A thick column of smoke is a clear indicator of wildfire, but for photographer Kari Greer, it’s also an opportunity to document what that fire is doing.
Such documentation can also be used to encourage the average Westerner to become more firewise, she said.
“If somebody didn’t take a picture of it, did it happen?” Greer said Thursday, offering her opinion to the West Region Wildfire Council in Montrose. “Put a visual on what a fire looks like. It can help with the firewise message.”
The firewise message is one that promotes activities that can reduce a home or property’s risk for wildfire. Such activities include creating defensible space around a home; not storing woodpiles near homes; being mindful of propane tanks and other fuels, and reducing the natural fuels that feed fires.
People don’t always fully appreciate what fire can do, said Chris Barth of the Bureau of Land Management’s Southwest District Fire Management.
He said photography such as Greer’s can help communities understand what happens on the ground during a fire.
“If they can appreciate it a little better through the images, they might be (more inclined) to fire adaptiveness,” Barth said.
Greer, a contract fire photographer for the National Interagency Fire Center, showcased a number of powerful images that she captured of Western wildfires and the men and women who battle the blazes.
“Why have photography? Personally, I can’t even imagine why that’s a question. … Photography puts eyes on the fire in real time,” Greer said.
“Photographs give the bigger picture. They help quell the fear of the unknown.”
Fire, she said, doesn’t care about property lines — it cares about fuel. Documenting what it can do helps people learn how to co-habitate with this force of nature.
“Fire will likely affect you, the public, anyone who lives in the wildland urban interface,” Greer told the room of fire and public safety officials Thursday.
Greer’s images included those from the Carlton Complex Fire, which made a 20-mile run (8 air miles) in Washington state two years ago, and devastated the town of Pateros. That kind of fire movement had not been expected, but as the day wore on, “the signs started to pop up,” Greer said.
“… You just get the hairs on the back of your neck standing up.”
Her photos documented the homes crews were able to save, including one on property with good defensible space — but firefighters had to hurriedly make a fire break around a propane tank.
The photos also show something else the public might not appreciate: How smoke from wildfires can turn day into night for crews.
Teaching fire adaptiveness means continually reminding people to get out of an area in the event of a fast-moving fire, Greer said. A fire with the force of the Carlton Complex will take anything in its path.
Further, in busy fire seasons, fire resources are scooped up fast, she said. This reinforces the importance of residents being fire-ready — sometimes. It simply isn’t possible for firefighters to get to every imperiled home. Having defensible space and property fortified against wildfire, while not failsafe, can mean the difference between returning to an intact home and one that has been burned to the ground.
“A little bit of work can go a long way,” Greer said.
Again, nothing is completely fireproof. Barth said during the Waldo Canyon Fire in 2012, property owners who led the way in wildfire mitigation work lost their home — strong winds blew the garage door open, creating a gap for embers to enter.
“Be prepared for chaos,” Greer cautioned later.
The West Region Wildfire Council offers property owners assessments and recommendations for hardening their structures against blazes.
It also coordinates a chipping program, through which eligible, enrolled development communities can chip and dispose of materials in order to cut wildfire risks.
Enrolled development communities make up to five piles, in accordance with guidelines, then register for the chipping program at COwildfire.org/chipping, or by calling (970) 615-7300.
The service is offered to people living in wildfire-prone areas in Montrose, Gunnison, Delta, Hinsdale, Ouray and San Miguel counties. Program registration information is available
There are currently five enrolled communities in Montrose County: Beaver Hill Heights, Tres Coyotes, Happy Canyon, Dave Wood North and Dave Wood South. The pile registration deadline for these residents is Nov. 20.
Residents of communities not yet enrolled can contact the wildfire council at the above number.