With weather being such a factor in making your job easier or harder, what kinds of challenges were you encountering?
Oh yeah, my cameras got utterly and completely filthy. We were right up on the fireline at multiple fires, and it was raining ash. All over my cameras, all over me. It was very hot, and the thick smoke made it hard to breathe at times, and burned my eyes and throat. The fires can move quickly when the wind picks up, so you’re constantly having to be situationally aware and plan escape routes. I drove into Hurricane Laura at dawn, with a search-and-rescue caravan, a few hours after it made landfall. It was a difficult drive — pouring rain made it hard to see the road, and I had to dodge debris, as strong gusts of wind pushed my truck around on the highway. Power lines were down all over, blocking roads. There was no gasoline, electricity or running water.
The hotel The New York Times had booked for me was destroyed, so I slept in my truck for days. My editor felt really bad about it, but after over a decade living and working in Venezuela I’m pretty used to challenging field conditions. “Oh my gosh, you had to sleep in your truck!” she said. “Are you kidding?” I responded, “I was in a Walmart parking lot! It was so nice!”
Was there anything else about your work that was new to you?
I’ve covered several natural disasters around the world before, but this was my first time ever photographing a wildfire. The wide landscape fire shots, like the cover photo, were made at night, using a tripod and long camera exposure. I usually shoot everything hand-held, using natural light, so I was definitely out of my comfort zone photographing the fires. I took wildland firefighting classes online to learn about how fires move, and I had to wear all of the same P.P.E. that the firefighters use. The Times hired Stuart Palley and Jeff Frost, two experienced wildland fire photographers, as consultants who were fundamental to establishing the security protocol and keeping everyone safe.
When you started out as a photojournalist, did you see yourself doing an assignment like this?
This is the type of work that I want to be doing. There’s so much misinformation and misunderstanding about climate change, and it’s one of, if not the most important topic that people all around the world should be learning about right now. I want to be on the frontline helping people understand it. It’s dangerous work, it’s exhausting work. There were multiple days that were 24 hours of shooting without stopping. A lot of sleepless nights. But it’s worth it.