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Regional Interests

‘Showing Climate Change as it Happens’: A Veteran Photojournalist on Capturing California’s In

Kent Porter’s specialty as a photographer for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat is capturing images of wildfires, but he broke format to write an essay about how he sees reporting on fire as documenting climate change.

“I’ve just passed my 34th year as a photojournalist with The Press Democrat,” he writes. “Every year I think fire season can’t get worse, and it does.”

Porter writes about a “wake-up moment” in 2015, when the Valley Fire and two other wildfires torched Lake County, where he grew up. He describes it as “a preview of the new era of catastrophic wildfire in California.”

Smoke from the Dixie Fire hangs in the air as television lights eerily illuminate a burned hotel and restaurant in downtown Greenville. (Kent Porter/Press Democrat)

Porter recalls fire racing through “bug-killed and parched forest atop Cobb Mountain before storming into Middletown, destroying more than 1,300 homes in all and killing four people.”

Ever since then, Porter writes, he has felt a sense of responsibility to show how that “threat is escalating amid the onslaught of climate change.”

“The daily record is important, but I also feel compelled to help chronicle this for history, to show just how dominant a force wildfire has become in our lives.”

Earlier this week, Porter spoke with KQED’s Raquel Maria Dillon about what it has been like covering this summer’s Dixie Fire, the largest single fire in California history, and the first recorded blaze to burn clear across the Sierra Nevada.

The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The Tehachapi Valley 11 fire crew uses teamwork to refresh, rest and maintain equipment after cutting miles of fire break in the Rush Creek area of the Feather River Canyon, July 25, 2021. (Kent Porter/Press Democrat)

What has it been like on the lines of the Dixie Fire?

I went up to the Dixie Fire twice, once on my own and once for the newspaper. I realized that it was going to be one of the biggest fires that we’ve covered.It was amazing to see the amount of damage that was there. You never really get used to it, even after covering all these fires. One part of the fire blew up and burned 13,000 acres in an afternoon. There was a fire tornado. It’s amazing how dry everything is. The part of the fire that I was on had burned in 2009 and it went through there like it had not burned before, like a virgin forest.

Describe how you do this, because I don’t think people realize what an individual photographer has to do.

With the advent of these climate change-induced fires, I prepare very carefully. I have all the things firefighters need to get on the line except for the firefighting tools. We carry fire shelters. We wear helmets, goggles, and gloves. When you’re in the fire, you’re pretty much there with the firefighters, documenting what they do. And that’s the reason I do it. I want to show people that fighting a fire is not all dropping fire retardant from airplanes and water from helicopters. It’s about the man hours.

And with a fire like the Dixie Fire, you can only manage it. It’s hard to put it out, there’s just no way. The fire does what it wants to do on any given day. All the fires that we’ve experienced within the last six years since the Valley Fire, they just run until they want to stop running.

United States Forest Service firefighters from the Los Padres National Forest turn away from wind driven embers and smoke as they protect a structure from the Dixie fire as it enters Indian Valley, Monday night, Aug. 9, 2021. (Kent Porter/Press Democrat)

You mentioned the 2015 Valley Fire in Lake County. What changed then when it comes to wildfire?

I noticed changes around 2012. Almost every wildland fire that I went to was involving structures, which was odd because the first several years that I did this job, I covered grass fires, but they were in unincorporated areas and there were no structures around. I just did it as part of my job, even though it was becoming a little bit more intense.

In September of 2015, the Valley Fire went off. That was my wake up call, seeing the rates of spread and the flame lengths and how fast the fire moved in one afternoon, it just blew me away. I realized, we’re in a different era now.

We keep hearing this from veteran firefighters. Fire behavior is off the charts, extreme this year and in recent years. But they often attribute it to forest management practices as opposed to climate change. What do you think?

It’s both. The forest management could be stronger. Climate change definitely has something to do with it. But with forest management, we’re so far behind right now, it’s going to take a long time to catch up. Climate change has exacerbated the problem. After you burn, you’ve got to go back every couple of years and retreat to that area. It’s a constant cycle to go on forever, really. If we want these fires to become under control, it’s something that we’re going to have to do. We have to face it.

When do you really get scared? how do you decide that it’s too dangerous, that the photos aren’t worth it?

A good rule of thumb — if I drive down a road and I see the fire laying over the road and the wind has caught it, I don’t go in there. I will go in after the fire burns all the brush. I’m really careful about where I drive my vehicle. I always make sure I have two exit points. These big fires, they create pyrocumulous columns that go up 40,000 feet, dropping embers behind you, everywhere. Spot fires start in front of you, behind you, on the side. I’m very cautious about that. If the firefighters leave, it’s a good idea for me to leave, too.

Garth Foster, who fells trees for the Barry Mickleburgh Tree Company, of Grass Valley, rests after cutting hazard trees in the Highway 89 corridor, Sunday, Aug. 8, 2021. (Kent Porter/Press Democrat)

You have quite a following on Twitter, and Santa Rosa newspaper readers, locals, they know you and your work. Why did you write that essay now?

Our communities in California suffer a great deal of PTSD when the wind blows, when it gets hot. We’re very fire aware in Santa Rosa and Sonoma County. I felt like I owed it to the readers of the Press Democrat, to go out there and to kind of show them what it’s like.

We photograph and report on things that go on in Sonoma County about our fires, but this is a statewide problem. Whether you agree if there’s climate change or not, fire behavior has changed within the last six years, in our region. It’s worse, much worse, off the charts, worse. We’re showing climate change as it happens, witnessing history. We’re witnessing climate change on a daily basis.

With most of her personal possessions packed in the truck bed, Chester resident Regina Rutledge takes comfort in Allie and Sally Sue, Monday, Aug. 9, 2021. (Kent Porter/Press Democrat)

You talk about a sense of camaraderie and an obligation to the firefighters that you see out in the field that you take pictures of?

They really work hard on the front lines. Imagine being on a fire for 24 hours and breathing the smoke for 24 hours. Think about last year when we had our orange sunrise in the Bay Area. That’s what firefighters live with every single day on a campaign fire. If you’re on a strike team, you’re up there for 15 or 21 days, and you’re breathing that smoke all day long. All night long. When you sleep, when you eat. I want to show people the kind of conditions that firefighters must work in to save communities. I just want to tell these human stories.

Copyright 2021 KQED