Action Photography of Prescribed Burns on Kentucky Nature Preserves

Every spring, various land management agencies and natural government groups, such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Nature Conservancy, come together for controlled land burns. These burns are done to prevent the buildup of dead brush and reduce the chances for large wildfires in the future.


I was asked to be a part of a controlled burn that would be taking place near Elizabethtown, Kentucky, and to capture still photography of the teams working and results of the burn. It was important to the client that we saw the contrast of the burned side vs. the non-burned side, in addition to the action images that were needed for future publications and print collateral.

The process began with team meeting to establish who was burn chief, and assign other roles. Gear was sorted, prepped, and maps reviewed. Each team had a radio and set out to the burn area. A small section was tested first, to be sure of wind direction and how well the ground would take to the burn. This test was successful, and the team set out along the perimeter, burning an area from the outside in, so that it would meet in the middle.

For me, I had to be very aware of the direction in which the burn teams were working, and anticipate not only their moves, but the direction of the fire and wind. Smoke was everywhere, and while it made for some very atmospheric images, I also wanted some clear shots of the people in action. Given the serious nature of the work being done, I wasn't able to pose or stage much! Getting in front of the crew as they were working, so that I could see faces as well as the fire behind them, was a challenge! They moved quickly and with purpose, and at times I had to walk backwards through the brush, all the while trying to look out for moment, light, and composition in my images.