Noah Berger, 44, is a freelance photographer who in recent years has become known for his work shooting California’s wildfires for wire services. He left his native New Jersey to attend UC Berkeley. While there, he worked at the Daily Californian, but he dropped out of Cal to focus exclusively on photography. Prior to shooting fires, he was drawn to photographing protests, such as Black Lives Matter. The Alameda resident also shoots the Navy’s Blue Angels each year — hanging out of the plane with the back removed. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe and others.
Clearly, you’re a bit of an adrenaline junkie. Are you drawn to shooting wildfires because of the danger involved?
Noah Berger: That’s not inaccurate. It’s like the highest level you can get to without going to war. I used to want editors to send me to war, but now I don’t want that level. It’s as high as you can get on the adrenaline ladder without really involving death. The people who shoot wars are a whole other level of risk.
How did you come to specialize in fires?
It started with the Rim Fire in 2013. I had done a couple here or there before that, but it was the Rim Fire that made me realize this is what I want to do. Obviously in the last four years, it’s really been ramping up. I do a lot of corporate work; most of my money comes from that, but I always tell clients during fire season that that’s my first priority. It takes a lot to tell a client that they might not be my top priority, and I’ve lost some jobs over that, but for most part, it works out OK.
You just covered the Camp Fire. How close do you get to the fire when you’re shooting? And how long were you gone from home?
Very close. Feet away. Sometimes it gets a bit hot and you step back a little.
I was probably gone 20 days out of a month. Some fires don’t last very long, but you spend the following days shooting the aftermath.
What are your days like when you’re shooting wildfires?
A typical day for the Camp Fire was either sleeping in my car, or for two nights a group of us photographers got a place off Airbnb. I go to sleep around 2 a.m. and wake up at 7 a.m. to start shooting by 9 a.m. When you’re working for the wires, you want to get a photo out early in the day, so I try to have one by 11 a.m. or noon. Once you get that to [the editors], you have more time to go out and explore.
How do you decompress from the devastation that you see?
It’s not so easy. I’m not especially emotional, but it’s so immersive that that becomes your whole world. Whether there are fatalities or not, just being close to it for days, you’ve pared your existence down. When you come back, it’s hard to care about the things around you. I tend to zone out for two days. During the Camp Fire, I came home for one day, but I wanted to be back up there. I was texting my buddies. It must be like what soldiers feel — you’d think they’re happy to be home, but they’re not. While I don’t want to compare it, it does give me an understanding of what they must feel like.
You’ve had some media fire training and completed wildfire certification classes. What’s the most dangerous situation you’ve been in so far?
The fires aren’t as dangerous as they look. I have a good understanding of fire behavior, and I think I have a good head on my shoulders when I’m covering them. The thing that we worry about most is getting hit by a falling tree, or having one block your car or exit route. The traffic jams you see where people get stuck happen right away, so by the time we get there, the firefighters and other responders are ahead of the blaze and not in it.
Actually, the most dangerous stuff I’ve experienced workwise, so far, are protests. The one in downtown Berkeley in April 2017 where the extreme right came, there was a lot of violence toward photographers. And there was another one in Berkeley with five hours of projectiles and smoke.
You have a wife and an 8-year-old son. How do they cope with your choosing to put yourself in dangerous situations?
It’s pretty hard for them. My wife is a planner, and I can get a text about a fire starting and suddenly I’m gone for five days. The Camp Fire started on a Thursday morning, and we had tickets to Hawaii for a long weekend. That was going to be my makeup for being gone for other fires. So the fire started, and I knew later that day that I wasn’t going to make that flight. I ate the cost of the ticket, and they went without me. It’s not easy on them; my son definitely worries about my safety.
What about your parents? Are they OK with your work?
My father passed away, but my mom is both fine with it and worries, too. She follows me on Facebook, so when she sees my photos, she knows I’m alive.
You had a rather dramatic exit from Hebrew school.
I had a lot of behavioral problems both in regular and Hebrew school. I used to do things like throw prayerbooks. Some of my friends and I ditched Hebrew school for a few weeks in a row; we got caught hiding under cars and running away. Once when I cut class, I went into the sanctuary and tried to open the ark. I wasn’t going to do anything to the Torah, but they had a silent alarm on it and the police showed up. That was the final straw. This happened a few weeks before my bar mitzvah, so they said, “After that, you’re done with your studies, you’re not welcome back here.” I had my bar mitzvah and that was that.