On August 22, 2011, a wind-driven wildfire raced up the slopes of Woody Mountain between East Missoula and Bonner, Montana. Dubbed the West Riverside Fire after the neighborhood where it started, the fire burned for three weeks and blackened 3,800 acres.
Yet nothing matched the spectacle of that blowup the first night. Gusts kicked the flames into high gear just as the evening descended to twilight. Something about the mix of acres upon acres of burning brush fields and torching pines caused the smoke plume to incandesce like nothing I’ve ever seen. It became a Hollywood inferno that left Missoula and communities to its east standing agape.
The scene also mixed many of my favorite photo subjects—wild weather, scenic landscapes, conservation concerns and spot news. I sped around trying to shoot it from as many angles as I could find, from golfers teeing off in the foreground to the outlines of the houses below the flames at nightfall. But in the end my favorite image is the bare visage of the fire itself.