Fire!

Since my Spanish is still very basic, I have a very difficult time understanding when people are talking about special events, outings, or just new topics. What this amounts to most of the time is me getting in the car with the family for day trips on the weekends with little or no clue where we are going! So far it has always led to a great adventure or day with family or friends. Saturdays or Sundays mostly consist of me waking up, eating a small breakfast, packing my camera bag, and being ready for anything. Let’s just say last Sunday was especially eventful!

In typical fashion, my host family and I were off for a full-day excursion to spend the day with some old family friends at their property in the country. As we started driving we could see a little bit of smoke coming from being the closest small mountain range on the other side of the river and about five miles from where we live. Little did I know but we would be going to the valley behind the mountain range and not far from where the small fire had started an hour or so before we got to the valley. 

As we entered the valley the fire came into full view, burning straight up the steep mountainside on the southern side of the east-west running valley. While the mountains get very little water and the plants are mainly very spaced out shrubs, they burn consistently and produce a lot of smoke. Fortunately, it became quickly apparent that the fire was burning away from any people and was not a serious threat to any structures or population. It was, however, a very unfortunate destruction of habitat and plants in the beautiful valley. 

The property that we went to was a beautiful collection of buildings, outdoor patios and covered outdoor kitchens, and many other amenities. In a nearly completely barren valley, this beautiful little piece of heaven was tucked against the hillside and was luscious with blooming flowers, lawns, and a really lovely atmosphere. The people were also incredibly nice, one of whom I had met at the airport by coincidence when I first arrived. Also at the gathering were some friends my age who had been on exchange, as well as some Germans who were very fun to hang out with and talk German too. 

The many dishes of rice and fried vegetables, grilled meats, salads, and lemonade were all to die for and I had more steak than I have ever had before!

Exploring the property and climbing a little was up the side of the valley revealed not only stunning scenery, two ancient petroglyphs, and many blooming plants, but also the constant growing presence of the fire on the opposite side of the valley.

Early in the day, I managed to get some photos and footage with my drone of the fire and the very small initial effort to fight it. While the fire was still burning not far from where it had started we went to the origin and saw the four fire trucks and about 15 people working at that location to fight any small fires remaining there. We later found out that the fire was started by an arsonist at a senators country house. 

As the fire grew larger and larger we watched in disbelief from the other side of the valley. Helplessly, we returned to Tarija at the end of the day where we could see how far the fire had actually burned. After going over the ridge there was a horizontal fireline over a kilometer long that was clearly visible from everywhere in Tarija. Fortunately, it was burning slowly and predictably, but it was very visually imposing. 

I did a quick edit of the footage and photos I had taken during the day and posted it to Instagram where it was immediately shared by local news and media services and has over 2000 views. I received a lot of positive feedback because many people did not know how it had progressed throughout the day to be so big. 

The fire burned all day the following day as well, and it was the only thing anybody was talking about. Because it was nearly impossible to fight the fire and bring water anywhere near it up the steep mountains, the Global Supertanker which is currently stationed in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, was called in to drop retardant around the fire’s perimeter. After three massive drops from the 747 fire plane, the fire finally stopped spreading and died out. Fortunately, I heard it coming and got some great pictures of the plane!

Being at the right place at the right time allowed me to capture a story that I will remember for a long time. The excitement of knowing I was the only person capturing such a big event in the way that I did and seeing the incredible response of many people in Tarija and Bolivia made it feel meaningful and special. Of course, you never want something bad to happen but as a visual storyteller, you hope that if something does happen you are able to capture that moment in a way that conveys the feeling of the event and the emotions that result from it. 

It was a sad two days for everybody here, but it also felt like a transition for me from just a travel photographer to a photojournalist of sorts. Or at least I like to think so. Please leave a comment to let me know what you think of this story and my photos.

5 Comments

  1. Exciting to see how you put your photography talent to use and performed a valuable public service. Thanks for sharing all aspects of this adventure- your writing is also captivating.

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  2. You got the story! …and caught the bug, by the sound of it. Through your photography, you were able to tell the story of the fire to the local people and enrich their experience. And now with this writing, you are allowing all your readers to feel the thrill of personal discovery and growth. It’s a treat, Charlie. Find an agent.

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  3. Charlie, You are a very talented photographer and story teller. I definitely think you found your calling. Thank you for posting so many wonderful stories. I am so happy the exchange seems to be going very well for you. I am glad the fire was put out in only a few days and that no one was injured in it. HUGS!!

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