Earth on Fire - Noah Berger

Over the past year, the world has witnessed the most horrific season of wildfires ever documented in the history of our planet. We watched the Amazon burn in the summer of 2019, with global media coverage and heavy criticism of Jair Bolsonaro's handling of the crisis. 2020 was no better, kicking off with the Australian bushfires and the subsequent loss of endemic life, with one billion animals dying and the fire ripping through an area the size of Washington state. Just in August 2019, the number of wildfires in the US quintupled compared to the same month a year prior. And let's not forget the lesser-known wildfires around the world: Santa Cruz, Bolivia; Nelson, New Zealand; Alberta, Canada; Goseong, United States; Bandipur, India; and Galicia, Spain, to name a few.

“An air tanker drops retardant on the River Fire burning near Lakeport, Calif.”

Photographed by Noah Berger

Before that, we watched while celebrities were evacuated from their homes in Beverly Hills as unstoppable fires raged across the Californian landscape. Looking back on 2019, we find that every fire was seemingly greater than the one before. This is attributed directly to climate change, which causes vegetation to be drier and acts as fuel for potential fires.

Despite wildfires being an undeniable issue that could affect anyone, the public opinion seems to be that they are somewhat of a distant problem that only bears consequences in remote areas. The public's reactions to the Amazon and Australia were outrage and despair, but California was received with awe and surprise. Seeing how prestigious celebrities, until then so distant from the real world, lost their estates to flames was rather grounding for many people who began to understand that no one was exempt from natural disasters.

Photographed by Noah Berger

Of course, it would be disrespectful to say that only Miley Cyrus and Arnold Schwarzenegger were affected. Thousands lost their homes and, in some cases, their lives. The deadly power of wildfires is just as profound as their disruptive power, which in the case of 2018's Camp Fire, destroyed $9 billion worth of property and resulted in the displacement of about 50,000 people. Fires in California are recurring, and people have been working rigorously for a long time to shed light on their ramifications.

“A historic schoolhouse burns as the Carr fire tears through Shasta Calif.”

Photographed by Noah Berger

About Noah Berger

Noah Berger, a native of New York, has a photographic career spanning the last 25 years. He often collaborates with major outlets such as the San Francisco Chronicle, the Los Angeles Times, Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press. As well as this, he has been awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his outstanding images of the wildfires in California. We reached out to him and were able to get an insight into his experiences documenting wildfires.

Berger recounts the origins of his career, explaining, "I got into it for the newspaper aspect. I was a writer and on the editorial board of newspapers. I got into it because of my passion for news." When specifically asking him about photographing wildfires, he said, "A friend and I documented the Rim fire in 2013, and that fire really got to me. I immediately thought that this is what I wanted to do. It has impacted my life by learning and thinking about it."

When it came to the topic of raising awareness, Berger has a distinct perspective explaining, "It is not my goal to go out there and raise awareness. I can't help but raise awareness for firefighters and shining light on what the utilities are doing right or wrong. I think about it as covering news and covering the fire. I don't have opinions on it, and some people are more knowledgeable about that. My work has an impact on getting the utilities to be safer and brings attention to what the utilities aren't doing right." While it is clear that Berger's goal is not to raise awareness, by documenting the wildfires from a journalistic and factual perspective, he enables people to come to their own conclusions, helping raise awareness of the magnitude of the wildfires.

Because of Berger's work, he is often near firefighters and told us he has "huge respect for them", recalling an unusual story: "I was documenting the Wall fire. I watched the fire approach a house, and suddenly this lone firefighter came out of the woods. He used the tools he had on him and dug a border around the house, and saved this person's property singlehandedly without hesitation. It is amazing how the homeowner will never know the heroic act of that lone firefighter, and it truly shows how they are out there selflessly and are heroes for the risks they take." Berger also touched on the role that photographers should have when documenting fires highlighting that the "biggest thing to keep in mind is that the first priority is the firefighters, second is the people, and third is the photographers. In California, we have legal access as press, but anybody going there with no experience should keep in mind that you are not the priority and need to stay out of the firefighters' way."

Photographed by Noah Berger

“Embers fly above a firefighter as he works to control a backfire as the Delta Fire burns in the Shasta-Trinity national forest”

Photographed by Noah Berger

We then delved into Berger's years of experience, and how it feels to be in one of these fires, with Berger explaining that it is "amazing, you feel very alive. You are not dealing with mundane aspects of life; it's just you and the fire. You have to be focused in a way that doesn't really exist in other parts of life. You get to see beautiful scenes which not many people get to see. But with documenting a fire, you also witness the destructive and devastating effects it can have."

Photographed by Noah Berger

With the ever-increasing threat of wildfires, the work of Noah Berger and many other wildfire photographers is paramount to educating the public on these pressing matters by providing clear and factual images of wildfires. By using photography as a medium, they can portray the devastating effects of fires in a way that few other mediums would be able to, helping raise awareness through the lens of photography.

Co-authored by Matias and Finley, who contributed equally to this work.