Firefighters are capturing stunning images of wildfires in the West, and that has fire officials grappling with how to approach the digital landscape as they balance a young workforce’s desire to share with their safety in a hazardous environment.
Firefighter Stephanie Preheim had only just arrived at the storage facility she was assigned to protect from a massive wildfire near the tourist town of Chelan when the winds shifted, pushing the blaze back her way.
Told to stand down, the suddenly sidelined Preheim did what any idled 19-year-old would do — she got out her cellphone, snapped a photo of the smoke-filled scene and posted it on Instagram.
“People always ask, ‘How was it?’ and it’s impossible to describe what it’s like fighting a fire,” said Preheim, a volunteer with the Cashmere Fire Department in Chelan County. “If you have a quick second, why not snap a quick photo and be able to share it with people you love and let them know what you’re doing?”
Preheim, and other firefighters like her, are capturing some of the most stunning images of wildfires in the West this season. And that has fire officials grappling with how to approach the digital landscape — even contemplating banning cellphones — as they balance a young workforce’s desire to share with their safety in a hazardous environment.
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Ian Schlake, who was also battling the fire near Chelan, said in an email from the fire lines that firefighters are like everyone else looking to stay connected in an increasingly digital world.
“I’d like to show people at home the scale of fire, its power and its spectacle. It’s not something we get back home in St. Louis, Missouri,” wrote Schlake, 31.
Utah-based firefighter Eli Peterson’s daredevil Instagram account includes photos of him leaping from a bridge into the water below, rock climbing and camping along with images of rollicking flames.
“(Fire is) a beautiful, alive thing … ,” said Peterson, 19.
But, Peterson, like Schlake, said he won’t sacrifice safety for “likes” online.
Fire officials, who have seen an uptick in such postings, warn that the act of focusing on a handheld screen can be deadly when crews are surrounded by danger.
“There have been incidents in the past where firefighters have captured the last moments literally of their lives,” said Dave Teter, deputy director of fire protection at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
The problem is especially heightened in California as the parched state makes for an explosive fire landscape.
Cal Fire has discussed the possibility of stripping crews of their cellphones, and the idea remains on the table. The agency says for now, however, it’s trying to avoid such a drastic measure.
Casey Judd, president of the Federal Wildland Fire Service Association, a firefighters union, said it’s not something he’s worried about.
“Pictures have been taken out on the fire lines forever and it’s a learning tool, too,” he said.