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A Photographer Works to the Sound of Falling Trees

2020-09-10 09:00:27

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I realized the day would not be straightforward as I was helping the fire crew move a burned log that was blocking their truck.

“How long have you been up the road?” I asked. I wanted to know how much time it had taken for the truck to become enclosed by trees on both sides.

“Two minutes,” was the reply.

Yes, it would be a complicated day covering wildfires in California as a photographer for The New York Times.

It was Aug. 21, and earlier that morning, my editor at The Times, Crista Chapman, asked me to go to Big Basin Redwoods State Park in Central California to document the effects of the C.Z.U. Lightning Complex Fire that had swept through earlier in the week.

In the 19 years I’ve covered wildfires in California, much of my work has been focused on the front lines of a fire or its aftermath in residential neighborhoods. It has already been a demanding year, with more acres burned in California than any other since modern record-keeping began.

But with the exception of the 2013 Rim Fire, which burned on the outskirts of Yosemite National Park, my assignment in Big Basin last month was different from most because it involved a protected natural site that was reported to have faced near destruction.

My goal was to reach the park headquarters, and I had hoped to drive all the way in. But so far I had yet to make it inside even the park’s boundaries. I had already probed one road into the park and found it blocked by fallen trees and power lines. The other way in had been cleared by a crew only to be marked again with freshly fallen trees.

I did not want to violate one rule of wildfire coverage: Stay close to your vehicle. But the active fire danger seemed to have passed. I always keep enough gear with me to spend the day outside — even on foot. So I parked, and with water, food, a camera and fire shelter, started walking.

There was a climactic crash, and as the sound reverberated into silence, I realized the immense tree had fallen nowhere near me. For the rest of the afternoon, I would hear trees fall with similar intensity every 20 minutes.

Further into the park the smoke haze deepened and soon I reached the sempervirens campground. I had no idea how the evacuation of the park had unfolded, but I assumed it was well in advance of the fire. Then I saw an uncovered salad on a checkered tablecloth and an abandoned, half-packed tent. That told a different story.

Photographing Big Basin after the fire was like an art school exercise in still-life. The smoky, charred landscape presented endless opportunities and challenges for a photographer. The signs of the fire were everywhere, but capturing and communicating the scale was not easy. There were colorful details in the campground, but everything else was in varying hues of black and gray. I did not see a single live animal. Activity, motion and emotion often give photos life. Here there was none.

I soon reached the park headquarters, which was completely destroyed.

This all might sound incredibly disheartening. But that day, I found that many of the old-growth redwoods the park is named for were only scorched, not destroyed. And the forest will recover. As my colleague Henry Fountain reported, redwoods have thick bark to protect them, and wildfires provide great conditions for germination and seedlings.

The sound of each falling tree was a reminder that I should not linger. On my hike out I saw downed trees that had not been there on the way in. I clambered over trunks that blocked the road and thought about the immense job the park had ahead.


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