As firefighters set out to control the Kincade Fire, Tenaya Fleckenstein went out with them to show how they work together.
Fleckenstein, a Healdsburg resident, has been photographing wildfires for the last five years. She’s a former firefighter herself and is married to a battalion chief with CalFire.
“I do fire photography for myself but I also do it for families,” she said. “I realized that a lot of the family members do not know what their husbands or boyfriends, wives are out there doing.”
She said that providing those pictures helps bring some calm to families as they can see how things are being handled and that the first responders in the shot are safe.
She posted a few on her Facebook page and photography website as the Kincade Fire was going.
“Other people don’t know where their spouses are,” she said. “As I can, when I see other people’s spouses, I can give a shout out and say, ‘Hey, I just saw your person. They’re doing good. They’re OK.'”
She said those updates help her do her part to support what she described as a large family of first responders and their loved ones.
In addition, the photos give a certain sense of pride for their significant others’ work.
“I know when we had kids it was a big deal to have photos of Dad at work,” she said.
She said the Kincade Fire was her biggest wildfire so far. The thing she noticed the most that separated it from other fires she’s shot was the successful evacuation of more than 180,000 residents at its height.
“Having everyone out of the way really allowed the firefighters to do what they needed to do. They were focused on fighting the fire rather than saving people,” she said.
She said that she saw the local knowledge of the area come in to play as those knowledgeable with the topography could help predict how the firestorm would act during the major wind events that fanned the flames to 77,758 acres.
That planning is what draws Fleckenstein to the work.
“I focus on the people and the human aspect of it. It’s not always about getting the biggest fire photo, but getting the feeling of what’s going on and how they fight the fire,” she said.
Even if a huge fireball isn’t her main objective, she still said she was cautious and wears full protective gear, her nine years as a firefighter helps her spot potential dangers when out in the field.
“I end up knowing a lot of people, too, which gives me a sense of security. I know who they are and I know where they are. Having those contacts and knowing everyone is looking out for each other is a big deal.”
When she’s out, she said the work keeps her focused. It isn’t until she returns home that the weight of the fire’s devastation sinks in.
“I definitely find when I’m back at home — the first time I saw my kids after they evacuated with my mom — it hits me. You feel the sadness and the loss of everybody and what they’re going through,” she said.
Fleckenstein said the Valley Fire was the first big incident that she photographed.
“That taught me a lot,” she said. “Then the Tubbs was in the thick of it and that was a totally different situation. This time, being where the Tubbs Fire was, there were areas that were familiar. I remember how they reacted last time. There were plans on how to fight the fire that were similar to last time. So I think my confidence level and knowing where to be and not to be has definitely gotten better.”
As they planned and fought, Fleckenstein said again her training helped her, this time in staying clear of firefighters’ work.
“If I see certain things, I know what they’re trying to accomplish. I know where they’re going with that hose. They’re going to do this or that. That gives me some kind of edge,” she said. “I’m not just a reporter who’s doing this for a job, I have some experience so I can anticipate some things.”
While she has nearly a decade under her belt as a firefighter, she said her photography has been a passion since high school.
“It’s always been something I’ve done,” she said. “This kind of started here in town after I quit the fire department. Once you’re involved in something, you’re never really out of it. And there’s my husband’s involvement.”
After shooting a few smaller incidents around Windsor and Healdsburg, she said it snowballed until she went out to her first big fire.
You can check out Fleckenstein’s photography at tenayafphotography.com.