Fire Photographer Profile: Tod Sudmeier

Fire apparatus at the scene of the Butte Fire in Amador County, California.

In this month’s fire photographer profile, Fire Engineering talked to Tod Sudmeier, who is catching fires around Southern California. Tod took some time to discuss the area he operates in as well as some of his work.

FE: What got you started in fire photography?

TS: While working for the San Bernardino County (CA) Fire Department, I always carried a camera. Getting photos of fires and other incidents became very common for me. When I retired, I began to do much more fire photography. Now I really enjoy photographing the larger incidents and catching the crews engaging fires and rescues. Currently I am a photographer for Los Angeles County Fire, Los Angeles City Fire, CalFire, Redlands City, and both Riverside and San Bernardino Counties.

FE: What kind of equipment do you use?

TS: My camera gear consists of Canon 5DII bodies with L series lens. My usual arsenal at an incident is one 5DII with a 24-70L and a second 5DII with the 70-200L lens. For night work I use a Canon Speedlite 580 EXII flash, used mostly off camera and I always have the CP-E4 battery pack attached. I also have full safety gear and radios so I am aware of the fireground operations and any life hazards that may be present.

FE: What have been some of more memorable jobs?

TS: Memorable jobs would include the Station Fire in Los Angeles County, 2009. I spent six days photographing that fire from all sides. The Station Fire started in late August and burned 160,577 acres, and two firefighters died in the blaze. My most recent fire, the Valley Fire in Lake County, is another memorable incident. That fire started in the afternoon of September 12, 2015, and at the time of this writing has burned 76,067 acres and destroyed 1910 structures. I was in Middletown, California, when the fire hit. The speed the fire was moving was incredible, block after block of homes burning. It was very surreal and not something I will forget.

FE: What’s unique about the area you cover–the place, the firefighters, the hazards, etc?

TS: I cover most all of Southern California. If there is a large enough incident, chances are pretty good I will show up. The trick is getting there quick enough to get action shots. When there is a large wildland fire, even if it is central or northern California, I will try to get to those as well as they will burn for a week or more. I cover all types of fires and emergency incidents. What is so unique to So Cal is that you can go from a structure fire one minute to a large rapidly expanding wildfire the next and by the end of the day end up on a flash flood somewhere else. It is often said that So Cal has four seasons: fires, floods, earthquakes, and riots….

FE: What have been some of your more memorable publications?

TS: I did grab the cover of Fire Engineering in May of this year. Thanks FE! I was proud of that shot. It showed two firefighters from Redlands Fire Department venting the roof of a 100-year-old Victorian house. I have also had the covers of other fire publications as well as my photos used from department promotions to recruitment flyers. For me personally, seeing my work published is the payback for my hard work and effort.

FE: Any advice to aspiring fire photographers?

TS: For the new fire photogs out there, I would say get to know the local departments. Go to the stations, meet the crews, show some of your work. Give them a CD of photos of them or their engine/station working an incident, if you have any. This will go a long way to getting you better access. Get to know the chiefs. That way when they see you show up at an incident they already know you. Do not get in the way. You can get plenty of good shots without being in the way. Always be aware of your surroundings and watch for hazards. Once you have a bit of rapport with a department, the doors will open. You may get to do some ride-a-longs or you may be asked to take some photos at an event or training. Do it all, have fun, and then when the bell rings you will have the access beyond the tape and can get the great shots FE and other publications are wanting. Good luck, have fun, and be safe.

More of Tod’s work can be seen at http://firewxphoto.com/

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