From headshots to blazing infernos: Photographer Josh Edelson gets up close to CA wildfires

Written and produced by Brian Hardzinski

A boat motors by as the Bidwell Bar Bridge is surrounded by fire in Lake Oroville during the Bear Fire in Oroville, California on September 9, 2020. Dangerous dry winds whipped up California's record-breaking wildfires and ignited new blazes Tuesday, as hundreds were evacuated by helicopter and tens of thousands were plunged into darkness by power outages across the western United States. Photo by JOSH EDELSON/AFP via Getty Images.

This year’s California fire season hasn’t come close to the devastation of 2020. Four million acres burned across the state last year, and the August Complex Fire alone burned an area larger than the entire state of Rhode Island.

Bay Area photographer Josh Edelson has spent years documenting California’s wildfires. He typically shoots corporate events and headshots, but when that work dried up during the pandemic, he turned his full attention to breaking news. 

The following interview excerpts have been edited for length and clarity. 

His most famous photo: a bridge over Lake Oroville in Northern California

“That scene was pretty insane. I was just kind of in the midst of a 36-hour straight shift, meaning no sleep, like shooting straight because I came from another fire – the Creek Fire. … And I came to the scene where flames are just looking across the road all over the place, it was completely wild. And the only respite that I found was driving across this bridge … and as soon as I got to the other side of it, there was a turnout. And I kind of pulled over just to kind of take a breather. And when I got out of my car, I was shocked at the scene. … The entire hillside was on fire. It was a really, really wild moment. 

… That scene has been mistaken for the Golden Gate Bridge. And it definitely is not. I can understand that confusion because visually, you just see a bridge and a hillside and fire. And it's kind of confusing because there's not really any other elements that are identifiable in there.”

Why his Lake Oroville bridge photo resonated

“It had some visual similarities to the Golden Gate Bridge, like people just equated that with California. And there haven't been very many photos that come from fires that kind of really say ‘California,’ I mean, unless you saw like the Hollywood sign on fire or something like that. And so for some reason, this particular image seemed to grab people's interest. I don't know if it was the orange sky or just seeing a bridge, or I'm not sure exactly what it was. … You never know what causes these things to grab people's attention.”

Deciding which fires to shoot and what to gear bring 

“There's a lot that goes into it. It's not just like driving up without knowing what you're doing. I probably spend, I don't know, countless hours on my phone, on my laptop, looking at various apps, studying the weather, studying the geography, trying to learn the fire’s behavior as a fire is starting to build. … All that goes into determining whether or not I'm going to pursue it. 

And then once I'm headed there, I bring all of my gear, like I wear the same stuff firefighters wear. So yellow Nomex suit, helmet, goggles, boots, gloves, fire shelter. I drive a four-wheel drive vehicle. I bring a chainsaw. I bring everything that I need to be completely self-contained for up to three days at a time, sometimes longer because I'm basically living out of my car off the grid, pretty much I'm living off beef jerky, and bottled water, and whatever I can get at a gas station on the way up.”

Close calls

“I've had a few. … The thing that scares me the most, it isn't necessarily the flames themselves so much as it is trees falling because even after the flames have torn through an area, the flames can continue burning a tree at its roots and from the inside, and you don't know that it's happening. Sometimes they call those trees ‘widowmakers’ because they fall at random times, and there's no way to predict it. You can hear the cracking sounds of trees falling for days or weeks after a fire passes through. 

… While I was up [near Greenville for the Dixie Fire] … I was driving, trying to get from one town to another. And there were probably at least 200-300-foot flames towering, crowning above trees. And it basically created a wall of flames blocking my road, and I had to turn back. And when I turned back, the flames had passed behind me as well. So I was kind of pinched in. And that was a really scary moment. … So I was lucky enough to get out of there pretty quickly.”

His series of photographs from Greenville, before and after it burned 

“As the fire was approaching Greenville, maybe a week before it burned, the skies had turned completely dark, and it was the weirdest scene. So strange that I decided that it was worth going around taking photos of the town. I didn't think it was going to burn at all. I just thought this is really bizarre and interesting. And so once it did burn, I realized that this was a really perfect scenario where I could pair some of the images that I'd taken before to the photos I'd taken while it was burning and after it was burning, and create this series of before-and-afters. 

I really wanted to try to create that series with the intent of people being able to realize that it's one thing to just see a pile of rubble after something's burned. It looks like nothing's left. But to see a towering structure, a two-story home or a business or something that looks quite solid, and it's hard to imagine something like that being reduced to nothing. And to be able to see that before-and-after process provides a slightly different perspective.

Those guys [in the photo of Greenville residents sitting in the street in lawn chairs], in spite of there being evacuation orders, they decided to stay. So I snapped a couple photos as I drove by ‘cause to me that was the story at the time ... people staying in spite of there being imminent threat. And then later, as I tried to match it up, I realized just how challenging this was because if I'm trying to match something up, ordinarily I'm looking for markers, trees, bushes, fence posts, something so that I know that I'm standing in the right place. But when I got back there, I didn't even know if I was on the same street. I had to look at markings on the cement. Those are likely some of the only things that didn't change after the fire tore through. So I looked at the lines on the curbs and the shapes of the tree trunks to try and match up against the before pictures, and it was really challenging to get into the right spot for most of those. Mostly because after the fire tears through, the entire scene is totally unrecognizable.”

What will always resonate with people 

“These days, it's interesting because even if half-a-dozen homes burned on a fire, it barely moves the needle in terms of what's newsworthy and what people are interested in. So I feel like these days, the thing that really cuts through now is going to be like an entire town burning, or to see emotion on people's faces, evacuees coming back to their homes and discovering what's left. Because there's one thing that I think will never stop grabbing a hold of people's attention, and that is human emotion. No matter how many times you see it, seeing a person crying and hugging their loved one as they're discovering their burned property, that will always sort of tug at the heartstrings of everyone.”

Photographing death — both animals and people

“For me, I think that seeing the injured or dead animals in these wildfires is the most emotionally impactful. Because I feel like these animals, they don't understand fire, they don't understand what's happening, but don't know how to help themselves. They're completely helpless in the scenes. And so seeing an injured cat wandering around a burned fire scene, fur singed. A dead horse, random animals laying on the sides of roads is really traumatic and devastating. And even ethically, sometimes I have quandaries of what I can file and what I can't, but I still maintain that. My job is to show a scene as it is.

I've actually gotten hate mail from people that are upset that I filed a picture of a dead animal because they think it's heartless, or they think I'm trying to profit on the trauma of others. But that's not how news really works. 

And in terms of humans, I mean, that's a whole other ethical quandary. I mean, during the Camp Fire in Paradise, I followed a corner vehicle around for days, as they were recovering human remains. And there was one scene where they had discovered an intact but very burned body. … I had to struggle with the ethical quandary of whether or not to file images of this body, knowing that if it ended up on the cover of New York Times or something, maybe family members who knew this person would discover that person died by seeing that picture, or maybe this would jeopardize press access. … I still struggle to this day with whether or not I made the right decision on that particular scene. And to answer the question, I did not file those images.”

“As a photojournalist, it used to be that I just wanted to tell the story as it was. And for fires, it was ‘this is the story. It's just about this fire, and here's what happened.’ But these days, my drive and my motivation has kind of evolved because as our climate changes, it feels more important. Because the story to me seems to be about more than just individual fires, or did this town burn, did that town burn? 

… It's about how things are changing. And I feel like in a way, I'm sort of on the forefront of a select group of photojournalists that are covering things that can actually show the real effects of climate change. So in short, it's about more than just individual fires. To me, the motivation is about being able to show how things on our planet are changing and how it is affecting everyone.”