Kent Porter: Capturing climate change on the front lines of the Dixie fire
Up ahead, the Dixie fire was ripping. The fire looked angry, menacing. Life altering.
The mountain to my left was fully ablaze, with flames as tall as 300 feet. Fire was launching up and across the steep slope of Keddie Ridge in Plumas County on the northern end of the Sierra Nevada.
All around me, it sounded like a giant ocean wave constantly crashing onto the beach. As fire spread to the top of the ridge, the blaze produced a rumbling, thunderous roar, shaking the ground with a guttural force as strong I’ve ever felt. A mass of superheated air collided aloft with cooler air to form a towering pyrocumulus cloud.
Adrenaline pumping, hands shaking, I started making pictures, capturing video and documenting my surroundings. Flames leaped sideways through the canopy of conifer trees, leaving a jumbled forest of blackened toothpicks. An entire ecosystem was being razed in a matter of minutes.
No one will believe this unless I have proof, I thought.
I’ve just passed my 34th year as a photojournalist with The Press Democrat. Every year I think fire season can’t get worse, and it does.
For me, the summer and fall of 2015 ushered in a more troubling tipping point. Lake County, where I grew up, came under siege from three wildfires, the worst being the Valley fire, which raced 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.
That was my wake-up moment — a preview of the new era of catastrophic wildfire in California and across much of the West.
Ever since, I’ve 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.
It’s dangerous work at times, but I like the challenge of making pictures that are startling and strangely beautiful. The calling also makes me a witness to the terrible power of wildfire and its aftermath. In the 2017 firestorm, as we all remember, it took just seven hours to make city neighborhoods unrecognizable.
The Dixie fire has set itself apart in new ways. It has burned since July 13 across four counties to cover more than 535,000 acres, or 835 square miles, making it the state’s largest-ever single wildfire.
Keeping my distance from its flames days ago, I was keenly aware of its force. The smoke column had leaned over, dropping fire brands on the ridge behind me, drawing heat from the opposite side into the main updraft. Within minutes, a counter clockwise rotating column of smoke appeared mid slope. A fire tornado. Relax, I told myself. Think clearly. Was that a tree that just uprooted and was flung into funnel? Yes.
Two U.S. Forest Service hot shot crews sped past, away from the fire, with a tree felling crew closely behind. Stopping, a man stepped out of his truck.
“Does anyone know about this?” he said.
“Well, we both do now!” I said.
He checked the bed of his pickup, where chainsaws were scattered about, a sign his crew had bugged out quickly.
“I want to make sure nothing is on fire,” he said above the din. “We drove through the edge of that mess!”
Two hundred yards up the road, trees were beginning to torch as the fire gained momentum. Time to leave.
When I was about 10 years old, the Aurora Marina in Lake County caught fire. My dad and I lived across the street and I remember trying to make a photo of the fire with a Polaroid Land camera. Nothing came out — it was 2 in the morning and I didn’t know squat about cameras or film speed. Firefighters fought the flames most of the night. I remember thinking how disappointed I was that I wasn’t able to make good images of the blaze. That pretty much sealed my career path, unknowingly, though I still harbored dreams of being a pro baseball player. Forty-nine years later, I’ve figured out cameras pretty well. I thought the same thing of covering wildfires until a few years ago.
But Northern California’s wildfires fires have grown more aggressive and dangerous for rural residents and urban dwellers alike. Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties offer one case study. The foothill and mountain towns of the Sierra Nevada are another.