Fire in Their Eyes

Research & Writing

I always begin my research by reading everything I can find on a topic. After reading several fabulous books, starting with Norman Maclean’s Young Men and Fire, I was bursting with questions: Why would someone take on a wildfire in the first place? How hot is a fire? How fast does a fire move? Can a person outrun a fire? How can you escape? What happens to animals in the woods?

While I always start out reading to get a basic understanding, my favorite research method is “primary” research -- learning by doing and talking with experts, the people who live the experience. For the next couple years, I hung out with firefighters, collected stories, and interviewed dozens of people across the country—firefighters, foresters, fire management officers, fire lookouts, smokejumpers, hotshots, and prescribed burn experts.

Still, I needed to feel closer to the story. Sometimes there’s just no substitute for rolling up your sleeves and getting dirty. So I passed the physical test required of firefighters (the ‘step test’) and worked on a prescribed burn crew for two seasons, sometimes carrying a fire rake, sometimes my camera. My whole life seemed to be smoky “Kodak moments.”

But prescribed burns are intentionally small and in control. Where I live the wildfires are relatively small because, as my forester husband says, the Northeast woods are an “asbestos forest,” that is, the forest doesn’t burn readily. Not like those in the tinder-dry West. So Margarita Phillips, an experienced smokejumper trainer, invited me to two weeks of a 6-week training camp for smokejumper wannabes in Missoula, MT. Hooked to a static line secured to the plane, I took photographs out the plane’s open door as the rookies jumped into the wind. On the ground, I interviewed Margarita and the other smokejumpers—rookies and veterans. Each story was better than the last.

Research and interviewing were the fun parts of the job. Much harder were the months spent transcribing taped interviews, writing, condensing, revision. Hardest of all was cutting exciting stories to make room for dramatic photos.

photos 2008 © Karen M. Beil

Copyright © 2008 Karen Magnuson Beil. All rights reserved.