Covering Fires as a Photographer Back Home in the Footsteps of my Father the Forester
Reynolds School of Journalism graduate student Richard Bednarski was an intern this summer for the Reno Gazette-Journal and his assignment was going back home to track the development of devastating fires.
I grew up in Quincy, California, which escaped unharmed by the Dixie fire when it burned a couple of miles from town in July. But as the fire has grown into a blazing hydra, another head has set sights on my hometown.
I have memories of thunderheads blossoming above Mt. Hough, south of town. My mom referred to these as money clouds. It was several years later when I realized why. These thunderheads often sparked wildfires in the northern Sierra Nevada mountain range and my dad would head out for days on end, working as a forester for the United States Forestry Department, to help battle the flames. All the while earning overtime and hazard pay.
My dad still talks about fires he has worked on as a forester. He began working with the USFS in 1978 after graduating from Rutgers University with a degree in forestry. He has photos from a fire he worked on in the San Bernardino mountain range of southern California. The last fire he worked on before retiring was the Moonlight fire, which burned just shy 65,000 acres in 2007. The Dixie fire is now burning through the same mountainous terrain threatening the small communities of Milford, Janesville, and Susanville.
I remember smoke becoming part of summer in the late 1990s, but it was not until August 2000 when smoke from a wildfire would first affect my life. On August 17, 2000 Union Pacific works repairing rail tracks along the Feather River sparked a fire that would quickly grow to over 50,000 acres before being contained. The smoke billowed high and could be seen for miles, including from the soccer fields in Quincy where I was practicing for an upcoming tournament.
Within days Quincy would be flooded with dense smoke, cancelling a high school soccer tournament and sending me indoors. Now that smoke is a normal part of summer.
The Storrie fire was also the first fire I witnessed firsthand when my sister, her friend and I accidentally drove into it one summer night via backroads. As we drove back along the highway towards Quincy, I remember the flames were not as intense as what I witnessed covering the lightning sparked Beckworth Complex fire which scorched over 105,000 acres back in July.
Now the tinder is much drier and this summer has broken dozens of heat records across the west. While forests need fire to burn, it is the intensity and shear size that concerns me. I witnessed trees forty feet tall go up in flames in less than one minute. I drove through fire so intense the heat could be felt inside the cab of the truck as we sped through smoke thicker than porridge.
The ongoing drought has parched the forest and July was the hottest month ever recorded. “This new record adds to the disturbing and disruptive path that climate change has set for the globe,” NOAA Administrator Rick Spinrad said in a statement.
We are in unrivaled times. Global average temperatures have already risen by one degree Celsius.
What stands out to me the most is over 20 years ago a wildfire over 50,000 acres was considered large. The Dixie fire has grown by 50,000 acres in a single day several times already. Including consuming over 100,000 acres and the town of Greenville in a single 24 hour period.
I played soccer as a kid in Greenville and a favorite swimming hole was swallowed by this fire. The land I have known my whole life will never be the same for me or my children.
This drastic growth in wildfire behaviors, size, and damage has prompted me to focus my storytelling on the impacts of climate change. I hope to visualize climate change in a way that will allow people to connect to my images and in turn, connect to the reality that the climate crisis often warned about in the future tense is here today.