From the frontline: How to cover forest fires and stay safe


During the 2013 California Rim Fire, firefighters directed photojournalist Al Golub down a stretch of road they believed safe. Moments later, a plume of fire shot in front of his truck, like something you’d see in a movie.
“It’s exciting,” Golub said of covering fires. “That’s part of why I do it. There’s an excitement, a fear.”
As fires burn bigger, hotter and more often, chances are, if you are a journalist in the West, you are going end up covering a forest fire. Golub, who has been photographing wildland fires in the West since 1987, has a few tips on how to do it.
The first step in covering a fire is getting credentials.
The National Wildfire Coordinating Group sets wildfire training standards for federal and state agencies, though each agency has specific requirements. Individuals who complete training through an associated government agency receive an Incident Qualification Card, commonly called a red card.
As of 2004, journalists are no longer issued red cards, which indicate hireable government employees. However, taking the basic firefighting classes S-130 and S-190 will inform your reporting as well as ease fire crews’ concerns, Golub said. Training typically lasts a few days and is increasingly being supplemented with self-paced, online courses.
Many agencies also offer abbreviated classes specifically for media, but Golub recommends taking the extended courses. Not only will you be better informed, but you’ll earn points with crews you may see on the ground.
Golub regularly completes the training courses. When he arrives at a fire, he tells the incident commander that he’s trained as a firefighter but is working as a photographer. If the incident commander asks him to leave, Golub respects the request, although by now his reputation grants him access to most places.
Training also helps him circumvent handlers or the information specialists whom agencies often assign to media covering big fires.
A number of local and federal agencies offer classes on a regular basis. You can find more information about fire training courses at Golub also suggests approaching local fire chiefs directly. They often care more about people receiving safety training than whether or not you work for a particular agency.
The most important thing you can do to prepare for fire coverage is get fit. It’s one thing to go for a strenuous hike. Adding the stress of a fire and a heavy pack is another thing entirely.
At 73, Golub said he’s reined in his wanderings a bit.
“Now that I’m old, I’m even more careful,” Golub said. “I don’t go more than a mile from my car.”
The 2004 media regulations no longer require journalists to complete the physical fitness test. However, if firefighters must adhere to strict physical ability tests, you should consider your own ability to keep up. Firefighters working in the field must hike 3 miles with a 45-pound pack in 45 minutes or less. Can you do the same?
“You can’t outrun a fire,” Golub said. No matter how fit you are. You should know the landscape and how fire moves across it.”
Certification classes generally include map study, but Golub suggests reviewing topographical maps for the specific area of the fire you are covering, and remember that fires behave differently if you are in a wet forest in the East, or a dry forest in the West.
Pay attention to where you are in terms of land jurisdiction, as well. Fires know no boundaries, but agencies do. The U.S. Forest Service has different regulations than the National Park Service, which is different from the Bureau of Land Management. Private land is another matter entirely.
If an agency is trying to pull rank, it’s also important to know laws specific to your state.
Golub carries a card with the California law that says he can go anywhere as long as he doesn’t impede a firefighter. He could show it to someone if they tried to deny him access.
It’s not about a special lens when you’re out chasing wildfires. It’s about safety.
The interagency media guidelines list the minimum required gear for journalists. You need a shirt and pants made of fire-resistant Nomex, leather gloves, a hard helmet with ear flaps and boots with melt-resistant soles. Golub recommends carrying a shovel for extinguishing small fires. You should also carry at least five quarts of water. You can always leave more water in your vehicle.
Golub also suggests keeping a cooler of caffeinated beverages in your car. Firefighters are not allowed to have caffeinated beverages on the job.
“You can trade a couple of caffeinated drinks for almost anything,” he said.
Golub also keeps a scanner in his car. It gives him updates and ensures he’s not in a place where he might get trapped.
If you take the time to meet the folks with boots on the ground, you gain access to less-covered stories. Building relationships can mean better access and better stories.
Golub attributes part of his success when he first started photographing fires to venturing beyond the normal media area.
Like any specialized occupation, fire crews have their own lingo: hotshot crews, fire line and sling load. Understanding the terminology means you understand more of the story and connect with characters you may wish to cover.
Know the rules and procedures for wildland fires. You can find information on common operations in a fire zone in the National Wildfire Coordinating Group’s “Wildland Fire Incident Management Field Guide” online.
It’s easy to get caught up in the drama of a wildland fire: flames lick up the sides of trees as smoke and shouts fill the air. However, Golub said the best pictures are not always that close.
“You do not have to be in the fire to make a good picture,” Golub said. Seeing the big picture from a neighboring mountain or bridge can add important context, as well as visuals, to a story.
Golub looks for interaction shots in the heat of the moment. Doing your research and taking the classes will help you anticipate emotional or tense moments.
As always, he emphasizes the importance of safety.
“If you start to get too worried, you make mistakes,” Golub said. “So you’ve got to keep your wits about you.”
For more information on what agencies expect of media, read the USFS and BLM document “Interagency Media Guidelines for Wildland Fires” at ♦
— Katy Spence is an OWAA intern and journalism graduate student at the University of Montana. She enjoys new recipes, new places and old souls.

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