Why I Burned My Own Property and How I Photographed It

I was committed to burning my property. I know this sounds a bit crazy but we’re talking about a prescribed burn. My wife researched programs in our area for homeowners to reduce fire hazard. In our area the firefighters are cross-trained for both wildland and structure fires so they are perfectly qualified to do prescribed burns on a residential property.

After getting an assessment we got rid of all the pine needles dropped by the numerous ponderosa in proximity to the house and studio. The fire crew dug a containment “line” around the perimeter of our property. Then they trimmed low hanging branches and small trees that could be potential “ladder fuels” Then we waited for the right weather and time to burn.

My wife, Barb, is also a fire ecologist and participated in initiating the prescribed burn in autumn. Using a drip torch like this, the burn crew strategically places fire based on wind and weather conditions. Nikon D800E with Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 24-120mm f4 G ED VR at 70mm, 1/160, f8.0

I live in the WUI (pronounced woo-ee). That stands for wildland-urban interface. The upside is I’m in the woods and mountains with beautiful views; surroundings that motivate me creatively, it’s quiet, and I see lots of wildlife. The downside is I’m in the woods, which means potential danger from wildland fires. Exacerbating that danger is that I also happen to be in northern Arizona, where wildland fires are not uncommon.

Scary Moments Can Motivate You

I’ve seen smoke plumes and hazy skies from forest fires many times but they are usually far off. However, a few years ago a young man, despondent over his girlfriend, decided to light a dozen fires in the forest near my house and studio. My wife happens to be a fire ecologist and although we were away at the time, one of her colleagues that manages a wildland fire crew called us to let us know there was a fire in our area. We drove home, got our dogs, and packed up a few irreplaceable items while coughing from smoke.

It sounded like we were in an air raid with planes flying right over our heads dropping fire retardant. Then the sheriff knocked on the door and told us to get out of there. We stayed at my mother’s house trying to get updates on the progress of the firefighters. Finally in the early evening we breathed a big sigh of relief when a neighbor called and said it was OK to come back to our homes.

Thankfully, the fire crews did a spectacular job safely containing the fires. There was no fire or smoke damage to our home or my studio and we were able to clean the fire retardant off of our house.

With the main fires out I walked into the woods to shoot photos of the remaining smoke, the remnant flames, and the remaining firefighters making sure everything remained under control.

After this experience I was ready for a prescribed burn of our property.

Shooting the Burn

In order to shoot, I had to mentally dissociate myself from the fact this was my home so close to the flames. The flames never reach the house due to careful planning and preparation prior to the burn. Nikon D800E 24-120mm, 24mm, f8.0, 1/250 sec.

I knew I wanted to shoot this and tell the story. Although I asked lots of questions about it of my wife, the Burn Boss, and some of the crew, I didn’t fully know what to expect in terms of photo opportunities. I knew I would have to be able to move quickly during the burn so I didn’t want to be laden with too much gear and using a tripod was likely going to be out of the question.

I made sure to cover my bases with my full frame rig (Nikon D800E and Nikkor 24-120), and a Micro 4/3 for video and backup stills (Olympus OMD E-M1) along with my infrared body, also a Micro 4/3 (My old GH2 with IR modification), and an Olympus 12-40 f2.8 lens. I kept all 3 cameras on straps around my shoulders and neck so all were accessible. I also had a compact camera (Sony RX100 III) in my pocket. With all but the Nikon rig being compact and lightweight I was fairly unencumbered and able to move quickly.

I Was Blown Away by What Unfolded During the Burn, In a Good Way

Capturing smokey sunbeams is aided by backlight shooting directly into the sun during the fire. Dense air masses keep the smoke low to the ground. This combined with a sunny day and blue skies helped me capture these unusual effects. Olympus E-M1, ED 12-40mm f2.8 Pro zoom at 15mm f5.6 (30mm FF equiv)
Infrared capture of the prescribed burn. My infrared camera offers a very different look, “seeing” parts of the spectrum that we can’t see with our eyes. The symmetrical pattern of the flames are from the drip torches used by the burn crew to place the fire in specific locations. Panasonic GH2 Infrared (IR) modified, Olympus ED 12-40mm f2.8 Pro at 12mm (24mm FF equiv) f11, 1/250 sec.
Infrared capture at peak of the burn. The crew made sure to burn piles and old fallen trees to eliminate them as potential fire hazard in the future. Panasonic GH2 IR modified, Olympus ED 12-40mm f2.8 Pro at 40mm (80mm FF equiv) f11, 1/250 sec.
The smoke helped me capture a spot lighting effect on the foreground tree. Olympus OMD E-M1 with ED 12-40mm f2.8 Pro at 28mm f2.8 (56mm FF equiv)
I had a minute to run to my studio and grab my longer telephoto zoom. With the dense air mass it got quite smokey on the ground, dramatically decreasing the visibility. I used a long lens to accentuate that. Nikon D800E with Tamron SP 70-300mm f/4-5.6 Di VC USD at 300mm, f8.0 1/320 sec. ISO 200

There happened to be a dense air mass that day that kept smoke close to the ground. Combined with the blue skies, trees, and the sun, it made for unique and magnificent lighting and wonderful effects from the smoke. I couldn’t have dreamed up anything like this. There were nature shots, firefighters, vehicles, all in a dreamscape. I wanted to be everywhere at once. Then when night fell, I had another set of opportunities.

As night began to fall I could start to see glowing stumps and remnants of the burn. When it was completely dark I could see many more (see below) I shot this one hand-held with a Nikon D800E and AF-S Nikkor 24-120mm f4.0 G ED VR zoom at 24mm, f5.6, 1/60 sec. ISO 25,600
This is one of the very few shots with a tripod- the use of which was a luxury I didn’t have during the burn when I had to move quickly. Smoldering stumps burn through the night under a star-lit sky. Nikon D800E with AF-S Nikkor 18-35mm f3.5-4.5G ED wide-angle zoom at 18mm, f5.6, for 30 sec.

The next morning, amidst the smoldering charred ground that used to be my yard, I looked at my wife, the fire ecologist, and said “Wow, that’s a whole lot of black” She assured me that not only would green grass and flowers return but we’d have a much healthier forest with less potential fire hazard on our property.

Then my longer term project began: after the fire was out I ended up shooting all the blackness, then little green sprouts coming up through the ash and charred ground, the contrast of snow and blackened tree trunks, and the elk coming around for the nutrient rich regrowth. I ended up shooting this story through all four seasons spanning a year.

Wintertime. The purpose of the burn is to get rid of flammable ground cover. Amidst the charred remains from the burn are healthy ponderosa trees which are adapted to survive fire. Nikon D800E with AF-S Nikkor 18-35mm f3.5-4.5G ED wide-angle zoom at 18mm, f8.0, 1/320 sec.
Spring brings new grass sprouts right out of the charred remains of the native grasses. Nikon D800E and AF-S Nikkor 24-120mm f4.0 G ED VR zoom at 28mm, f8.0, 1/250 sec.
The regrowth started early in the spring and the elk, showing up before sunrise, take advantage of the fresh sprouts. The lack of light for this pre-dawn shot required ultra high ISO. This was about the time of year I switched to a Sony system. Sony A7II with Sony FE 24-240mm f3.5-6.3 OSS, f5.6 1/15 sec, 70mm ISO 20,000. Even at ISO 20,000 I had to bring up the exposure in post capture processing. The Sony raw file handled it well. Although the A7II and A7II R have in-body stabilization and I was using a stabilized lens I wasn’t worried about my own movement- the weak link here are the subjects themselves. Because I was shooting at 1/15 sec. I had to wait until the elk were fairly still to eliminate motion and get them sharp.
Also in the spring my wife, Barb, a fire ecologist shows our daughter some of those grass shoots coming out of an area burned in the fire. Sony A7II with Sony FE 24-240mm at 146mm, f11, 1/160 sec., ISO 160.
Summer showcased a large visible departure from the previous charred ground. The remaining ash you see in the foreground transitions to grasses and wildflowers in the former burn area. Sony A7II with FE 24-240mm zoom at 67mm, f16 1/60 sec.
Late summer/early fall brings more regrowth with taller grasses and wildflowers. Sony A7R II with 24-240mm at 181mm f8.0, 1/200 sec.
Full circle: A year later, notice how the vegetation in the former burn area is much taller. It brings the elk back for their winter fuel. With all the nutrient rich regrowth we see wildlife far more frequently than before the burn. Sony A7R II with FE 24-240mm at 210 mm f6.3, 1/250 sec.

I’m not a wildland fire specialist but I was able to take advantage of a rare occasion as a photographer: the weather on the particular day we did the burn, a controlled environment with a fire crew and their equipment at hand, and a beautiful day in the forest, all came together for some amazing opportunities and an ensuing story with many photographic rewards.

About the author: Joel Wolfson is an internationally published photographer who loves teaching as much as shooting. He shares his 30 years of experience as a working pro with other photographers and enthusiasts by way of his workshops, 1 on 1 training, webinars, articles, blog and speaking engagements. He is one of the pioneers of digital photography, having conducted digital photography seminars for Apple and other corporations starting in the early 90s. This article was also published here.