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The Deer in the Wildfire: The Story Behind the Photo

Author: Dave Larton, Associate Editor

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

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Originally published in our Nov/Dec 2000 issue.

The photograph is striking.   The vibrant colors show two elk surrounded by huge walls of fire.  Many have already downloaded the picture from the NIFC website and put it on their own websites.  Others have attributed this once-in-a-lifetime portrait as being fake, or perhaps shot in Yellowstone.

The picture is genuine, and is the work of John McColgan, a Fuels Management Specialist with the Alaska Fire Service, a division of the Federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM).  A former smoke jumper, John was a Fire Behavior Analyst with the Alaska Type I Incident Management Team assigned to the Bitterroot fire complex in Montana during July of 2000. John described how he came upon this unusual shot:

"I happened on to the scene while driving north on Hwy 93 north of Sula, Montana, with Deputy Incident Commander Dave Dash.  The afternoon was marked by extreme fire behavior.  Numerous fires grew together and it is likely that the large convection columns created an extreme fire growth environment.  We noticed the elk standing in the Bitterroot River while crossing a bridge."

"We took perhaps 15 seconds for the photo opportunity.  The situation in the river canyon was quite extreme with winds in excess of 25 mph, heavy smoke, rocks rolling off the hillsides, and large fire brands dropping onto the roadway in showers of sparks.  The fire continued to grow with high intensity and rate of spread over the next several hours.  The elk were in as good a position as they could be.  They are quite hearty and I suspect in the short term that they did very well.  That's only my speculation, though." 

The image was posted on the BLM and NIFC web sites after it had circulated around various email systems and newsgroups on the Internet.  McColgan wanted to be able to provide a little explanation about the image.  Quite a few stories began circulating about the image and its origins.   He described the impact of the photograph:

"I'm really impressed at the continued impact and feedback that the image has generated.  I've received many emails, phone calls, and letters. It has stirred up quite a bit of emotion in some cases.  Without being trite or cliché, I think that it really drove home the "power of nature".  But it really spans so many levels.  It means something different to the firefighter, different to the homeowner, different to the hunter, and different to someone who lives in a distant city that found this image in their email box one morning."

McColgan returned to Fairbanks on August 9th, in time for the birth of his son, Jack.   When asked if he would be carrying a camera on his next assignment, McColgan is thoughful.

"I'll certainly be carrying the digital camera.  It is such a powerful tool in bringing back information to the team and documenting fire events.   I always go on fire  assignments with a 35 mm camera but it was just one of those days that I didn't bring it with me.  I probably won't do that again."



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