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Amazing Photo of Montana Fires

Netlore Archive: Emailed photo of elk surrounded by a massive forest fire in the Bitterroot National Forest taken by fire behavior analyst John McColgan in August 2000.

Description: Viral image
Circulating since: Aug. 2000
Status: Authentic

Email contributed by E. Kehoe, Oct. 13, 2000:

Subject: This is an amazing photo of the Montana fires

This is truly an amazing picture so I thought I would share!

There is sometimes an aspect of true art in tragedy.

John McColgan a fire behavior analyst from Fairbanks, Alaska took the attached photo while working in the Bitterroot National Forest of Montana on August 6, 2000. He took it with a Digital camera. Since he was working while he took the picture, and since he did not own the camera, he cannot sell or profit from it so he should at least be recognized as the photographer of this once in a lifetime shot.


Click to enlarge

Analysis: This photo of two elk cows situated in the middle of an awesome conflagration is authentic, snapped on a digital camera by U.S. Forest Service fire behavior analyst John McColgan on August 6, 2000. The location was the east fork of the Bitterroot River near Sula, Montana in the Bitterroot National Forest. "That's a once-in-a-lifetime look there," McColgan told The Missoulian after he was tracked down a month later. "I just happened to be in the right place at the right time." Because the photo was taken with a BLM-owned digital camera, it is regarded as public property and McColgan has not been allowed to profit from it.

Before McColgan was belatedly identified as the photographer, the image circulated with a variety of false captions, including one erroneously claiming the photo was shot during the 1988 Yellowstone National Park fires. A more recent version correctly names McColgan but mistakenly claims the photo was taken in 2003.

Photo credit: John McColgan, BLM, Alaska Fire Service

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Sources and further reading:

Most Famous Wildfire Photograph Ever Taken!
About.com: Forestry

Mystery Solved: Forest Service Firefighter Captured Tragedy with Digital Camera
The Missoulian, 9 September 2000

Last updated: 11/18/11

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