Bill Barr fires off a photograph as soon as he arrives at a fire scene.
Donning a yellow hard hat and a reflective yellow vest with the words “fire photographer,” he immediately begins shooting the scene. He checks first whether the building’s utilities are connected, then captures all sides of the structure, looking for open doors or windows.
Barr shoots firefighters as they go to work attacking a blaze and afterward as their bodies recover from the heat, steam, smoke and the elements. He photographs onlookers and the surrounding scene.
His photographs document the entire fire scene, provide a time line for investigators and allow fire departments to review safety procedures for upcoming training sessions.
They also serve as mementos for firefighters, police and EMS personnel in their later years – something the long-time fireman wishes he had from his active days as volunteer.
“I had very few pictures of me, unless there was a picture in the newspaper,” said Barr, who serves as the Hazleton city fire photographer and volunteer lensman in southern Luzerne County.
He pointed to the devastating fire that destroyed a block in White Haven’s business district some 20 years ago as an example. He has no photographs from the landmark fire, and doesn’t know who might, he said.
“That’s why I do it – so the guys have pictures when they get older,” Barr said.
Other freelance fire photographers – most members of area fire companies – tell similar tales, having started to shoot fire and accident scenes as a hobby.
Freelance photographer J.C. Kriesher starting taking photographs at various scenes in Sheppton as a junior firefighter when he couldn’t do other jobs, he said.
Fire photography was a hobby at first, but that hobby evolved in the past five or six years, he said. In 2011, Kriesher established Fire & Film, a website and Facebook presence dedicated to coverage of fire and accident scenes, he said.
“Facebook is definitely my main outlet,” Kriesher said. “Some of my posts get shared 15 to 100 times and I see my photos popping up on many different Facebook profiles.”
All of his photographs are available for purchase without the Fire & Film watermark, he said, and most of his work focuses on the firefighters themselves. Taking photos at a scene only seems natural, Kriesher said, as the fire service is a family and families take pictures when they gather together.
Often family members will purchase photographs of a loved one doing their job, while others buy them for their own use, he said.
“(Firefighters) appreciate me capturing them at work,” Kriesher said.
For him, it’s not all about the money, although he hopes to cover his expenses through sales, he said. Sometimes, he trades with someone for a fire department T-shirt, and other times, he gives them away, such as in the case of a suspicious fire.
“Sometimes, the police give me a call and ask for copies, especially if its an arson,” Kriesher said. “I’d rather help. It doesn’t make sense to charge them.”
He also gives fire companies photos for training purposes, he said.
Kriesher said he keeps his eyes on the entire operation while taking photos, and often points out things he sees to the fire chief on scene, helping firefighters to stay ahead of a fire.
Another freelance photographer and firefighter, Nick Sedon, would love to shoot fires and accidents full time, but it’s a tough business and he photographs scenes when he’s not busy fighting fires in Hazleton and Hazle Township, he said. Sales have mainly gone to insurance investigators, he said.
“A lot of my pictures are on my SmugMug website (nickandtheresa.smugmug.com). That makes it easier for anyone to view them” Sedon said. “And if anyone wishes, I will give them an 8-by-10 or take a donation for them.”
He, too, offers his photographs to police and fire officials for free. Barr and his brother, Frank, another volunteer fire photographer, don’t charge for their photos, they said.
“I’m a straight-up volunteer,” Frank Barr said. “I don’t ask for anything. I like taking pictures.”
Living in the city, Frank Barr often gets to fires before the firefighters and immediately sets to work, he said.
“The flame shots will tell you a lot about what’s happening,” he said.
The first photographs of a fire can point to its origin or rule out potential starting points, Bill Barr said. He recalled one fire, where investigators thought the fire started in one part of the building, but his photographs showed that the fire wasn’t in that area, he said.
“It saves time,” he said. “You can look at the pictures and video and get an idea of what was going on.”
Bill Barr, who has taken fire photography classes, works with area fire chiefs and state police fire marshals, documenting the exterior and interior of the buildings.
“As long as it’s safe for me, I’ll shoot the inside of the building,” he said, noting that fire photographers must wait out the steam, which could damage the camera equipment. “I’ll hang out with the fire investigator. I always learn something from them. I’m learning as I’m going.”
Fire companies also learn from the photographs and they’ve been used for in-house training, said Donald Leshko, Hazleton fire chief. Many photos, though, end up on social media sites, he said, the exception being fire investigations.
Most of the people who do fire photography are firefighters or retired firefighters, Leshko said. They know where they can be on a scene and where they can’t be, he said. They also know what they can post online and what they can’t, he added.
“They do a great job,” Leshko said.
Firefighters responding to a fire call, however, shouldn’t be taking photographs for social media, as their first job is protecting life, safety and property, Leshko said.
Most area fire photographers do what they do as a hobby and do more than fires, Leshko noted. They also cover training sessions, parades and other events, such as Santa Claus visits, highlighting what firefighters do in their communities through social media, he said.
“It’s another age in the fire service,” he said.
Fire companies themselves are using dash and helmet cameras to document scenes, monitor members’ actions and check that safety precautions are being followed, Scott Kostician, Hazle Township Fire and Rescue Company chief, said.
“Sometimes, it helps. Sometimes, it hurts,” he said. “It does tell a true tale.”
Bill Barr has seen how fire photography has changed over the years. Classes once focused on film photography, and now everything is all digital, he said. He and other photographers have evolved with the changing times, embracing photo-hosting websites, social media and video.
Frank Barr has even invested in a drone to shoot interiors where floors are missing or too unsafe for investigators to navigate, he said. He admits he hasn’t used it yet, but hopes to get some practice in, he said.
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