Fighting Fire With Fire

The Fourth of July is a day when members of fire companies all over the country, myself included, dust off their dress blues and shine up the trucks, in preparation for local parades and all the other Independence Day festivities.  It’s usually a day of great camaraderie and celebrations, but this year, we’ll be marching with soberness and sadness, as we think about the 19 firefighters who lost their lives fighting the wildfires in Arizona.  Whenever a fire-related disaster occurs, it feels personal to anyone who’s ever entered a burning building or raced to push back a wall of fire from a parched forest.  We know what a daunting adversary fire is. While there’s an undeniable rush of adrenaline that comes with tackling a major blaze, as any firefighter will confirm, those who’ve experienced it know that this is no game.  A mere shift in the wind can unleash the full fury of fire.

The Granite Mountain Hotshots were an elite group, thoroughly trained in how to manage wildfires, the hardest kind of blazes to contain.  And yet, even with all their training, their bravery and their instincts, a change in the direction of the wind gave the fires the upper hand.

The Hotshots were skilled professionals, but the methods they used were the ones we all learn, even those of us who are volunteers.  A firebreak, which the Hotshots were attempting to build in Arizona, is one of the basic tools that we use to contain raging blazes.  The idea is to dig a deep trench around the flames — to stop their forward progress.  A second technique is to beat fire at its own game by removing what it can devour.  To do that, fire companies use a technique called a back fire — a counter-intuitive approach that preemptively stops a fire’s forward progress by intentionally igniting the inner edge of a fire to consume any fuel in its path.  A fire can’t survive without something to burn.

Both these techniques are used to hold back advancing fires, and as we saw in Arizona, a storm front combined with wind can make doing that not only difficult but also life-threatening.  That’s why forest managers use a third technique — controlled burns — to help stop fires before they even start.  To eliminate fire’s food –underbrush, dried leaves and branches — we lay down an accelerant along a defined line and lighting it with the wind to our backs. We use controlled (also called prescribed) burns a lot where I live in western New Jersey, which has vast tracts of forests and green spaces.  During droughts, we, too, are susceptible to wild fires, so controlled burns ahead of time can literally be lifesavers.  (To donate to a fund for the Hotshots’ survivors and others affected by the Yarnell, AZ fires, here’s a link:

©Michael Yamashita
Controlled Burn, starting a fire using gasoline in a drip can to remove the fire’s food,
dried leaves and branches on the forest floor.

©Michael Yamashita

©Michael Yamashita

©Michael YamashitaHot and sweaty work in heavy smoke conditions.

©Michael Yamashita

©Michael YamashitaA firebreak acts as a barrier to stop or slow the spreading fire by creating a gap in the
combustible materials that feed the flames, here created along a country road.

About the author

Mike Yamashita has combined his dual passions of photography and travel for over 25 years as a shooter for The National Geographic. Specializing in Asia, he has covered Vietnam and the Mekong River, Marco Polo's journey to China, the Great Wall, the DMZ between North and South Korea, as well as almost every aspect of Japanese culture from samurai to fish markets.

Among many of his published books, Yamashita's best-selling Marco Polo: A Photographer's Journey sold over 200,000 copies worldwide in its initial printing and was re-released by Rizzoli in the fall of 2004. Marco Polo is also the subject of his award-winning National Geographic Channel documentary, Marco Polo: The China Mystery Revealed, in which Yamashita retraces the 13th-century Venetian's epic excursion to China.

A frequent lecturer and teacher at workshops around the world, Yamashita has received numerous industry awards, including those from the National Press Photographers Association's Pictures of the Year, the New York Art Directors Club, and the Asian-American Journalists Association. Major exhibits of his work have opened throughout Asia, in Tokyo, Beijing, Seoul, Hong Kong, Singapore, as well as in Rome, Frankfurt, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC. His images of Korea's DMZ were featured in an exhibit at the Visa Pour L'Images photojournalism festival at Perpignan, France.

When not traveling, Michael Yamashita lives with his family in rural NJ, where he maintains a studio and an extensive stock library, and is an active volunteer fireman.