River Complex


Living in far Northern California has many perks and a few drawbacks. Perks include, but not limited to, beautiful vistas and wonderful dark skies. These also include ancient ancestral tribal lands including the Karuk, Hoopa, and Quartz Valley Native Tribes. These are great for some nice photographic opportunities during the day and into the night. Unfortunately one of the big drawbacks is during the summer, we usually have forest fires somewhere in the area. With fires, comes a lot of smoke and smoke naturally obscures our views of the landscape and skies.

Over the past thirteen years, I have been living at my current home, this scenario has played out about ten of those summers. Knowing this is a probability, I try to get as much night sky photography in before mid-July as that is when things start to get ugly. This year was no exception and unfortunately, the smoke was even heavier than normal.

So what can I do to try and still get some photos in these unfortunate situations? Especially considering the smoke makes most photos a little on the ugly side. Even with post-processing, there is only so much you can do. Because this situation appears to be the norm lately, I’ve decided to make the most of the situation and focus on fire fighting photography in the summer. Specifically, I try to get photos of fire-fighting aircraft in action. Of course, this isn’t very simple. Most of their work is too far away for a decent photograph and more likely out of sight completely.

Watching, listening and following activities, I have found some patterns and found a few friends with additional information which has put me in the right place at the right time. Naturally, I have had more misses than hits, but that is part of the fun also. For the record – I wish there were no fires, as they are destructive to not only the forest but also many homes, communities and livelihoods as well. But with tragedy comes opportunity.

This year’s round of fires in my area were sparked from a series of lightning storms that traveled through the area. The closest ones to me were named the ‘River Complex.’ They were several fires which eventually merged together to form one large fire and one smaller one. Naturally, with large fires come fire fighting aircraft. Unfortunately, all the accompanying smoke usually keeps the aircraft grounded for long periods of time. But once they start flying, I try to find a location and opportunity for photographs.

One day, the smoke had lifted enough for the aircraft to fly. The forest service had positioned a large portable water tank that helicopters could suck water out of to then drop somewhere on the fire. I heard a couple helicopters were using the tank, so off I went.

I was able to get reasonably close to the tank, but not so close to get kicked out of the area (I’ve “heard” that happens). Also, I didn’t want to be so close that debris flying around due to the rotorwash would be a problem. So I tried different angles of all things I could think of – approaching helicopters, filling up water, banking away, flying away, etc., etc. I tried slow shutter speeds to emphasize the rotors and faster to freeze everything. I even was able to get a few water drops, but they were pretty far away.

After a bunch of photos, I thought I had covered most angles and possibilities. I returned home to process the photos. After looking at all the photos, I was pretty disappointed with my results. My conclusion was the smoke, although lighter than previous days, had just muted everything and made the majority of them, blah. As a last-ditch effort to save something from the event, I tried to switch a couple to black and white. Then BAM, there it was! The photograph was not this compelling in color.

Not only do I like the results of this photograph, but it clearly shows the story of the event. The smoke rising in the background is from one of the areas the helicopters were working to help control the fire. No there are no dramatic trees blazing into the air, but it still shows why they are there and what they were doing. Sometimes I struggle with ‘telling the story’ in a photograph, but I think this one is spot on.

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