On the fire ground armed with a camera, Department of Fire and Emergency Services’ (DFES) fire photographers get close enough to capture startling images of the ferocity and destruction that lie at the heart of a bushfire. Thanks to years of training and experience they know when it is safe to capture a scene and when they need to get out.
Firefighter Kyle Nowak from Hope Valley Fire Station is one of DFES’ five operational photographers and says it is a great way to combine his two passions.
The 37 year old father of two has been a firefighter for eight years and said he was blown away when he got the call to join the photography pool during its inception several years ago.
“I became a firefighter as I’ve always been community minded and I loved the idea of working in an occupation where I didn’t know what each day would bring,” Kyle said.
“I couldn’t believe my luck when I was able to become a fire photographer as well.
“I’ve had a keen interest in photography for as long as I can remember but it has turned into more of an obsession since I became a firefighter – there’s rarely a time I don’t carry a camera with me.”
As an operational fire photographer Kyle’s firefighter training is critical to his role and he is deployed by DFES to a variety of incidents across Western Australia. His photos are used to display the power, intensity and danger of fires to those who would otherwise never see their destructive force.
They are used in community safety publications and other communications that aim to tell the public what they need to do to stay safe when a fire occurs.
Recent incidents Kyle has attended include a large boat fire in Rous Head at Fremantle in August and the Northcliffe (O’Sullivan) bushfire in February.
“I have my cameras, kit bag and suitcase permanently packed so I’m ready to be deployed anywhere, at any time,” he said.
“Depending on the job, I can be gone for a few hours to a few days at a time. My longest deployment was for nearly a week.
“Sometimes the devastation you see is overwhelming, it can be really hard to process and some images are surreal.
“The aftermath of a bushfire can look more like a war zone, seeing the destruction of property where homes are destroyed and the emotion and helplessness of the people involved, not to mention the massive amount of flora and fauna that is lost.
When comparing fighting a fire to photographing one, Kyle says the two are very similar.
“On the fire ground my fire awareness and procedures are the same, and my safety and that of other firefighters is still my main priority.
“My role as a firefighter is the main reason that I’m able to take these types of photos, as having firefighting training and experience is essential on any fire ground.
“Having the knowledge of fire behaviour and what to look for, how to stay in safe areas, understanding the weather, firefighting procedures and techniques are all crucial skills.
“Taking the photos is the easiest part in a way, although it isn’t particularly easy in such difficult lighting situations.
“Looking at a fire through the lens does allow me to step back a bit, really take in the big picture and gain a different perspective.”
Kyle said he not only has the same training as the other firefighters on the fire ground but wears the same protective clothing, enabling him to work beside them, similar to image specialists that are embedded with the Australian Defence Force overseas.
“This is what gives the photos a real and unique perspective, and gives the viewer an up close account of the fire,” Kyle said.
“I am very conscious of not getting in the way of firefighters during an incident. The incident controllers and firefighters are all really good in allowing me to have this access and get in amongst them – it’s an amazing privilege.”
His number one concern on the fire ground is safety, says Kyle. Despite being a trained firefighter, he says trying to predict where the fire will go next is incredibly difficult.
“The last thing I want is to get injured or get myself in a situation where I need to be rescued.
“I’m always watching the fire and trying to predict what it’s going to do, where it’s going and what firefighters and the public are doing.
“I’m given a photo brief from DFES so I am also focussing on this and trying to get the right shots.
“A lot of my images are used in the media and I am fortunate enough to be in a position that enables me to get images to the public that they otherwise would never even imagine.
“I think this is important for the community so they can understand the work of firefighters and appreciate how intense fires can be.”
Kyle currently has two photographs from the Northcliffe bushfire which are in the running for the Resilient Australia Awards photography award, and both show important moments during the incident.
“One of the images captures volunteer firefighters fighting the fire,” said Kyle.
“It was mind blowing to see the scale of this incident, and the fire intensity and flame height was insane.
“The other image was taken at a community meeting, and it was at this meeting the residents were finally told it was safe to return to their homes after spending days at the evacuation centre.”
DFES Deputy Commissioner Lloyd Bailey said fire photographers like Kyle play an important role in visually documenting bushfires and other incidents.
“Images of bushfires are extremely powerful. Being able to highlight the destruction bushfires cause plays an important role in educating the public about being prepared,” Deputy Commissioner Bailey said.
“If you live or travel near bush, you are at risk of facing this dangerous reality, which no one would wish upon their family or friends.
“It’s vitally important that people prepare their property for the bushfire season and maintain it throughout summer, and have a bushfire survival plan that outlines what they will do if a bushfire occurs.”
If you want to be like Kyle, it takes training. DFES takes applications for the Firefighter Recruit School each year and hundreds of people apply for just a few positions.
You can also watch Kyle's interview with ABC Open South West.