In the Willamette Valley in Oregon, the team, including lead firefighter Weston Toll, set carefully controlled burns to grassland prairies and oak savannas to promote the growth of native species. These ecosystems have historically relied on fire for regrowth. Photo © Jason Houston

Outtakes: A Photographer Joins a Fire Team

August/September 2016

Assigned to follow a fire team in Oregon last year for a story in Nature Conservancy magazine, photographer Jason Houston did more than simply document their work: He trained as a burn crew member to work alongside them.

That was no easy task. Houston completed 50 hours of online training and four days at a firefighter’s boot camp. In October 2015, he formally joined the Southern Rockies Wildland Fire Module, an elite Nature Conservancy fire team that conducts controlled burns to restore forests and prairies.

For 24 days, Houston embedded with the team, sleeping in tents and on office floors and conducting burns. After the bulk of the work on each burn was complete, Houston was allowed to take photographs in safe areas. Wielding a camera, the team nicknamed him “The Artist.”

“It was one of those lifetime experiences,” he says. See some of the outtakes from the magazine story below.

Photographer Jason Houston became a member of the team, getting to know people like Oregon Fire Manger Amanda Stamper (left) and Assistant Module Leader Tom Edwards. The team worked with local branches of groups like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. Photo © Jason Houston
Photographer Jason Houston became a member of the team, getting to know people like Oregon Fire Manger Amanda Stamper (left) and Assistant Module Leader Tom Edwards (right). The team worked with local branches of groups like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. Photo © Jason Houston
When he wasn’t need on a burn, Houston took photographs from what’s known as the “black”—a safe area that has already been burned and thus won’t burn again. This allowed him to get images of other team members in action, like Module Member David Grote conducting a burn on Baskett Slough National Wildlife Refuge. Photo © Jason Houston
When he wasn’t need on a burn, Houston took photographs from what’s known as the “black”—a safe area that has already been burned and thus won’t burn again. This allowed him to get images of other team members in action, like Module Member David Grote conducting a burn on Baskett Slough National Wildlife Refuge. Photo © Jason Houston
The conditions, including wind speed and direction, must be just right before conducting a burn, Houston says. Here Module Leader Jeff Crandall uses bubbles to gauge wind direction and smoke dispersion. Photo © Jason Houston
The conditions, including wind speed and direction, must be just right before conducting a burn, Houston says. Here Module Leader Jeff Crandall uses bubbles to gauge wind direction and smoke dispersion. Photo © Jason Houston
Ever “The Artist,” Houston was amazed by how fire affected images: The intense heat distorted focus and smoke softened sunlight. Houston experimented artistically with those natural effects, here in the Willamette Confluence Preserve. Photo © Jason Houston
Ever “The Artist,” Houston was amazed by how fire affected images: The intense heat distorted focus and smoke softened sunlight. Houston experimented artistically with those natural effects, here in the Willamette Confluence Preserve. Photo © Jason Houston
An old photography adage says that if your photos aren’t good enough, get closer. But, even dressed in a full suite of protective gear, Houston couldn’t get closer than 5-to-10 feet from the fire. The heat was simply too intense. Though, “being out there a month,” he says, “I really had the opportunity to experiment.” Here: Kingston Preserve. Photo © Jason Houston
An old photography adage says that if your photos aren’t good enough, get closer. But, even dressed in a full suite of protective gear, Houston couldn’t get closer than 5-to-10 feet from the fire. The heat was simply too intense. Though, “being out there a month,” he says, “I really had the opportunity to experiment.” Here: Kingston Preserve. Photo © Jason Houston
In the Conservancy’s Baskett Butte Preserve and elsewhere in Oregon, the team used controlled burns to restore and maintain the native prairie. Some endangered species, such as the Golden paintbrush (above) rely on fire to rejuvenate. For Houston, who grew up in Southern California and remembers evacuating ahead of wildfires, joining the team gave him insight into the people trying to restore natural fire cycles. “I appreciate what they’re doing,” he says. Photo © Jason Houston
In the Conservancy’s Baskett Butte Preserve and elsewhere in Oregon, the team used controlled burns to restore and maintain the native prairie. Some endangered species, such as the Golden paintbrush (above) rely on fire to rejuvenate. For Houston, who grew up in Southern California and remembers evacuating ahead of wildfires, joining the team gave him insight into the people trying to restore natural fire cycles. “I appreciate what they’re doing,” he says. Photo © Jason Houston

  — NCM

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