The Most Famous Wildfire Photograph Ever Taken

From Forest Fire Gallery. John McColgan, BLM

Some consider the image shown, taken by an observant wildland firefighter, to be one of the most beautiful photographs of both wildfire and wildlife taking refuge. The photo was taken on August 6, 2000, by John McColgan who was a fire behavior expert working under a cooperative agreement with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and attached to an Alaskan Type I Incident Management Team on a Montana wildfire.​

McColgan says he was at the perfect spot with his Kodak DC280 digital camera when fire conditions and wildlife activity combined to create his image. The pic was saved as just another image file in the new type of digital camera. 

McColgan finished his work for the BLM and returned to his home in Fairbanks, Alaska. He could not be found for days after one of those pictures turned viral and spread quickly over the Internet. 

One of his elk and fire snapshots has fast become one of the most downloaded environmental photos of wildlife and wildfire on the Internet. Rob Chaney, a reporter for the Montana Missoulian suggested that there were multiple reasons this photo was so great. Here are some of the comments reported: 

Best darned elk photo I've ever seen.
Best darned fire photo I've ever seen.
Best darned photo, period, I've ever seen.

From the Official Record

The famous photo was taken on a Sunday, in the late evening where several fires burned together near Sula, Montana (population 37) and turned into one large 100,000-acre wildfire. McColgan just happened to be standing on a bridge crossing the East Fork of the Bitterroot River in the Sula Complex of the Bitterroot National Forest in the state of Montana where he took what is now called his "elk bath" digital Image.

McColgan was employed by the Alaska Fire service and was on loan to Montana and acting as an expert on wildfire behavior. McColgan just happened to be a contract fire analyst with a new camera and took digital pictures of two elk who escaped the fire by wading in the Bitterroot River. No big deal.

As a natural resource professional, McColgan understood both wildfire and wildlife. When asked about the elk, he assured that they "know where to go, where their safe zones are...a lot of wildlife did get driven down there to the river. There were some bighorn sheep there. A small deer was standing right underneath me, under the bridge." McColgan completed his assignment and left for home.

The Search for McColgan

The digital image he took was sent from one person to another person and according to the Montana Missoulian "within about 24 hours the elk photo had world-wide-webbed its way across the West. For about a week now, there's been a medium-size manhunt underway across the West. The man everyone's been hunting for is John McColgan of Fairbanks."

The Nation and the World were sending emails and making phone calls for weeks to find out just who took the images of the wildfire and wildlife. It was the newspaper Missoulian in Montana who finally solved the mystery and "tracked McColgan down".

He had indeed been in Montana and was now in Fairbanks attending the birth of his son, where the paper finally found him and where he told reporter Rob Chaney that he had taken the picture. "I just happened to be in the right place at the right time". McColgan confirmed that he had been in fire protection for years and that this particular fire ranked in the top three extreme fire behavior events he had ever seen. 

Rob Chaney in response to the photo wrote that "many people have never even seen an elk. Most of those who have, even those who've seen thousands of them, never get to see an image like this. Most people don't get to see a fire like this, either."

Thanks to McColgan and Rob Chaney, millions of people have seen this stunning image. McColgan's image went viral and eventually was picked as a Time Magazine favorite.