GRAND COUNTY, Colo. (KDVR) – You really have to love what you do to be willing drive to the front lines of a wildfire.
Photographer Thomas Cooper is one of those rare individuals.
“It’s a passion. I couldn’t put it any other way. I just eat, sleep, breathe photography,” he said.
Cooper left his home in the Denver metro on Wednesday shortly after he heard the East Troublesome Fire in Grand County was blowing up. The skies grew darker and smokier the closer he got to the fire.
“The visibility was absolutely next-to-nothing,” he said. “It’s surreal and scary being in a forest like that.”
Cooper is one of the few who witnesses the fury of the fire firsthand as it bore down on Grand Lake.
“Just apocalyptic. Burning trees, total devastation, houses burning and wiped out as far as I could see. It brought me to tears. I saw flames still coming out of houses from the gas lines, just the heat that must have come through was just intense,” he described.
However, just as harrowing as the damage was what did survive. Cooper photographed a lonely moose looking for food.
“I just wonder what was going through their minds,” he said.
He also snapped pictures of a nozzle to a garden house lying on a lonely patch of what was grass. The hose had been incinerated.
“That’s one of the most powerful photos and I was like, ”Holy cow!’ Someone tried to wet down their house, just praying it would survive,” he said.
Cooper spent two days in what looks like a hell on earth, capturing everything he saw.
“Picture your worst tornadic thunderstorm and you add fire to it. That’s basically what it was. The radiant heat coming off it was so intense, you basically had to turn around because you felt like your face was going to melt off,” he said.
Cooper tried to sleep when he could, but for the most part he didn’t stop taking photos, snapping more than 4,000 of them.
“You’re basically shooting through goggles and through smoke and just firing at anything you can get trying to make an image and not get burned up,” Cooper said.
Thomas Cooper owns his own photography business called Lightbox Images, and often sells his pictures to Getty Images. He has also taken wildfire photos that have been published in National Geographic.
He says he loves what he does, but admits he always undergoes fire training, carries the proper gear and prepares for the worst to make sure he stays safe.