One week has passed since the start of an unprecedented chain of fires. In Galicia, an unfortunate combination of extremely high temperatures and storms with an electrical device set off the first sparks. As a result of the above, the community has succumbed to uncontrolled fires, nearly 25,000 hectares of burned land, almost a hundred population centers evacuated and some 1,500 displaced people in the eastern part of the autonomous community. In the midst of all this chaos, photojournalists Óscar Corral, Rosa Veiga and Brais Lorenzo usually work. elDiario.es has spoken with them. They are the photographers of the fire, accustomed to moving among the ashes and listening to the bitter soundtrack that they compose of the creaks of the forest when it dies in the flames.
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“This is something emotionally very hard, no matter how often it is repeated from time to time,” says Óscar Corral, a photographer who works for El País and the EFE Agency, winner of the Galicia in Focus Award in 2016. Óscar Corral (Santiago, 1981) He has covered great tragedies such as the humanitarian crisis of the Aquarius ship, but he has no doubts about what it means for him to face fires: “I have photographed many dramatic situations, but because of the emotional bond I have had with this disaster since I was a child, fires are for me the worst”.
Corral just covered a few weeks ago the huge fire in the Sierra de la Culebra in Zamora, which claimed the lives of two people and left a balance of 30,000 hectares burned. These days he travels through the mountains of the Valdeorras region. “When there are big fires, from Madrid they always turn to Galician photographers because unfortunately we have accumulated experience over the years,” explains Corral, who clarifies how in recent weeks, given such a number of fires on the Peninsula, “the media attention It’s spread out a lot more.”
These days the photojournalist Brais Lorenzo (Ourense, 1986) has arrived in the region of Valdeorras, one of the professionals who has offered the most impressive images of this environmental disaster. Lorenzo regularly publishes in the Agencia EFE, Faro de Vigo and elDiario.es. A photo of him from the fires has just been published this week on the cover of the prestigious The Wall Street Journal, the most widely read newspaper in America, with close to a million copies in circulation and more than three million digital subscribers. “When you have spent so many days of effort and your work gets that reward, it is a great joy”, declares this freelance photographer with satisfaction.
Last June, Brais Lorenzo received the Luis Ksado Photography Award for his series “Lumes”, carried out over more than a decade, reflecting the problem of fire. “In just ten years I have felt a lot the influence of climate change. Before, fires of 500 hectares seemed like an outrage to us, and now we are talking about tens of thousands of hectares”, reflects Lorenzo, with all that he supposes when carrying out his work. “They are megafires beyond the capacity to extinguish, more voracious and impossible to tackle, almost also informatively,” he explains.
Rosa Veiga, one of the few women who catch fire with her camera, also works these days in the Valdeorras area. Veiga, who has three decades of experience in her backpack, has just arrived from Oimbra, where she has been doing graphic coverage of the fires in that area. This freelance, which she publishes in Europa Press, tries to find the trace of the fire, fleeing from the great enemy of photographers: smoke. “Sometimes there is a lot of smoke but you can’t see the fire and we need that visual impact,” she says in a telephone conversation. Like her classmates, she tries to find the best images at night. “A photo at night has another dimension, with the contrast of the flames, something that is much less noticeable during the day.”
the rule of 30
When a photographer approaches the fire, he must first sound out the situation. Corral assures that there are two types of fires; those that take place in inaccessible places and those that are close to urban areas or populated villages: “Some are devastating in terms of hectares and complicated in terms of work, like those of O Courel. The ones that are close to the houses are more complicated emotionally, although not technically”.
The first thing when arriving at the fire is to study the place, the type of fire and the safety restrictions in each area. “Normally access is cut off and that’s where instinct comes into play. We have to study the path of the fire and let the action come towards us, accompanied by a forest agent or someone prepared, ”says Corral about his method.
For Brais Lorenzo, safety is fundamental and the risk meets certain standards: “I always pay attention to the risk factors of the ‘rule of 30’: more than 30º of temperature, less than 30% relative humidity and more than 30 kilometers of wind speed, something I have a lot of respect for.”
Normally, photographers move in these danger areas equipped with safety boots, respirator, hydroprotection, water, safety glasses and even, on occasion, fire-retardant suits. They try to take maximum precautions, but even so, it is inevitable that the proximity to the fire sometimes damages their equipment. “Part of the plastic that surrounds the camera has just melted working in the Sierra de la Culebra,” says Óscar Corral, who confesses that he always works on fires with his most used material and never with the most recently acquired.
Everyone moves in the bush with codes of extreme caution. They try not to be alone, to follow “trails of life”, like a hose, and, in case of escape, always do so towards the already burned land, never towards what is still green. Rosa Veiga has her own dynamics to feel safe: “I always leave the keys in my car when I am near a path in the mountains, in case it is necessary to move it urgently”. Having the car close to her saved her from being caught in the flames a few years ago. She sped through the smoke with other companions as fire streaked across the road above her vehicle. “Now it’s almost an anecdote, but at that time it was distressing.”
The presence of photojournalists as part of this habitat that is generated amid the chaos of the fires is not always well received. “Photographing fire is photographing an annoying reality. It does not speak well of us as a society, that is why photographers are sometimes uncomfortable for the neighbors or the security forces, ”reflects Óscar Corral on his years of experience closely feeling the stress of the flames that lie in wait.
“These days I have been rebuked for taking photos of houses and people. They are tense moments that pass. I feel that we are misunderstood, but this work is necessary to make visible something that otherwise would not be talked about, ”says Brais Lorenzo about the meaning of his work these days, comparing it to something similar to the hard times of the pandemic. Along the same lines, Rosa Veiga says that sometimes they receive bad looks for working with the camera and not holding a hose: “Our mission is to report on the suffering of these people so that society becomes aware that something must change.”
The photographers move through Carballeda de Valdeorras, Alixo or O Vilar, names of towns that evoke flames, ashes and tragedy. Now almost simpler toponyms than living villages were just a few days ago. And they all confess something in common that they like to do afterwards: return to those devastated places some time later. “It is necessary to see its evolution, social and environmental”, says Brais Lorenzo. For Óscar Corral, “coming back is a good sign. A way to reaffirm that we were there and came out alive, because no image is worth enough to put a photographer’s life at risk.”