‘Your Face is Burning.’ How it Feels to Photograph Australia’s Fires

‘Your Face is Burning.’ How it Feels to Photograph Australia’s Fires

The Australia Letter is a weekly newsletter from our Australia bureau. Sign up to get it by email. This week’s issue is written by Isabella Kwai, a reporter with the Australia bureau.

Australia is burning, and the worst is yet to come.

Bushfires raged through the east coast last weekend, setting the tone for the week as schools closed and those living in danger zones prepared to evacuate on an especially hot, windy Tuesday. Since then, at least four people have died and dozens of homes have been destroyed as firefighters have battled more than 80 fires.

But the country has been burning for a while, experts say. Fire seasons, once limited largely to the summer months, are stretching longer and the land is growing drier, providing plenty of fuel. While the country’s political leaders trade insults over climate change, experts say that without more resources and interventions, living in bushland will come at a cost.

When Matthew Abbott, a photographer who regularly contributes to The New York Times, heard about the fires, he jumped in the car.

On Tuesday, he headed for Taree, a town in northern New South Wales hit by the worst of the fires. I asked him about his experience documenting the battle that firefighters have waged in the area.

I was in town waiting to hear any news from the NSW Rural Fire Service. The town was already covered in smoke. Everyone was anxious, talking about the catastrophic conditions.

In the morning it was the calm before the storm. It wasn’t until about midday that fires started to escalate. We headed to Hillville, which is about 50 kilometers out of town.

Photographing fires is a very difficult thing because you’ve got no idea. Fires can start and can go out of control in a matter of minutes. You see flashing lights whizzing past and helicopters swarming above. You follow them and try to document the process.

You have to conserve your energy. You’d approach a fire and be careful not to run too much and just be there and absolutely back away because your face is burning. Your camera is scorching hot, it’s almost melting. I was trying to cover my ears and elbows as I was photographing, it was just so hot.

In the beginning of the day, the fire was always around us, moving in different directions in valleys. At the end of the night a southerly change came. We knew where it was coming from and we could see it racing toward us. It was a very powerful thing to see.

It’s a different kind of fear from what I’ve experienced before because it’s so far out of my control. It’s quite chaotic. I kept thinking, “I can’t lose my car keys. If I lose my car keys, I can’t get out of here.”

Sometimes I left the car running because I was paranoid it wouldn’t start. Without the car you’d be in trouble. Things can happen very quickly and you have to get out of there.

I was traveling with a couple of other photographers as well. One of the big killers in fires is just exhaustion, which leads to heart attacks. People think that you get burned alive or you die from smoke inhalation, but the big killer is exhaustion. To be so close to the inferno is an intense experience. You don’t realize it, but your heart rate is up and you’re not doing anything — you’re just there.

In Australia you’re always in a remote area and there’s just not that many people around. In many cases, we’re down a dirt road with a fire out of control and no one knows we’re there.

We’re wearing the full protective clothing so we’ve got boots — my boots have melted. We’ve got fire clothes, fire retardant stuff. That really protects you from the heat, but your face is exposed. I had a mask on. I had sunglasses and heaps of water as well. When I came back in, I’d splash myself with water and try to keep as hydrated as possible and also as calm as possible.

It’s good that they were prepared, but people were terrified and they take fire very seriously. It really scared people. Going into the Woolworth’s in Taree, there was no water left. It was eerie because the whole shopping center there was just full of smoke. But most people you meet, fighting fires on their property, they’re pretty receptive and understand the media are there to show what’s going on.

People had their hoses on, sprinklers on all day. You had farmers out there with water pumps on the back of their quad bikes. Often it’s just one little spot fire that can be enough to cause havoc. You can do a lot really fighting by yourself. Many people were putting themselves in harm’s way by staying behind and fighting these fires. We also saw a lot of properties vacant.

Everyone’s saying this is just the beginning. This year is going to be massive. All it takes is a little bit of wind and a bit of fire.

Did you have to evacuate or prepare for the bushfires this week? We want to hear your story. Write to us at nytaustralia@nytimes.com.

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