cleansing cycle of life. Long before we were here, indigenous tribes utilized small ground fires as a strategy to clear brush for hunting and to promote tree species growth. As a photographer, I try to capture that concept within my images, depicting fire as a beautiful and natural process rather than a horrific and hopeless disaster.
Of course, recently the fires we’re seeing are not only larger and closer to homes in the wildland-urban interface but are also burning with so much energy they are wiping everything out within the ecosystem. In other words, the forest is no longer benefiting from the fire because everything gets engulfed and dies. While there are many factors at play, over 100 years of fire suppression and rising global temperatures are contributing to these massive “megafires.”
As a firefighter and all-around lover of our public lands, we need to be open to new strategies that benefit the forests and set future generations up with healthy forests.
PC: What kind of photo gear do you bring with you while fighting fires?
BA: There are two critical components that I think about when it comes to my gear setup: durable and accessible.
The last two years I’ve carried a Nikon D800 with a 24mm f2.8 and 50mm f1.8 prime lens. They’re beat to hell and get filthy from changing lenses on the fly, surrounded in thick smoke, but are the only way I can capture nighttime shots. However, this year, because I’m working on a helicopter and can’t be changing lenses, I have a 24-85mm f3.5-4.5 telephoto lens. For what it is, it’s pretty sharp and gives me enough variability in contexts when I can’t move around. I’ve also been experimenting with a GoPro mounted on my helmet to take casual video footage.
The most important aspect to taking pictures while working is to be quick. I don’t have time to take off my backpack, get my camera out, take some pictures and put it away again. That’s why I use F Stop Gear’s Navin, a small, weather-sealed camera pouch that I attach to the side of my backpack for quick access.
PC: How difficult is it balancing taking photographs and fighting fires?
BA: At the end of the day, when there’s a wildfire, I’m a firefighter first. My job is to do whatever I can to limit the spread of the fire while making sure myself and crew members are safe. That being said, when you’re choking on smoke in 100-degree heat, any person will need to take a break. There’s always the occasional moment or two when you quickly reach down, snap a picture and get back to work. I also believe that by being down in the dirt next to my crew members, I can get that much closer as a photographer to shed light on what they’re going through.
PC: Describe the intensity of being on the front lines of a massive wildfire.
BA: Fortunately, if you’re fighting one of the large fires that you hear about on the news, very rarely are you ever too close to it. Fires demand respect, and when they get to a certain size, there’s no reason to put firefighters on the front lines. Large fires literally create their own weather and therefore are extremely unpredictable.
That being said, when conditions change, and you’re forced to retreat to your escape route, it can be intense. Probably the hardest thing for me is when my adrenaline is high, and I need to formulate a plan to keep everyone safe, but also see photo opportunities. It all goes back to being a firefighter first. The last thing I would ever want to do is jeopardize people’s safety just for a picture.
PC: How different is it to see a large complex fire from a helicopter?
BA: I’m currently on day 55 of the Cameron Peak Fire in Fort Collins, Colo. It’s one of the state’s largest, and you really get the sense of the magnitude when flying over tens of thousands of scorched acres. But even amongst so much burnt vegetation, you look out and see how much forest is still standing. You see that the fire has cleared out dead trees and left the healthy ones to live. The forest is just cleaning itself and is on a different timescale than us. Sure, it’s going to be scarred for a few decades, but it will come back healthier, stronger and more fire resistant.
PC: How important do you think it is to be documenting these historic fires? What do you hope people will learn from seeing your wildfire photographs?
BA: As a photographer and advocate for visual storytelling, I wholeheartedly believe that I have a responsibility to document these fires. Not only the landscapes that have changed over the years, but also the men and women who spend six months of the year away from home, sleeping in the dirt, breathing in smoke and risking their lives for others all while making $15 an hour. There’s a special bond that exists within the wildland fire community, revolving around appreciation for America’s public lands and the hard work that goes into protecting those lands.
Additionally, wildland firefighters have a notorious history of suicide and other mental health crises. They are more likely to take their own life than die in the line of duty. I’ve lost two friends and coworkers to suicide and believe that these hard conversations need to be shared within and outside of the industry. I hope my pictures convey a respect for the men and women who risk it all, and help foster support for them.
Lastly, as I mentioned, I want my pictures to exemplify the balance of beauty and restorative health wildfire has on our landscape. It can be destructive when homes are nearby, but it’s also regenerative and critical for us to find better and more sustainable methods to live amongst it.
Caster may be contacted at (208) 848-2210 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Name: Brian Amdur of Montrose, Colo.Age: 24Instagram: @Brian_AmdurWebsite: BrianAmdur.com