Jacob Benison, Reportorial Illustration, Sarasota Herald-Tribune, 02 March 2002.

Pinned in a Scorching Vortex

He tries for one more breath, but finds no oxygen. The fire has used it all. He jams his eyes shut and guns his tractor blindly forward. He doesn't know how thick the fire is, or if he will run into a trench or a tree or another ranger on the other side. But staying still means dying.

— Tom Bayles, Sarasota Herald-Tribune, 6 March 2002

Inside the fire

The above illustration, based on the firsthand account of Ed Vuolo, portrays the plight of the forestry ranger amidst scorching flames.

Sarasota Herald-Tribune reporter Tom Bayles had covered large wildland fires before. Like other journalists arriving on a fire scene, he had witnessed these deadly infernos the usual way: safely cordoned away from the unfolding story.

In preparation for another season of wildfire coverage, Bayles and his editors decided on a new approach: Bayles attended a firefighting training school and qualified to serve as a volunteer firefighter with the Florida Division of Forestry. Afterward, he spent six months alongside forestry rangers helping fight some of the worst wildfires of the season. He documented his experiences from inside the fire.

A photograph of a wildland firefighter reenacting his ordeal when trapped in a vortex of fire; adjacent to the photo is a drawing of this same event.

Left, Ed Vuolo demonstrates how he attempted to shield his face from the intense heat of the fire that encircled him and his tractor. Right, this vignette accompanied Vuolo’s story on the third day of the series.

Managing editors assigned me to produce illustrations that accurately portrayed some of what Bayles and fellow firefighters experienced.

More Vignettes in the Series

  • A drawing of a tractor and plow used in fighting wildfires.
  • A helicopter prepares to dump water on a wildfire in a remote location.
  • Another firefighter escapes his impaired tractor which is quickly overtaken by the fire.
  • A forest ranger keeps watch for wild fires from his perch in a high tower.

Reportorial Illustrations published in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, 2-6 March 2002