Interview by: Heidi Volpe - A Photo Editor
Design Director: Elias Carlson
Writer: Lindsey Browne Davis
Heidi: How long have you lived in CA and when did your relationship with good fire begin?
Sashwa: I was born and raised in rural Sonoma County, California, Coast Miwok / Southern Pomo territory, and grew up just two ridges over from where I live now in Occidental. A tiny town nestled in the redwoods, not too far from the coast. My interest in “good fire” started in 2017 when Sonoma County saw record breaking wildfires, taking out entire neighborhoods, blanketing the entire county in smoke for weeks on end and waking a lot of us up to the reality that we are all living within a fire adapted landscape here in Northern California. I quickly realized that if I wanted to continue to live here in California I would need to learn to be in better relationship with fire. My interest in fire led me to start shooting a prescribed fire course with Fire Forward in Santa Rosa. Through photographing the course as a personal project, I began to learn both the skills needed to photograph wildfires along with how to reintroduce good fire back onto my own land where I live in Occidental.
Was this a personal project?
A majority of the images you see in this story I made on my own time. I found myself really inspired after every burn. I would come away with a ton of ideas, excited to sit down and edit what I just shot, a feeling you don’t get on every shoot. I have learned that when you feel that spark of creativity, to lean into it. Oftentimes “personal projects” are where an artist’s most powerful work comes from. The trick is then how to integrate this passion into “client work” so you can put food on the table.
After sharing stories with Lindsey Browne Davis, an outdoorswomen writer and good friend, we came up with a story about fire and water and how these two elements interact and relate to each other. We pitched it to Modern Huntsman for their Water Issue, the story got approved and was sponsored by Mystery Ranch.
What was your training like for this? Was the desire twofold; to be of help and gain access in order to document?
After shooting a few wildfires I realized that in order to do this safely I really needed to look into getting some formal training. Not only did I want to make sure I was safe when shooting the fires, I also wanted to be in service to my community and deepen my relationship to the land I am stewarding. I learned a lot from photographing the prescribed fire course with Fire Forward but I wanted to take it a step further. I signed up for and completed my FFT2 (Wildland Firefighter Type II) training in 2020. This course is the first step in becoming a Wildland firefighter and is required for a majority of the prescribed burns I attend. The training was really interesting and helped me understand how to read the wind, clouds, and topography, all important lessons in situational awareness.
What are a few of the challenging aspects of photographing fires?
Personal safety and health are probably the most challenging and important aspects of shooting fires, especially wildfires. There is a lot of gear (Personal Protective Equipment) that is necessary as well and knowledge on how to get yourself into the right position. This sometimes means driving hours through dangerous roads to get to the other side of the fire because the wind changed slightly.
The smoke alone can be a huge challenge. After 3-4 days of shooting in conditions of 400+PPM in the air you can’t help but think how this is affecting your personal health. As a new father I often question whether or not I should continue chasing these stories. During fire season, I literally have the truck packed and ready to go at all times. If there is a local fire, I often have to leave the family with short notice to get the shots I need. This is exhilarating but also hard on my health and on my family.
In relation to photography specifically another challenge is the speed in which you need to move. Oftentimes you literally have seconds to pull out your camera, compose and make an image before needing to get yourself to a safer place. It’s a stark contrast from the commercial work I often do in studios where we spend hours perfecting every aspect of each image we’re creating.
I know you also have an interest in the power of the ocean, how are they different and similar in your creative approach to meeting them?
In my experience there are far more similarities than differences. The first that comes to mind is that with both elements humility is key. When interacting with the ocean and with fires, you learn really quickly that you are not in charge. Instead you learn to slow down and observe. For instance, when I show up to the beach to shoot a surf sequence, the first step is to watch the ocean, observe the wind and current to ensure it’s safe to go out with the camera. Similarly, before a prescribed fire you take time to observe and analyze wind patterns, like wind direction – is it a dry (offshore) east wind or a wet (onshore) western wind coming off the coast. These factors play a huge role in whether or not it’s safe to carry out the burn. What I love about shooting in both of these elements is you never know what you are going to get. They are both complex and unpredictable which keeps me inspired and curious to learn more