San Francisco-based freelance photographer Noah Berger is one of the foremost wildfire photographers in California. He's earned that reputation by closely following fires from the moment they ignite so he can get himself into position to photograph those likely to become the next big one.
That knowledge helped put him in the right place to shoot stunning images as the Carr Fire swept into Redding and threatened to devour much of the Northern California city of 92,000. It also made AP the first major news outlet to have boots on the ground in the city, a competitive advantage that produced details other didn’t have as the fire exploded, and enabled managers to quickly get Sacramento reporter Jonathan J. Cooper headed to the scene while also arranging for video coverage.
The Carr Fire didn't seem especially ominous after burning for two days. But on Thursday, the fire’s third day, things changed. Berger, just back home after covering a huge wildfire that closed much of Yosemite National Park, called West photography director Stephanie Mullen and told her he didn’t like what he was seeing and hearing from his fire sources.
Mullen told Berger to go. He raced to Shasta County and arrived late afternoon. He quickly found himself in the middle of what he described as one of the most intense fire fights he has ever witnessed. He captured the destruction of homes, the weary faces of the fire crew as they stared down huge walls of flames and the fire’s push into Redding, the region’s largest city. Berger’s images put the AP ahead of key competitors by more than a day. Other media, especially in Southern California, were still focusing their wildfire reporting on a fading blaze east of Los Angeles that been threatening a mountain community.
Cooper began reporting Thursday night and was up early the next morning surveying the damage. One key measurement of a wildfire’s destructive force is the number of homes lost. Authorities updated the size of the fire on Friday, but not the number of structures destroyed, which stayed at 65.
Cooper knew the number was much larger just in the two neighborhoods he had visited. So to give readers an initial glimpse, he went back to those neighborhoods and counted all the homes burned to the ground. He found 60 in one and 66 in the other.
With officials putting the number of homes burned at 65, Cooper revisited two neighborhoods and counted more than 120 burned to the ground.
AP’s figure, and the context that the number ultimately would be much higher, quickly became the headline on the story. The CBS Evening News led with the figure and credited AP. KRCR-TV, the ABC affiliate in Redding that was providing round-the-clock live coverage, used the AP count and the San Francisco Chronicle put the figure in the third paragraph of its story, crediting AP.
A wildfire is among the toughest assignments for any photographer but Berger gave the AP a significant advantage with his knowledge, speed and aggressive approach, while Cooper’s savvy gave AP a figure others didn’t have. For their work, they share this week’s Best of the States award.