A Photographer’s Journey Into the Fire Zone
In 2020 photojournalist Jennifer Osborne travelled to shoot the massive Australia bushfires. Now she’s made wildfire photography her life’s calling.
“Hell is empty, and all the devils are here.”
Jennifer Osborne sometimes thinks about this line from Shakespeare’s play The Tempest when she reflects on taking photos in fire zones.
“You’re like, ‘This is the most terrifying thing I can imagine,’” the 38-year-old wildfire photographer tells me over the phone from California, where she is shooting the 2023 fire season.
The work of a wildfire photographer is often brutal: plunging into smoke so thick it turns day into night, trying not to breathe in the dangerous particulates, perpetually negotiating an escape route if things turn bad … there’s an adrenaline rush, sure, but mostly what Jen experiences is a raw, physical fear.
“I’m aware that I can definitely experience trauma from this work,” she says. “But I think the benefits outweigh the trauma.”
Jen’s wildfire photography is driven by her own ecological anxiety. She hopes that seeing the realities of forest fires will help spur those who view her work toward climate adaptation and mitigation.
“I’m trying to show the world the side effects of climate change,” she says. “I do think these images have a special type of power, and I do think I’m helping by being there.”
A wildfire awakening in Australia
Jen started her journey into wildfire photography in 2020, when she travelled to photograph that year’s massive bushfires in Australia.
The megafire that year was unprecedented, consuming an area of 243,000 square kilometres and burning for nine months before being fully contained. Jen trained her lens on the fires but also paid special attention to the impacts on animals.
A report commissioned by the World Wide Fund for Nature estimated that three billion animals were killed or displaced in the fires, and Jen’s photos from that period capture urgent efforts by volunteers to protect and care for as much of the native wildlife as they could save.
Since witnessing the Australian bushfires, Jen’s drive to show the real effects of climate change has only grown, and in 2022 she made the commitment to dedicate the rest of her career to photographing wildfires: “I decided that this is all I want to do.”
Despite the intense pressure of wildfire photography, Jen feels uniquely suited to working in high-risk environments. Her background is in war photography — she photographed the conflict in Ukraine from 2015 to 2017. The experience taught her the value of taking every precaution.
Committed to staying safe
Education is the best protection, and Jen has made a habit of continually deepening her knowledge and improving her skills in fire zones. Before shooting the Australia bushfires, she completed a bushfire safety course for media by the Country Fire Authority, which taught her things like how to make a risk assessment and how to enter a fire area properly, and she’s currently completing a training course in Wildland Fire Behaviour.
She’s also been lucky with mentors. Nicholas Moir, the renowned Australian environmental photojournalist who specializes in wildfire photography, and Tim Walton, a veteran broadcast photojournalist with decades of experience shooting in fire zones, have both been advising and helping her adapt to a career taking photos of forest fires.
Out in the fire zone, Jen wears extensive personal protection, including a helmet, goggles, and full outfits made with Nomex, the same heat- and flame-resistant material that firefighters wear.
“Everything on my body is heavy,” she tells me. She works out for two hours a day when she’s not shooting in order to meet the physical demands of the job.
The biggest danger to human health in a fire zone isn’t flames, however, but smoke. During the Australian megafire, 34 people died directly from the fires, but hundreds more died from smoke inhalation.
When Jen wears an N95 mask in a fire area, she finds she has to change it several times in a day, because it becomes completely brown. Otherwise, she wears a more protective P100 respirator mask.
Whenever she’s shooting in a fire zone, she stays close to her vehicle — always within eyesight — and avoids going into places where there is only one exit or trees are too near the road. Fallen trees can easily block roads during a wildfire.
The challenge of chasing wildfires
Taking pictures in a fire zone presents its own distinct problems. The first problem is actually finding the fire. You have to become a fire chaser.
Jen uses several different digital tools to track wildfires: NASA’s online Fire Information for Resource Management System (FIRMS) map, the non-profit Watch Duty app, and the Canadian Wildland Fire Information System. These resources can be used to locate fires and find out how big they are.
She also uses the flight-tracking service FlightAware to see where aerial firefighting companies like Coulson Aviation and Erickson Aero Tanker are sending their planes.
Once she knows where the fire is, she has to gain entry to the fire zone, which presents its own hurdles. “Fire access is tricky,” says Jen. “In North America, most areas completely block journalists from entering.”
Unless you’re a firefighter with a camera, the only way for a photojournalist to get close to a wildfire in Canada is to be inside the fire area before the blaze happens, says Jen. “You would have to be so lucky. These are remote locations.” Sometimes photojournalists can get access to prescribed burns, which is a common strategy for fighting fire with fire. But so far Jen herself has had no such luck.
The only outlier is the state of California, which allows non-emergency personnel to get into fire zones. “You can just go to a roadblock and show your press pass.” So she spends her summers there, often sleeping in her car since the air quality is too poor to sleep outside, even in a tent.
Once she has access to the fire, there are urgent technical challenges. The radiant heat breaks down camera equipment, causing adhesive to separate. Changing lenses is tricky with all the dust flying around.
“I don’t buy expensive cameras,” Jen says. “I’m really aware that all this gear is going to get trashed out there.”
The question of proximity to the flames is a constant preoccupation, but she gets as close as feels reasonably safe. “I’m within a kilometre of the active flames when I’m out there,” she says. “I’m working up to getting into spaces that are burning down. I don’t know how comfortable I am with that kind of thing yet.”
She’s careful not to develop too much tolerance, because it’s important to maintain a healthy respect for the fire. “A firestorm is a monster.”
Artistic advocacy through wildfire photography
Even though it can feel like “a form of torture,” the work is nonetheless profoundly meaningful for Jen. “I’m being a messenger for this catastrophic thing that seems to be escalating. It’s important to get this message to the world,” she tells me.
“It breaks my heart that the Canadian government is not facilitating journalists to enter fire zones,” says Jen. “We have a role of providing public information. We’re kept so far away that we can’t show the public what those fires look like.”
She’s convinced that people are more likely to contribute to climate solutions when they see the catastrophic effects of fire. “I feel that emergency services in Canada would do a lot better and have a lot more support and resources to pull from if they showed the public what’s going on.”
Still, she’s not letting the constraints hold her back. It’s only been three years, but shooting fire “is deep in my heart,” Jen says, and she feels a duty to the work.
Mark Mann is an Associate Editor-in-Chief at BESIDE. Previously, he was a freelance journalist for magazines and newspapers. Instagram
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