|Don Smith Photography's Blog|
Hell's Fury, Grouse Fire, Yosemite
Twenty-eight years ago I began my photography career as a eager photojournalist for a couple of small California dailies. I learned to shoot news, feature, personality, and sports images (sometimes all in the same day). Looking back at those formative years of my career, I remember many times having editors send me out to capture the raw force and destruction of wildfires. I strove as best I could to tell the "who, what, when, why, and how" with every frame.
Fast forward to the present point of my career as a fine-art landscape photographer, and again I found myself drawn to a news-worthy event of an out-of-control Yosemite forest fire (termed the Grouse fire) but this time, somewhat ironically, trying to capture its fury more in the artist mode.
I was told earlier this day by a ranger that this fire (one of two burning in the Park) was started by lightning. As with many fires in the Sierra, fire management crews allow the blaze to burn a confined area. This is actually good for the forest as it clears much of the slash that has built-up over the years and thus prevents potential infernos when the forest floor get too thick with debris. Fires also allow for new vegetation the following spring; overall, it is very healthy and a natural and much needed progression.
Unfortunately, high winds from a late-afternoon rain storm allowed the fire to jump the confined areas. I had been working making images at Washburn Point near the end of Glacier Point Road completely oblivious to the conditions to the west (which I could not see from my vantage point). Upon my return I neared Summit Meadow, a couple miles south of Taft Point, and noticed a convoy of ranger and emergency trucks; I knew something was amiss.
My first thought was of the wind and the very real chance that the fire had jumped across Highway 41 (my route back to the Valley and my hotel where my family located). About 3 miles later, my suspicions were confirmed as I caught my first glimpse of the raging inferno! In my mind, the photographer (and former journalist part of me) just had to find a location to make an image, while the other portion of my brain (the father and husband side) was extolling me to push on and get back to the hotel. As evidenced by this image, you can see which side won! Hey, once a photographer, always a photographer.
I pulled the car over near a pullout about a mile north of the Badger Pass Ski Resort. This location afforded me a unobstructed view of this incredible scene. Many of the fire spotters had taken up this position as a lookout post and I was extremely cautious not to interfere. They were going about their business and seemingly did not concern themselves with me or my camera.
This particular image was captured 30 minutes after sunset while there was still a warm glow on the northwestern horizon. What is most evident is how the wind had scattered pockets of the blaze along the massive hillside. I worked quickly (as I didn't want to push my luck) and left within 10 minutes. My mind then shifted back to the husband/father mode and I said a silent prayer that Highway 41 would be open into the Valley (if not, I would have about a 3-hour roundtrip via the southern exit of the Park) to deal with. My prayer was answered a short time later as emergency crews had allowed for a single lane, via an escort, into the Valley. It was extremely eerie as the fire was burning literally 20 yards from the road. The entire hillside was alive with a smoke-shrouded amber glow which lit the now darkened sky. I arrived back at my hotel by 10pm to a very concerned 13-year-old (my son Aaron) who had heard earlier of the out-of-control blaze. I assured him I was fine and was never in harm's way.
As of this writing, the Grouse fire is still burning having consumed over 3030 acres but was 90 percent contained. I applaud all the courageous and hard-working men and women who risk their lives tending to these massive fire storms, and work in some of the hottest and roughest conditions imaginable.
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Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III