This past summer, British Columbia, Canada, had the third-highest incidence of forest fires since recording began in 1950. Over 3500 hectares of land burned, and thousands of fighters were deployed to keep fires at bay. EyeEm Community member Max Sullivan (@afatgoat) is a forest firefighter in British Columbia and was on the front line. He’s also a talented photographer and captures great shots when he’s not in the heat of things. Let’s meet him!
Culture Shock: From Germany to the Canadian Rockies
I’m 28 years old and have an older and younger brother. I was born on the Canadian Armed Forces base in Lahr, Germany, where my father served as a combat engineer. Most of my adolescence was spent in Vancouver, before moving to Fort St. John, a small town of 20,000.
However, forest firefighting probably wouldn’t have been in the cards for me if I hadn’t moved to Fort St. John. My older brother landed a job on the crew based here in 2006. It definitely piqued my interest, and being local to the area probably didn’t hurt my chances.
Reaching out and connecting the human experience
Photography has been an interest of mine since being a teenager – a draw to the unspoken emotion and power conveyed in a single glance that can also lead to genuine reflection at further inspection. Photography gives people the tool of reaching out and connecting the human experience across cultures, borders, and language barriers. What’s not to love in that?
Preparation is the difference between death and success
I’ve spent 4 years as a crew member and 4 years as a squad leader as part of a 20-man crew. We are seasonally employed by the British Columbia government.
The more time I spend firefighting, the less it becomes about the fire and helicopters and more about the people who make this job great and worth coming back to. Fifty per cent of the job is training, gear preparedness and giving back to the community; 45% of the job is hiking a ton of gear through a swamp or up some mountain in the middle of nowhere; and that last 5% is the exciting times.
Great landscape shots are awesome, but they don’t really compare to capturing the look of triumph or exhaustion on someones face after finishing an uphill hike with gear. Those are raw moments that generally aren’t available passing someone on the street.
Get out the gear: Amazing shots don’t happen from the shelf
I can’t count the amount of amazing shots I have missed because I didn’t have a camera on me. Spend the money and have a pocket-sized point and shoot. Don’t be afraid of getting it dirty or wet.
Most of my early pictures were on a Sony Powershot. For years I had a second-hand Canon 5D Mark 1 + 28-135mm kicking around on the shelf because I was afraid of breaking it. It doesn’t take pictures sitting on the shelf. Smoke, dust, weather, and living in a tent for months did eventually do in the unsealed camera, but not before I took some great shots. It’s like the hockey saying: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” And when that camera died, I finally had an excuse to upgrade to the Nikon D810 with a 50mm f1.4.
Doing what you love takes you to unexpected places
The nature of the job leads to unique photo opportunities as we use a wide variety of heavy equipment, aircraft, and access to some pretty remote locations. I would be lying if I said these were everyday shots representative of a typical work day.
It’s not always possible to capture great moments with this job, usually the best time to be taking shots is when the most work is required. That being said, a huge attraction to the hobby is capturing candid moments after a hard hike or stressful situation, while balancing fluid, harsh lighting conditions and responding to the job at hand.
See the world: “Live life with your boots on”
The above photo was taken in 2007 on one of my first large fires. A stand of burnt out cedar had fallen over the previous day. Someone crawled in to check if there was still heat, and the photo pretty much took itself. Not every day do you see a pair of boots sticking out the bottom end of a tree.
On the morose side of things, it’s also a reminder that one way or another we return to nature. Chances are what takes us there is beyond our control and unexpected, so live life with your boots on and see the sights while you can!
Think fast: Crisis at every turn
Outside of the usual run-ins with moose and bears, who are generally more afraid of us, and buffalo, who are afraid of no one. In 2009, we were around Clinton, BC, in the Rocky mountains. We dug out a spot in the slope for a helipad and a bladder (think above-ground swimming pool).
Due to limited water, a helicopter was bucketing from the Fraser River to the bladder from which we pumped to the fire. The helicopter lost power after dropping a load in the bladder and had to make a hard landing. The pilot managed to set down on the pad and walk away uninjured, though understandably shaken up. Not everyone was quite so eager for the flight out at the end of that work day.
On his discovery of EyeEm
I enjoy EyeEm for how active the community is across such a multicultural platform. Every day people from every walk of life are sharing, talking and commenting. Not everyone is a professional photographer, and it’s nice to participate in a community where people are still growing and developing into their own idea of what photography means on a personal level.
On his favorite albums
The minimalism album is by far one of my favorites. Simplifying the scene is something I strive to do, but don’t always succeed at. There’s a ton of inspiration in there. The blackandwhite and portrait albums I end up spending a lot of time in as well.
Thanks for sharing Max! Follow along with Max’s forest firefighting adventures on his EyeEm profile.
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