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Most Famous Wildfire Photograph Ever Taken!

Wildfire Photo Taken in Bitterroot Valley of Montana


Most Famous Wildfire Photograph Ever Taken!

From Forest Fire Gallery

John McColgan, BLM

Some consider this photo taken by a firefighter as the most beautiful photograph of a forest fire ever taken using a digital camera.

The McColgan Wildfire Photo

John McColgan, a BLM firefighter, took photos on August 6th, 2000 while fighting fires in the Bitterroot Valley of Montana. McColgan says he "just happened to be in the right place at the right time" with his Kodak DC280 digital camera. McColgan could not be found for days after the one of those pictures spread like wildfire on the Internet.

The elk and fire snapshot has fast become the most downloaded environmental photo on the Internet. One About Forestry Forum member writes that the shot was "of the Bitterroot fires, south of Darby and taken (the shot) from a bridge over the Bitterroot River."

Charles Westmoreland, Texas forestry consultant, suggests that the photo "will probably be more famous than the Yellowstone Lodge fire picture." I have to agree.

Here is the U.S. Forest Service story...


For about a week now, there's been a medium-size manhunt under way across the West. The man everyone's been hunting for is John McColgan of Fairbanks.

McColgan hadn't done anything wrong, unless you count disappearing and not being easy to find. Dozens of people, from firefighters to web spooks to reporters, were hunting for the guy. McColgan was busy becoming a daddy, though, and not being very cooperative about being tracked down.

It all started with a fire, a camera, and a couple of cow elk. McColgan, a fire behavior analyst employed by the Alaska Fire Service, was working on the Bitterroot National Forest in Montana. It was Sunday, August 6, the day that several fires burned together near Sula into one 100,000-acre blaze. He was standing on a bridge over the East Fork of the Bitterroot River, and shot the photo with his Kodak DC280 digital camera.

Next thing he knew, the manhunt was on.

A jpg of the image was sent from one person to another person, and within about 24 hours the elk photo had world-wide-webbed its way across the West and wound up on the computer screens of dozens of people. Everyone wanted to know where it was taken and who took it.

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

Though dozens of people in several different states were flinging emails and phone calls around for a week or so, it was the Missoulian in Montana who finally solved the mystery and tracked McColgan down. Yes he had been in Montana. And yes he now was in Alaska. The reason? He'd headed back to Fairbanks for the birth of his son. That's where the paper finally ran him to ground, and that's where he was when he told reporter Rob Chaney that he'd just happened to be in the right place at the right time. He said he's been in fire for 20 years, and that August 6 ranks in the top three of all the fire behavior he's ever seen. And he told Chaney that the elk were gathering at the river.

"They know where to go, where their safe zones are," he said. "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."

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 fire like this, either. Thanks to McColgan, thousands of people have seen this stunning image, and thanks to Chaney, we all know who to thank.

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