Photos of the Week – December 11, 2020

I went up to the Niobrara Valley Preserve on Wednesday to help with a prescribed fire. Upon arrival, I got the happy news that Chad had enough people to work the fire and he wanted me to concentrate on getting photos. How about that for a great job? I did, of course, also help keep an eye on the fire, and even raked some smoldering manure piles off the edge of the firebreaks, but mainly, I spent the day photographing fire operations.

I may share some of those fire photos (and videos!) later, but today, I wanted to show you some shots taken after the fire was out. Those of you who have been on prescribed fires know the smoke lingers a long time after the flames are gone. When you combine that low smoke with a setting sun over the Nebraska Sandhills, it creates magical photo conditions. I am very grateful for the opportunity to take advantage of those conditions this week. I hope you enjoy the images.

A nicely torched eastern redcedar tree. Nikon D7100 with Nikon 18-300mm lens @75mm. ISO 500, f/14, 1/400 sec.
Nikon D7100 with Nikon 18-300mm lens @58mm. ISO 500, f/11, 1/500 sec.

I started out photographing silhouettes of plant skeletons against the backlit smoke. That was fun enough, but soon, the sun started to get colorful, turning the smoke that same golden tint. That’s when it really got interesting.

Yucca and setting sun. Nikon D7100 with Nikon 18-300mm lens @18mm. ISO 500, f/14, 1/500 sec.
Nikon D7100 with Nikon 18-300mm lens @44mm. ISO 500, f/11, 1/1600 sec.

I was using my 18-300mm zoom lens, which covers an amazing field of view range, from wide angle to telephoto. As the sun dropped, I started zooming in more, taking advantage of the way a telephoto lens compresses the landscape. That compression folded the hills together, creating gorgeous tonal layers of light. (I’m not sure that phrase actually makes sense but I like the way it sounds.) It’s a technique that works great in the mountains, especially with early and late day haze. As it happens, it’s also fun in smoky Sandhills.

Nikon D7100 with Nikon 18-300mm lens @135mm. ISO 500, f/11, 1/3200 sec.
Nikon D7100 with Nikon 18-300mm lens @160mm. ISO 500, f/11, 1/1250 sec.
Nikon D7100 with Nikon 18-300mm lens @300mm. ISO 500, f/11, 1/1250 sec.
Nikon D7100 with Nikon 18-300mm lens @155mm. ISO 500, f/11, 1/1250 sec.
Nikon D7100 with Nikon 18-300mm lens @300mm. ISO 500, f/11, 1/1250 sec.

Eventually, the call came across the radio that it was time to get everyone together and debrief from the fire (oh yeah, we were there to do work!). I hopped into the line of vehicles heading back to the staging area to recap the day and learn what we could from the day’s events.

Leaving the unit. Nikon D7100 with Nikon 18-300mm lens @28mm. ISO 500, f/11, 1/800 sec.
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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.

11 thoughts on “Photos of the Week – December 11, 2020

  1. Do you find that burns are permanent remedy for certain woody plants?
    If so which ones?
    In my neck of the woods fire, even a very weak slow fire will permanently kill Maple seedlings.

    • Well, it does a good job on eastern redcedar, but just temporarily knocks back most other woodies. You’re probably right that seedlings would be vulnerable, but a lot of the species we’re worried about are clonal (sumac, dogwood, etc) and seedlings aren’t such a big part of their life cycle.

  2. While I support the management practices used by TNC to restore and preserve the prairie I have to admit that I’ve grow quite weary of having the haze of smoke in the air.

  3. Stunning! The single, scorched red cedar image and the subtle, monochromatic gradation of gold seen in the close and distant hills surely are beautiful

  4. Nice images, Chris. However, I just came through a horrific summer adjacent to the largest wildfire in Colorado history (no damage at my place, thank goodness, but two separate evacuations), so I’m not too favorably inclined toward images of fire right now. Of course, I appreciate the need for prescribed burns, but a prescribed burn (conducted by TNC, by the way) in a ponderosa pine forest about 7 miles from my home in 2019 got out of control and led to my family’s evacuation.

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