Noah Berger Is the Fire Chaser
The longtime East Bay photojournalist has found his calling: photographing California’s massive wildfires.
Photo by Stuart Palley
As soon as a California wildfire looks like it could get big, East Bay photojournalist Noah Berger stops whatever he’s doing and heads for the flames, his SUV filled with food and frozen drinks to last for days, a scanner tuned to emergency response channels, his mind focused, alert, and energized.
Chasing and capturing California’s awesome and cataclysmic wildland infernos have become Berger’s passion in recent years, and he has quickly earned a reputation for being one of the best in the business.
Photo courtesy of Noah Berger / associated press
Embers fly above a firefighter as he works to control a backfire as teh Delta fire burns in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest on Sept. 6.
“There’s no layers of PR bullshit; there’s no emails to return,” Berger said of photographing fires versus doing other types of work. “You’re just pared down to getting the best photos you can in a challenging situation, and often it’s working 18 hour days and not having real meals for three days.”
A freelance photographer all his professional life, Berger, 44, sometimes forgoes well-paying gigs to pursue the latest conflagration. In fact, he tells his corporate clients he may have to reschedule or arrange for other photographers during fire season. Sometimes, he leaves behind a wife and son who are less than thrilled he may be gone for another substantial stretch, although they love him for his drive (as he headed out the door to one blaze, he promised them a trip to Hawaii).
“Just having that intensity of focus is the big appeal of it,” Berger said. “And of course the sight of 200-foot flames coming across a ridge at you is impressive and addictive: the adrenaline.”
With dozens of wildfires now raging annually in California, Berger has become one of the premiere photographers for news agencies, his work splashed across the front pages of newspapers throughout state and nation. He thrives on the frontlines, recording the new normal in the Golden State during the era of climate change.
Photo courtesy of noah berger / san francisco chronicle
Jeanette Scroggins pauses while searching for signs of her missing aunt, Karen Aycock, after the Oct. 10, 2017 Tubbs fire raced through her Coffrey Park neighborhood.
Fast-talking and quick to laugh, Berger was relaxing recently during an interview with the magazine on his hefty powerboat behind his waterfront home in Alameda, where he moved with his wife and 8-year-old son a year ago after a quarter-century in Oakland and Berkeley. The toenails at the end of Berger’s 6-foot-6-inch, 250-pound frame were painted blue, a steady stream of cigarettes gestured the air.
Berger is a transplant from New Jersey, which he fled the day after his 1992 graduation from high school, driving west to attend UC Berkeley. Three years filled primarily with partying, as well as writing, editing, and taking photographs for the student run Daily Californian newspaper, convinced Berger that academic life was not for him, so he dropped out of school. He kept up the journalism, however, and eventually decided to focus exclusively on photography.
Since then, Berger has shot a dizzying array of assignments. Most of his time still goes to journalism, but by far the bulk of his income comes from his corporate clients.
“He can do anything,” said Stephanie Mullen, deputy director of storytelling and photography for the Associated Press’ U.S. West region. “He’s a really creative portrait photographer, and anything breaking news, he’s our go-to guy.”
Berger likes the adrenaline shots. One of his favorite jobs each year is hanging out of a small plane, with the back removed, shooting the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels fighter jet squadron practicing over San Francisco. “It’s awesome. It’s the best assignment of the year. If there were a fire, it would be a hard one. I’d probably still go with fire, but it would be a hard one,” said Berger reflectively.
His wife, Cachet, says she’s gotten used to his love for daredevil assignments. “He does all kinds of stuff like that. Helicopters. Biplanes with no doors. I knew this going into the marriage,” she said. “His excitement and interest in life is obviously something that brought us together. Sometimes, I have to just take a deep breath and wait until it’s all over.”
It was not until 2013 when Berger was shooting the nearly 260,000-acre Rim fire deep in the mountains near Yosemite National Park that he realized chasing and photographing wildfires was his calling. Berger is quick to underscore repeatedly that he does not revel in the misfortune of people who lose life and property to fire (he and other photographers and family members went to Santa Rosa last year to volunteer at a local food bank after the Tubbs fire), but he says that witnessing the forces at work during a blaze is deeply stirring.
PHOTO COURTESY OF NOAH BERGER / SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
An inmate firefighter watches the Cold fire burn through Thompson Canyon near Winters on Aug. 3, 2016.
“It’s primal. You’re looking at areas that are closed to the public. You’re in this enclosed world that’s fires, firefighters, and press,” he said.
“You see things that nobody else gets to see,” he continued. “You’re standing in the middle of canyons that are burning all around you, and it’s night, and you and the firefighters are just looking out at this, amazed by the beauty of it, the beauty and the devastation.”
There is also the unexpected and strange. At July’s Ferguson fire, again near Yosemite, Berger found himself standing as dark fell amid what looked like 100 automobiles that had been dumped on an isolated ridge. “You get into some really weird situations,” Berger said, citing the dangers of backwoods meth users and illegal pot growers.
And critically, there is the comradeship with others who share the journey, including the firefighters, some of whom Berger has befriended online. In particular, Berger has a crew of three photogs with whom he typically shares information and other resources when covering fires.
“It’s nice from a safety and camaraderie aspect,” said Justin Sullivan of Getty Images, who like Berger has had fire safety training and carries protective equipment. Sullivan often rides shotgun in Berger’s Nissan Xterra, which Berger bought just for fires and equipped with a custom antenna, high powered back-up lights, a ladder, and a metal rack on top from which to shoot pictures. The four shooters will typically car camp together.
“By yourself, you could find yourself in some sketchy situations. It’s nice to have someone to bounce ideas off. ‘Should we go on that road? What could happen if we do?’ ” said Sullivan, who has known Berger for about two decades.
PHOTO COURTESY OF NOAH BERGER / SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
Flames consume a main building at the Signorello Vineyards in Napa on Oct. 9, 2017.
The number and scope of fires in California increased dramatically over the last half-decade, giving the two men many opportunities to hone their skills, and to bring home striking and haunting images of nature’s ferocity, and the tragedies and resilience of people impacted by the destruction. One moving photo of Berger’s from 2015 shows a sign on the site of a vaporized home in Middletown, Lake County, thanking firefighters for their efforts.
This year, Berger was on the road and largely out of touch for almost the entire month of July, shuttling between fires that included the largest in the state’s history, the deadly Mendocino Complex blaze that charred about 460,000 acres in Mendocino, Lake, Colusa and Glenn counties, as well as the 230,000-acre Carr fire in Shasta and Trinity counties.
That followed last year’s historic fire season, which included the Tubbs fire, a horrific blaze that killed at least 22 people and burned 4,658 homes in the Santa Rosa area — the most costly fire in state annals.
Despite the record devastation, in general, Berger does not feel any more threatened than in the past covering fires. By comparison, Berger said covering East Bay protests seems far more dangerous because photographers have been targeted with violence by radical demonstrators.
“They’ll call me out by name. ‘Put the camera down, Noah.’ It’s hairy,” Berger said.
One thing Berger does not expect is to be overrun by flames. His main concern is falling trees, which can unexpectedly topple, crushing people or blocking roads.
Yet July’s Carr fire shook that faith a bit. Berger was one of the first photographers on the scene, and a mile away a rising column of heat and smoke started rotating like a tornado, kicking up winds of 143 miles per hour. Berger was not directly affected, but a firefighter was killed.
“That really got me thinking,” he said. “That is something you can’t prepare for.”
This story appears in the December issue of Oakland and Alameda magazines.
Editor's Note: This story went to press before the Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif. began.