Hilary Swift had no experience covering wildfires but knew Ventura County very well. She graduated the Brooks Institute, the art college based in Ventura that closed in 2016. She got a text in early December from her best friend who lives there now, letting Swift know that she was evacuating because of the expanding Thomas Fire.
Within hours, Swift let her home in Brooklyn, New York, and was on her way to Ventura. She is a frequent contributor to The New York Times, which had her assigned by the time she landed in California.
Though she hadn’t covered wildfires before, she knew from living in California that they are dangerous. Working on her knowledge, she opted not to get too close.
“Too often I see young, unexperienced photographers running into situations they’re not prepared for,” Swift said. “I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t done it in my past, but I didn’t want to put myself, the firefighters and potentially other people in danger.”
She touched base with her former professors from the Brooks Institute, and one lent her a fire jacket. They also offered advice, as did photographers Mischa Lopiano and Patrick Fallon. She also learned that, in addition to fire safety and staying out of the way of firefighters, photographers covering the wildfires should be aware there is a lot of poison oak in the California woods.
Though she has recent experience covering major breaking news events, this one was different. Swift feels a personal debt to Ventura, a place where she learned photography and where many of her closest friends still live. Four of those friends lost homes in the Thomas Fire.
“After spending 2017 jumping from hurricane aftermath in Houston and U.S. Virgin Islands to Las Vegas after the shootings, it felt strange to be brought back to this place that I love while it was in crisis,” Swift said.
There are few women covering wildfires, and Swift found she often stood out. She had rented a minivan – the cheapest car and not one she’d recommend for covering wildfires. At checkpoints, the first response was to try to turn her around, but her press pass helped her get through.
“I think as a youngish woman people constantly underestimate or overly explain things to you, which can be really frustrating,” Swift said. “But you can also learn to use it to your advantage.”