Note: Our next "How We Did It" training session is scheduled for 2 p.m. central on Thursday, March 14. The webinar will feature Autumn Agar, editor of The Times-News (Twin Falls, Idaho) and Ashley Smith, chief photographer, as they discuss how their staff provided extensive multimedia coverage of massive wildfires in 2012, coverage that earned The Times-News a Lee President's Award for Excellence in News. Smith's essay below offers a sneak peek at topics and tips he and Agar will discuss on March 14.
Last May, I had an opportunity to attend fire training camp in the snow capped Sawtooth Mountains of central Idaho. It was a three-day investment that paid off all summer and continues to pay off as we plan ahead for another fire season.
At the fire training camp, I ate meals with the firefighters, slept on site and worked alongside them as they learned the skills they would need to face the massive blazes that overwhelm the West each summer.
The fire training camp was a great place to build knowledge and forge relationships with firefighters.
At the core of what we do is access and I feel the training opened a lot of doors.
Understanding the dangers firefighters face is integral to operating around wildland fires. There's a reason Public Information Officers are so sensitive to how close they get you to the fire.
People acknowledge the investment of time when they see us working on a long-term story and they feel more comfortable sharing their stories and helping us capture the scene for our readers.
I have all of the fire gear I need when I arrive at a wildland fire. From boots, which have to meet the guidelines of the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service, Nomex pants and shirt, leather gloves, hard hat and a fire shelter. Most PIO's carry extra gear, but it is optimal to arrive ready to go to the fire line to ensure you are not delayed by not having fire pants.
Covering a wildfire isn’t all adrenaline. It can be stressful and discouraging driving around for hours with a PIO and not getting action photos. It's important to stay positive and focus your energy searching for opportunities.
On the penultimate day of a 190,000 acres fire last summer, I was driving back with a PIO after six hours and no meaningful images (about 30 minutes spent changing a flat tire) on gravel roads past miles of recently charred sage brush. I heard chatter on the scanner about a blaze 30 miles south of our current location. While driving along the highway to the fire, we avoided a delay because our vehicle had an emergency light on the roof. Of course, it was a lucky break, but it's a classic tale of persistence paying off and acknowledgment that assignments like these rarely go as planned.
I am looking forward to hearing your thoughts and approaches to covering wildfires and other spot news and I hope you can join us on Thursday, March 14, for the How We Did It training.
Ashley Smith is chief photographer for The Times-News in Twin Falls, Idaho. Join him and editor Autumn Agar on our next How We Did It session scheduled for 2 p.m. central, Thursday, March 14.