August 17, 2023 ·

Mark Mann

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.” 

September 7, 2022. Michigan Bluff, California. The Mosquito Fire ripped through the village of Michigan Bluff shortly after this photo was taken. Flames reached three hundred feet high, fire fighters said, around the time the town burnt. And it took less than an hour for sections of the town to completely burn. I went back in after the head of the fire passed through the town.

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.” 

Jen started her journey into wildfire photography in 2020, when she travelled to photograph that year’s massive bushfires in Australia. 

August 13, 2022. Near Willow Creek, California. A fire fighter cools heat around the Six Rivers Lightning Complex fire near Willow Creek. He’s working alongside a back burn operation, which fire fighters conducted to create a control (containment line) around the actual wildfire. Back burns essentially remove fuel from the area, so that the actual fire does not spread into areas where it can do more damage. This is Willow Creek, California, a town notorious for weed growing. A series of fires broke out in this region in August 2022, after lightning struck the area. Hence, the fire was called the “Six Rivers Lightning Complex Fire.” Various sub name were given to the fires that made up this complex fire. In this photo, the fire smolders near structures, fire fighters did save these houses. The San Francsciso Chronicle reported that “Twelve lightning caused fires were identified on August 5th and are a result of thunderstorms that moved across the forest.”

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. 

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.” 

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. 

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.

Aug.10, 2022. Outside Yreka, California. This is a result of the McKinney fire, which burned over nearly a month and a half in the Yreka area of California. The McKinney wildfire was destructive. It burned in the Klamath National Forest in western Siskiyou County, California. People died in the McKinney fire, and numerous structures burnt down.

“I don’t buy expensive cameras,” Jen says. “I’m really aware that all this gear is going to get trashed out there.” 

September 13, 2022. Forest HIll, California. A tanker (airplane) drops fire retardent at the edge of Forest Hill, while the Mosquito Fire threatens to burn down the South side of the village. This section of the fire is a spot fire that flared up, as the main head of the Mosquito Fire was in a completely different area of this region.

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.” 

///

Mark Mann

August 2023

See more of Jen’s photojournalism and read the full report on her wildfire photography here at Beside.media. 

BESIDE is an award-winning magazine and media brand that aims to bridge the gap between humans and nature through narrative journalism and immersive experiences.

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Mark Mann is an award-winning journalist whose feature stories have appeared in Toronto Life, The Walrus, The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star, Vice, Reader’s Digest, Broadview and Maisonneuve, among others. His writing about contemporary art, dance, film and photography have appeared regularly in Momus, Blouin ARTINFO, The Dance Current, and elsewhere. He is the Associate Editor-in-Chief of BESIDE, a Montreal-based magazine that seeks to bridge the gap between nature and culture.

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