Nature of Fire

Nature of Fire

Photography and Text by Christopher Rusanowsky

Editors Note: The 2021 wildfire season in California experienced an unusually early start due to ongoing drought and historically low rainfall and reservoir levels in the state.
According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection website (, more than 2 million acres have burned since the beginning of the year. More than 2,826 buildings have been destroyed by the wildfires, and at least seven firefighters and two civilians have been injured battling the fires.
In 2018 the state of California had faced its worst fire season to date. The Woolsey Fire alone burned 96,949 acres and destroyed 1,643 structures in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties in California. Three people died in the blaze and over a quarter-million were evacuated. 
American Reportage member Chris Rusanowsky covered the Woolsey fire and the brave work of the firefighters as they tried to contain the blaze and save as many communities as possible. 

Miles away from a wildfire’s front line, smoke can be seen rising in the sky. Ash, carried by the prevailing wind, rains down on the neighborhoods below – a warning that the fire is approaching and growing stronger. 

As the fire moves closer to residential areas, entire neighborhoods are told to leave. Most people have little time to gather their belongings and they just try to take what matters the most to them. They scramble to retrieve their animals, photo albums and other precious items out of their homes as fire trucks set a perimeter. Still, some homeowners will feel confident enough to wait it out and arm themselves with garden hoses as they stand watch over their homes.
Military C-130 planes carrying thousands of pounds of fire retardant fly above the fire and drop the red substance ahead of the blaze in an effort to contain its spread. Helicopters scoop water from lakes and other local sources to dump on the flames.
As the smoke blocks the sun and turns the day into night, winds pick up and violently blow embers in all directions, searching for their next targets. Large wildfires are capable of spawning their own weather system with the heat from the fire creating strange effects such as incredible waves of fire or the rare fire tornado. The hot air, smoke and moisture from these massive fires can reach airliner heights and spawn lightning.
It is a scene that can only be described as apocalyptic.
Wildlife is most vulnerable during these disasters. Teams are dispatched to help rescue and relocate as many animals as possible, but there are just not enough resources to save them all. 
Teamed together to ensure each others’ safety, firefighters work long hours battling these fires. They are soldiers in the war against Mother Nature and her power. The men and women hiking up steep hillsides armed with a plow and shovel seem fearless as they march into places where most are fleeing. Their goal is to create a barrier from the fire which may be the only chance to save a community.
As the warming climate contributes to more of these wildfires occurring each year, these fires have made me aware of the real power of mother nature. It has shown me the resilience of the communities affected and families who have lost so much. It has shown me what bravery is as I watched firefighters step into the fray and volunteers help escort horses from locked pens that could escape on their own. 
These fires are only getting worse. Hopefully imagery such as this will help remind people of the costs of ignoring climate change and being careless with fire.


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