A Tale of Smoke & Fire: Climate Change, Wildfires, and Landscape Photography

It was late into the night when my plane touched down in Kalispell, Montana. As I walked the tarmac into the small terminal of Glacier International Airport, I glanced skyward looking for stars. But all were obscured. A thick haze overhead reflected the orange glow of town, and the faint smell of charred wood lingered in the air.

It was summertime in Montana, and I was here to guide two groups of landscape photographers through Glacier National Park. We were coming in search of epic views, stunning light, and mountainsides exploding with wildflowers. Glacier is home to some of the most stunning mountain scenery anywhere on Earth, but anxiety roiled in my gut as I encountered the reality on the ground that I had been worrying over. News reports had been flooding airwaves and phone screens, telling stories of thick clouds of smoke rolling in from the west, shrouding much of Montana in a thick layer of wildfire smoke. I had hoped against hope that once I arrived, I’d find the skies clearing, but this was obviously not going to be the case.

The following morning I woke and peaked through the motel curtains to survey the scene. The bluish-gray haze was thick and dense enough to nearly completely obscure the distant mountains. I knew that my group of arriving clients would be feeling the same sense of dread that I was combatting, concerned that our week in Glacier would be a week in a smoke-laden haze, our lenses obscured from unveiling the incomparable beauty of the northern Rockies.

Climate and Fire
As summer rolls in each year in the western United States, inevitably, wildfires break out. On average each year, over 5 million acres are burned in the US by wildfire. Some are the result of human negligence or arson, but most are sparked naturally by lightning. But, climate change has created conditions that are primed for bigger, more destructive fires each year. Factors like increasing heat, changes in rain and snow patters, and other climate-related issues are all contributing to more frequent, more widespread, and longer burning fires each year.

There are other anthropocentric factors contributing to worsening fire seasons as well, such as forest management decisions that allow the buildup of dry brush which becomes wildfire fuel, as well as the encroachment of housing into burn areas. Once this occurs, human-triggered fires become a much higher risk, whether its through a carelessly managed bonfire, a cigarette butt flicked from a moving vehicle, or the spark of a trailer chain on a mountain highway.

But, wildfires are not always a bad thing. Many of the forests in the American west depend upon wildfires to maintain a healthy ecosystem. There are several species of evergreen trees that only germinate in the presence of fire, species like the lodgepole pine and even the giant sequoia. Fire’s role in the reproductive cycles of sequoia wasn’t fully understood until well into the 20th century.

The Mariposa Grove of sequoias in what is now Yosemite National Park was the first federally protected wilderness in the world. It was set aside and declared protected by Abraham Lincoln during the height of the Civil War, a testament to the size and beauty of the giant sequoia. For decades, the grove was protected from fire, as best as its stewards could manage. Yet, it was only after decades of no new baby sequoia trees that biologists began to see there was a correlation between fire and the seed cones of the giant sequoia. The trees depend upon low-intensity fire to release the seeds from their waxy cones.

So, you may be thinking, this is all counterintuitive. Wildfires are good, so how is it that more fires aren’t making healthier forests? The answer to that is fire intensity. A healthy fire burns up dried undergrowth, weak and diseased trees, fertilizes the soil, and clears the way for sunlight to reach that soil leading to new, healthy growth. This process not only can destroy disease in trees, but it can eradicate parasites such as the infamous bark beetle that has destroyed so much of Colorado’s evergreen forests.

But, a bad fire burns too hot. It scorches the soil, preventing any new growth. It cuts right through the fire-retardant bark of healthy trees, and leaves a barren wasteland where nothing can grow until decades later. And, this is why climate change has become such a factor in these fires. As drier, hotter conditions become the mainstay of a western summer, dried vegetation becomes more abundant, providing more fuel for the fire. Add to that the intense, dry winds, and the stage is set for disaster. Additionally, as fires burn hotter and longer, they pose a greater risk to humans and their homes and businesses.

A Hazy Existence
Landscape photography is a in many ways a game of chance and luck. Sometimes, you can pack out to a distant overlook, wishing for the clouds of a clearing storm. Perhaps a summer snow flurry will pass through the upper peaks, or giant fluffs of cumulous clouds will soak up the light of a setting sun, erupting in oranges, pinks, and reds. But, it can be just as likely to encounter a hazy sky devoid of clouds awaiting you atop your overlook. As a photography guide, it is my job to get my clients to that overlook with the best possible chances of catching those idyllic conditions. It is something that I pride myself in doing well. So, it is enormously frustrating and humbling when nature just won’t cooperate, or in the case of our Glacier trip, when we are thwarted not only by nature, but by man-made climate disasters in the form of uncontrollable wildfires burning hundreds of miles to our west.

It is a natural desire to see and photograph our natural world in the most idyllic of conditions. But, chasing those conditions is often like chasing a unicorn. I’ve sat atop Tunnel View in Yosemite National Park dozens of times, sunrises and sunsets, and still the conditions photographed most famously by Ansel Adams in his photograph A Clearing Winter Storm continue to evade me.

But, the question I like to pose to myself and to those I guide into the field is “what are the idyllic conditions?” Are they the ones that make the most dramatic photo, capturing conditions that might occur once or twice a year? Or is it capturing a photo that tells the true story of our natural world and the perils it faces? To me, the answer is both. I, of course, want to be there when the conditions “go off,” to witness and photograph a natural spectacle of beauty that happens once in a lifetime.

However, as a photographer, I am also a storyteller. Every photograph I share tells the story of a place and a moment in time, eternalized through an image. If you, like me, feel that our natural world is in danger, whether from deforestation, climate change, or other human-centric dangers, perhaps it is as worthy a cause to seek out photographs that tell that story as it is to chase the idealized version of our natural world. The two images, side by side, beauty and peril, tell the story of our world as it can be, and as it might be if we do nothing.

Back To Glacier
As our group of BCJ photographers assembled on the overlook of St. Mary’s Lake in Glacier National Park, we marveled at the colors of the clouds, the streaks of sunshine across the sky, and the majesty of the peaks, still cloaked in their blue-gray haze.

For days, we had been watching the weather, wishing for wind and rain, anything that might drive the smoke from the valleys. We chased sunsets and sunrises, but it seemed that conditions were working against us. But not tonight. Tonight, the smoke was with us.

A combination of cumulous clouds and a partially clearing sky had come together to give us the sunset of our dreams. And it was as much because of the wildfire smoke as it was because of the clouds that had moved in. The haze in the sky allowed the rays of the setting sun to form into defined lines of light stretching across the sky. And the blue haze against the mountains stood in deep contrast to the warmth of the setting sun.

For me, it was a lesson in how the very thing that might be seemingly working against you can be the very thing that creates magical conditions. In truth, we had encountered several scenes in which the smoke had created something unique and beautiful. From the glowing orb of a rising sun seen through the smoke to the deep haze at Big Bend that lent mystery and magic to the scene, it was learning how to make use of the smoke that created some of the most stunning and memorable photographs, photos that are not only beautiful but tell the true story of Glacier National Park in the summer of 2021.

As a photographer, I encourage myself and those I lead into the field to see the world as it is in front of us, not how we wish it to look. A nature photographer’s job is to find and capture the beauty of our natural world. And for me, it is just as important to tell the story of the time as it is the place. And in this time, our time, the natural world faces unprecedented peril. So, I will go out and do what I can to tell that story as much as I will be working to tell the story of idyllic beauty.

Ben Blankenship

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ben Blankenship was born in Nashville, Tennessee. As a young man he studied ceramics and fine arts. In college, he pursued filmmaking, writing, and photography. After graduation, he worked for nearly a decade in broadcast television as an video editor, photographer, and cinematographer. Over the last several years, he has transitioned into working full-time as a photojournalist and travel photographer. He has worked abroad in Costa Rica, Belize, and Uganda. His photographic passions include wildlife, conservation, travel, events, and documenting social and political events around the world. His work has been published in the New York Times, The Oregonian Newspaper, and by Photographers Without Borders. He currently splits his time between living in Costa Rica and Tennessee. See his most recent work on his website here: www.ben-blankenship.com


Don’t miss the next session of BCJ Live!

Bears Slideshow Presentation
with Russell Graves

Tuesday, November 2nd, 2021
11 am – 12 pm Mountain Time

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