Home > News > Wildfires lead photojournalist to burn out, then to learning how to fight fires (photos)

Wildfires lead photojournalist to burn out, then to learning how to fight fires (photos)

By Ty O'Neil

This Is Reno photojournalist Ty O’Neil has documented scenes in and around Reno for a handful of years, both for this publication and for television news. He has been behind many of the wildfire images published here, and republished by national news organizations including CNN, Wall Street Journal and National Geographic.

I have photographed many things in my life. I now have over 450,000 images stored on hard drives and I remember all of them. It becomes a lot over time to have these memories kept fresh by the images I have created. Events and disasters that happened years ago still feel recent in my mind. If I look at an image, I can remember the sights and sounds, the smell and the feelings. That moment becomes real again if only for a 1/1000 of a second.  

I took my first image of the Tamarack Fire in July 2021. I did not know at the time that I would be on the fire line for the next two months documenting some of the most destructive and largest wildfires in California’s history. Nor, of course, did I know that it would lead me to becoming a type 2 wildland firefighter.  

An image from the Tamarack Fire on July 17, 2021 near Gardnerville, Nev. Image: Ty O’Neil / This Is Reno

Editor’s Note: A type 2 firefighter is an entry level crewmember who works long, hot days creating fire lines using hand tools and chainsaws. They also conduct “mop up” work after a fire has passed. When not working on active fires they may help with fuel reduction projects. 

In my younger years I dreamt of becoming a war photographer, and to an extent still do. Since then, I have become an environmental disaster photographer, documenting droughts, environmental changes, and of course wildfires.  

Many journalists when asked why they do a job that nearly kills them for a paycheck that barely feeds them respond by saying that they want to make a difference. I have never had the ego to think that what I do could make a change, though I would like it if it did. No, I have always said the same thing, “I’m nuts.” 

In explanation though, and the real reason I am incapable of stopping, is that I never want people to be able to say they “didn’t know.” My images capture the truth in a way I hope is so intriguing that it’s hard to look away, even when it’s a horrible thing.  

A deer that died in the Dixie Fire in mid-August 2021. Image: Ty O’Neil / This Is Reno

The 2021 fire season pushed me like I have never been pushed as a photojournalist. Half way through the fires a colleague asked me what I did at the fires and I told them, “I go, and watch things die.”  

Perhaps I meant it with some dark humor, but it was true. I went to the fire line and saw decimated forests, animals burned to death, charred remains of entire communities and beaten tired firefighters. These are the things that made up my life week after week. 

My last image of the fires would be in late September from a fire season that started in June. I had spent so much time on the fires I was unsure what to do without them. I felt like I had to relearn how to talk with people who were not reporters and firefighters, how to act in an environment that wasn’t trying to kill you–in other words, normal life. 

I ended up quitting my day job from burn out, somewhat literally. 

Maybe it’s time to try fighting fires 

After reading an article by Rebecca A. Eckland that encouraged people to become type 2 wildland firefighters, I signed up. After so much time on the fire line and watching the fires burn, maybe it was time to try fighting them. Maybe. 

The class was mostly online with two in-person days, one of which was a field exercise. 

There isn’t too much to be said of the online classes; they serve as a good guideline but suffered from a litany of acronyms and a clunky interface. The tests, though, are generous at the very least, allowing multiple attempts and no real time limits. Unlike a lot of higher education, the test and system genuinely want you to pass and succeed even if you make mistakes on the first try.  

The in-person class was with the likable and charismatic Sandy Munns, a man who could go down as one of the greatest proponents of firefighting ever. He is realistic about the dangers of the position and shared both his and his colleagues’ stories of when things went wrong. His personal stories, at least for me, help drive home some of the dry online information.  

While I have spent a good deal of time on the fire line and know how quickly things can change, reporters are very much on their own, or at times with perhaps one or two other people. There is also a real push to be in dangerous situations. More dramatic images often have a better chance of being published.  

While experienced fire reporters have learned to balance these factors, younger or less experienced people may not. Sandy reiterated this is not the case for wildland firefighters. The emphasis was on keeping yourself and your fellow crew members safe. Munns was explicit that saving natural resources was important, but your life and that of your crew was far more important.  

Students in TMCC’s Wildland Fire class try out the Nomex fire uniform, dig fire line and roll up hoses, among other exercises, to gain a type 2 wildland fire certification. Image: Ty O’Neil / This Is Reno

We were also issued temporary wildland fire protective clothing, made of flame-resistant Nomex fabric, and a helmet, and provided our own gloves, boots and safety glasses. The equipment was in some cases in rough condition, but it served the purpose of getting students a feeling for the uniform.       

The class did do one physical lesson on the first day: we practiced deploying and staying in a fire shelter. This has been referred to as “baked potato” training as the deployed shelter very much resembles a potato wrapped in aluminum foil.  

The training is anything but funny though. Deployment of a fire shelter is only done in a worst-case scenario and is a last-ditch effort to not die from the flames.  

After a lesson in hazardous materials the class retired for the evening and retuned early the next day. 

Fighting ‘fire’ with a Pulaski and some sweat 

Day two was field training day, finally an opportunity to put lessons learned in to practice. Students gathered in their yellow wildland fire gear and received a mock briefing and then carpooled out into the desert near Carson City.  

Instructors ran us through a simulated (no flames) 15-acre wildfire where we needed to create a fire line with hand tools and deal with various issues as the work proceeded.  

Wildland firefighters get a briefing before heading out to dig fire line on the Caldor Fire in late August 2021. Image: Ty O’Neil / This Is Reno

It’s hard to describe what digging a hand line is like. I chose the somewhat unusual Pulaski, a sort of combination axe and garden hoe tool. The goal was to create a 2-foot line in the desert that had all burnable materials removed in an effort stop our simulated fire from spreading.  

Swinging a Pulaski at force into frozen soil and bushes while breathing in 20-degree air with four people ahead of me and 10 behind was a quick reminder that I was no longer in the physical condition I had been in during the 2021 fire season, and that at only 30 years old I was still probably a senior compared to many of the people in the class.  

Instructors kept us moving in the right direction and communicating. At times, a few students would have to leave the line to take care of simulated spot fires or other fire line issues.  

After building our line we hiked in formation up a dirt road to check on another pretend fire. We had to imagine this fire had shifted direction due to the wind and was now forcing us to pull back. Hiking down the mountain an instructor informed us that we were not in fact going to make it to our safety zone and that we needed to deploy fire shelters.  

Understanding the seriousness of our fictitious situation, we dropped our packs, pulled out our fire shelters and hustled to a clear patch of dirt where we deployed them in as much order as we could. Instructors walked around our shelter pulling on the edges and telling us to communicate to one another.  

After a while the instructors had us check our surroundings and finished up the exercise with a debrief on everything that happened. Returning to our class area we sharpened our tools and then ate lunch.  

Due to an unfortunate issue our practice brush engine was not able to hold water any better than a colander, but this was not going to stop training. We practiced running hoses from a source to hundreds of feet away and then repacking the gear. This was everyone’s favorite activity I’m sure, though an extremely important skill to learn now.  

A highlight of the training was using the tools for backburning, which is intentionally burning vegetation in front of the fire to stop the spread. This meant using fusees, which are similar to road flares, and drip torches. Drip torches use a combination of fuels to create a relatively safe liquid fire dispenser.  

A firefighter uses a drip torch to backburn an area near Caples Lake on the Caldor Fire in August 2021. Image: TY O’Neil / This Is Reno

While the training was serious and flammable liquids must be treated with a great deal of respect, it would be a lie to say there wasn’t some fun to be had pouring fire on the ground while walking a designated route.  

I am leaving out various aspects of the training we practiced in an effort to make this article a manageable size. Suffice it to say, there was a lot to learn.  

With things wrapped up, our instructors talked with us about career paths and job opportunities for the 2022 fire season and beyond. Agencies like the U.S. Forest Service are already hiring for seasonal positions, with wildland firefighters classified as “forestry technicians.”  

Overall, the class was expensive at $425 and you have no guarantee of getting on with a hand crew for the fire season. But with our region’s expanding fire seasons and recent mega fires, this class may be worth your time and money, even if you do not decide to go into wildland fire fighting.   

As for me, I will be on the fire line in 2022 just as I was in 2021. Whether it will be as a journalist or a wildland firefighter I do not yet know. But no matter what takes me to the fire line, I know I have more knowledge and a better understanding of what it takes to be a wildland firefighter. 

More information on TMCC’s Wildland Firefighter Training Program is online at https://www.tmcc.edu/fire-technology/wildland-fire-training-program.

More photos from TMCC’s course, along with some of Ty’s most memorable photos from the 2021 fire season.

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