I woke up to a ghoulish red light dancing on the walls of my bedroom.
The wind was howling and the windows were rattling on their hinges. I could smell the noxious smoke from the fire. On the balcony of our apartment, I could see Chapman’s Peak, and it was aflame. Gathering my camera and tripod, which a photographer will do out of instinct, I climbed into my van and sped off onto the peak drive.
I was taken aback by the extent of the fire, from the tips of the mountains right down to the sea edge. I parked the van in a lay-bye and tried to get out to survey the scene. The gale-force wind was so fierce that I couldn’t open the driver’s door.
I knew that it was going to be a real challenge to photograph this scene.
Cars were leaving and as they passed by, I felt alone. Balls of flame were jumping the road ahead of me. I knew the risk and that I could be trapped on the road. I could see the lights of the last 4×4 driving up the steep incline from the Tintswalo Atlantic, an award-winning boutique lodge at the sea edge. The guests had already been evacuated. The flames were licking the boundaries of the 5-star resort.
A sense of excitement boiled within me. I knew that I was lucky to make it onto the scenic drive and that by now, the police would have erected road-blocks.
Now that I was there, I made the decision to stay and at least get some images.
The Photographic Challenges
The first challenge was not the fires themselves but the gale-force wind.
Gales and landscape photography are not a good mix. I sat quietly, watching and stilling my thoughts. It’s amazing how clearly one thinks when faced with emergencies. I knew that I was there to get some images, but I was finding it difficult to see how to get my equipment out the van and onto “terra firma”. I came up with the solution of re-parking the van to face the wind direction and climbing out the back doors. The van became my shelter from the wind, to some extent at least.
It was still night and although the glow from the fires meant that there was some light, the darkness meant that I would have to deal with long shutter speeds. Without a steady tripod, long shutter speeds would result in blurry images. Nor would it be possible to “freeze” the movement of the bushes which were waving to-and-fro in the wind.
The only option was to set the ISO higher, even though I knew this would produce noise on the images, especially in the dark. I decided to do this and try to deal with the noise-factor later. I held onto two legs of the tripod, leaning on the third and pushing it into the ground for stability. I then had another dilemma, without an extra pair of hands, how would I release the shutter? Well, God also gave us a mouth. I held a cable release in my mouth and used my teeth to depress the button. I was so glad that no one could see me, especially other photographers who may have used this sight as an occasion to mock.
This is how I came to photograph the fires that raged across Chapman’s Peak on the morning of 2nd March 2015. I do hope this helps you if you’re out there. Wildfires will probably become the norm in the future. Global Warming will make sure of that. As photographers, we need to show the world that climate change is a reality.
Stay safe though and remember to think things through before you become the hero.
The lights from the last car to leave Tintswalo Atlantic beamed through the smoke. I found it amusing that they had left the lights on. The guests were safely evacuated. The tail lights of an adrenaline junkie’s car rounded the bend and I was left alone to explore the magnificence of this tragedy.
ISO 1600 24mm f/10 1,0sec
This was the end of the road. The firefighters were there already, but there was little they could do in the raging inferno.
ISO 3200 24mm f/5.6 1/6 sec
The yacht club in Hout Bay looked more like a scene from Apocalypse Now.
ISO 125 45mm f/5.0 30sec