POSTED: Friday, June 22, 2012 - 3:00pm
UPDATED: Friday, June 22, 2012 - 3:04pm
NATIONAL NEWS (CNN) — For 15 years Kari Greer has been documenting wildland fires and the men and woman who battle them.
"I'm a trained firefighter; photography is my tool," she says. "It's my service on the line."
In college Greer studied photography but spent her summers fighting wildland fires as a seasonal firefighter. After graduation it was an easy fit to combine her two skill sets.
"The bug bit, and I developed a kind of passion for it."
She now photographs fires from the front lines under contract with the National Interagency Fire Center, the federal outfit that supports wildland firefighting efforts.
Her photos are available to the public and the news media and are used to train firefighters and to help better coordinate firefighting efforts.
"There are many tools in the tool box for fighting fire and showing what fire is all about," Greer says. "It's kind of a mysterious creature. My tool is that I'm able to document that and present it to the people, to the public. When the fire is going on in their back yard, they are able to see what's happening, what's really going on out there."
As a fully certified wildland firefighter, Greer is able to safely move throughout an active fire to places most photographers could not safely travel.
Like the rest of the firefighters she sleeps in a tent and generally works a 16-hour day, often for weeks at a time.
She carries her Olympus E-3 camera and the rest of her photo gear and a full compliment of safety equipment, including a fire shelter -- last ditch protection should fire overtake her team.
"When I'm in the middle of an active fire -- right over the shoulder of a firefighter who is actively fighting that fire -- I feel like I'm right there with him experiencing it, and my whole focus is to show the activity what's going on," says Greer. "Why are they doing this, how are they doing this? I feel the heat, I feel the smoke, my eyes are watering with everybody else's and I'm sweating, probably pretty badly, and getting very nice and dirty."
There is an easy camaraderie among the firefighters -- often captured in Greer's photos. Despite the hard work and brutal conditions it's not uncommon to see firefighters smiling and enjoying each other's company in the middle of a fire, even as they remain focused on their work and staying safe.
"It's kind of a nice brotherhood and sisterhood," she says. "It's like a family. You'll see people you see maybe once in five years. You'll run into them in one corner of the country and five years later you'll see them again, and it's like you pick right back up where you left off."
There are two sets of characters in Greer's photos: the fire and the firefighters. The good guys against the bad guy.
The intensity of the fire comes through in her photos, but so does the passion, skill and commitment of the firefighters.
"I think it helps people develop an understanding of the situation and how firefighters are working," says Greer. "They are highly trained doing a job that is difficult in a chaotic situation and they are doing their very best to manage it."