The image was captured in the late afternoon of Sunday, August 6, from a bridge over the East Fork of the Bitterroot River just north of Sula, Montana. The elk sought refuge in the river bottom during what may have been the most extreme day of fire behavior on the Bitterroot in more than 70 years. “I do shoot some photography, but certainly that was a once in a lifetime, stunning opportunity.”
He was traveling to the Valley Complex along with the deputy incident commander of the Sula Complex. “I was on that ridge for maybe 15 seconds.” “We just saw the elk, and I stopped and said, ‘I’m taking 15 seconds here.’” McColgan said the photo does not fully convey the extreme weather conditions that day. “It was a fairly violent situation out there,” he said. “It looks fairly serene, but the wind was really whipping.”
McColgan used a Kodak DC 280 digital camera, set at high resolution (1,792 x 1,200), but also at a medium to high level of compression to save on storage space. “I wasn’t out shooting art photos. I was doing fire behavior documentation.” After the photo was taken, it circulated widely and anonymously until it got picked up by the Associated Press and the Montana newspaper “The Missoulian.” “I had given a copy to someone while I was down there [in Montana], and it inadvertently made its way into the e-mail system.” He received e-mail from friends in Europe, sending the photo back to the US and asking him if he’d seen it.
Since McColgan was working as a Forest Service firefighter, the shot is public property and cannot be sold or used for commercial purposes
Although the photo originally went out with no credit information, a reporter from “The Missoulian” tracked the photographer down at home in Alaska. McColgan, who normally works as a fuels management specialist for the Bureau of Land Management Alaska Fire Service, doesn’t mind the lack of credit, or that he can’t use the photo to make a profit.
As McColgan described the experience to a writer for the Western Montana newspaper The Missoulian:
“That’s a once-in-a-lifetime look there. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. I’ve been doing this for 20 years and it ranks in the top three days of fire behavior I’ve seen.”
The day was Aug. 6, the Sunday when several forest fires converged near Sula into a firestorm that overran 100,000 acres and destroyed 10 homes. Temperatures in the flame front were estimated at more than 800 degrees. Nevertheless, McColgan said, the wildlife appeared to be taking the crisis in stride, gathering near the East Fork of the Bitterroot River where it crosses under U.S. Highway 93.
“They know where to go, where their safe zones are,” McColgan said. “A lot of wildlife did get driven down there to the river. There were some bighorn sheep there. A small deer was standing right underneath me, under the bridge.”
John McColgan has been a wildland firefighter for 20 years. He currently works for the Department of Interior, Bureau of Land Management, Alaska Fire Service as a Fuels Management Specialist. John coordinates fuel management and prescribed fire activities for the BLM in Alaska. During fire season he serve as a Fire Behavior Analyst on the Alaska Type I Incident Management Team. John has been in Alaska since 1989 where he has worked with the Alaska Smokejumpers for 10 years. Prior to 1989 he worked on hotshot crews with the National Park Service in Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park and with the U.S. Forest Service on the Mt. Hood National Forest where he started my wildland fire career. In 1987, He graduated from Colorado State University with a bachelors degree in Natural Resource Management with an emphasis in wildland fire science.