Wildfire Through the Eyes of a Photographer
September 25th, 2017 by Susan Hess

The Eagle Creek Fire reaches the tops of ridges above Cascade Locks on the second night of the fire. The Bridge of the Gods sits in the foreground.
Photos by Jurgen Hess

Photojournalist Jurgen Hess records the drama of forest fires and offers an up-close perspective

A teenager tossed fireworks over a mountain cliff and set off the massive Eagle Creek Fire in Oregon September 2.

The fire has burned thousands of forested acres in the heart of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, causing the evacuation of towns and enveloping Portland and its suburbs just 25 miles west of the fire epicenter in smoke.

It was just one of the wildfires burning up the West this fall: 27 in Oregon; 25 in Idaho; 45 in Montana; 12 in Washington; and 30 in Alaska. In all, 2.3 million acres are on fire.

Photojournalist Jurgen Hess of Hood River, Oregon, documents wildfires and the stories of those who fight them.

But Jurgen connects to this fire beyond the job. He lives at the fire’s east end. Prior to becoming a journalist, he spent 16 years as head planner for the U.S. Forest Service at the scenic area. For six years, he covered stories for Ruralite in Hood River and Wasco counties.

“I know every nook and cranny of the Gorge and its vulnerabilities,” he says.

The Eagle Creek Fire has burned the scenic area that astounded Jurgen from the first time he saw it 30 years ago. It holds steep mountains, old-growth forests, waterfalls and iconic historic structures.

“Certainly there is a sense of loss, and it touches my heart and soul that these big wildfires impact not only a beautiful forest, but also the homes of wildlife and fish,” Jurgen says. “But I don’t look at the forest as being destroyed. Yes, it’s a huge impact, but over time these forests will rejuvenate. New plants will grow.

“Stream sides will be bare for a while, and initially there will be erosion. But in five to 10 years, people seeing it for the first time will never know there was a fire here.”

Jurgen uses photography and presentations to explain the increase in the number of wildfires: climate change and more people building homes in harm’s way at the wildland-urban interface.

In wildland fires—those without homes—firefighters can burn out acreage to rob the fire of fuel. But in the Eagle Creek Fire—as in forests throughout the West—the fire area contains many houses. A different way of fighting fires is used in these areas, sometimes creating firelines around the houses, spraying them with water or dropping water from helicopters.

Adding to the complexity, high-voltage transmission lines run through the forest.

“Bonneville Power Administration power transmission lines are right in the middle of this fire,” Jurgen says. “Fire managers told me they hope to not have to de-energize the BPA line, because it feeds the high population area of Portland.”

Since the 1970s, the annual number of large wildland fires has tripled. The trend correlates with higher average summer temperatures, which have started earlier in spring, giving forests more time to dry and making them susceptible to fire.

Firefighting is fraught with danger.

“I’ve asked firefighters why they do this dangerous job,” Jurgen says. “When I’m on the fireline as a photographer and the fire is roaring like a four-engine jet plane 200 feet away with flames shooting 150 feet in the air, burning embers and ash falling around me, I feel the danger and also an adrenaline rush.

“Firefighters know the danger, but say they feel they’re helping people and the forest.”

After the fire is out, Jurgen will return to photograph nature’s restoration.

“I see wildflowers coming up, pollinators, black-backed woodpeckers eating insects in the dead trees,” Jurgen says. “I see trees re-sprouting. Life returns.”