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Shooting Montana's West Glacier Fire

By John Virata

The Western United States has been experiencing a severe drought for many years, and partly because of this, fires have been ravaging the region's dry forests. Virtually every state in the region has experienced forest fires in the last four years. One state, Montana, has experienced some really devastating infernos.

Montana resident and award winning videographer

Jim Kinsey
has documented several of these fires, including the state's Robert, Wedge, and Trapper Creek fires, the 2000 fires that burned through Western Montana, and the West Glacier fire of 2003, of which more than 145,000 acres of forest park land burned. His previous work, Firestorm 2000, has appeared in several other fire-related productions, including The History Channel's Fire on the Mountain, Discovery Channel's A View From Above, and NOVA's Fire Wars. Kinsey has won a silver and bronze Telly award as well as a gold Aurora award for his work, as well as Merit awards from the International Wildlife Film Festival. His latest film, Fighting Fire with Fire: Saving West Glacier, attempts to give the viewer a perspective of the fire from the firefighter's viewpoint. Kinsey, who also scored the film himself using a 76 key Korg Triton Pro to create the original sound track, documents the Type 1 Team from Alaska, Forest Service, Park Service, Montana DNRC, and the Flathead County Emergency Services unit, following them as they fight to save West Glacier from total devastation. In this DMN Q&A with senior editor John B. Virata, Kinsey discusses what it takes for him to gain access to the hotspots, the equipment he used to help craft his story, and opinions on his latest acquisition: a Power Mac G5 running Final Cut Pro.

DMN: When did you start documenting the 2003 wildfires on DV?
JK: I began shooting footage of the Robert fire the third week in July right after the fire started making headline news.

DMN: You used a Canon XL1s to capture more than 22 hours of footage. How did the camera perform given the heat of the situation? Did you experience any equipment malfunctions or loss of equipment?
JK: I only experienced a few drop outs on a few tapes. I believe I had the drop outs due to filming under extreme conditions; heat, dust and ash. The camera performed flawlessly as did the XL1 I owned previously during the 2000 fire season.

DMN: How do you obtain permission from the fire fighters to go into certain hotspots to shoot?
JK: You must obtain a "Red Card" which is given to you once you complete a course on basic wildland fire fighting. Normally an eight hour class is all you need and this helps you obtain access to information officers, whose job is to escort the media to get the footage they need for newscasts, documentaries, etc... So once you have this card in possession, firefighters know that if things go awry you know what to do (how to deploy a fire shelter) in a life or death situation.

DMN: What kind of pre-planning did you perform prior to going out and shooting the fires? Did you have a storyboard of your project mocked up so you knew ahead of time where you wanted to be? Or did the fire dictate where you shot your footage?
JK: I did some educational guessing as to what the fire would do after attending the morning briefing everyday at the various fire camps. The weather played a big part of how the fire would behave on any given day. Low relative humidity, high temperatures and wind usually meant serious fire behavior. I also worked closely with the Alaska type 1 team and took suggestions from information officers as to the plan for fire suppression on that day. History was unfolding before my lens and I just followed it one day at a time. Once I knew what footage I had I was able to begin the storyboard process.

DMN: Over the course of how many days did you shoot?
JK: 30 days of shooting the fires.

DMN: Of the 22 hours of footage, how many hours made it onto the final DVD?
JK: The DVD contains the broadcast version of Firestorm 2000 which aired on PBS nationwide in August 2001. So this show is an added bonus to the one I just released. The DVD contains 33 minutes of footage from the 22 hours of footage originally shot. I also have over 198 production stills shot with my Canon G3 4 mega pixel still camera included on the DVD from the Fires in Glacier Park.

DMN: You mention that Adobe Premiere on the PC was your previous editing system of choice. You went with Apple's Final Cut Pro and DVD Studio Pro on Apple's Power Mac G5s for this project. Why did you go with Final Cut Pro and DVD Studio Pro for this project?
JK: The answer is simple; speed, RT color correction and you never get the blue screen of death. I have always been attracted to the Mac platform but never made that quantum leap into the unknown until January of 2004. I said this would be the perfect project to start new with and so I figured if I wanted to have a serous editing platform, Final Cut Pro was the software I needed. I just can not believe I worked on a PC for all those years. My PC just sits in the corner of my edit suite now and takes up space. I can't remember when I last turned it on.

DMN: What is your PowerMac's specifications?
JK: Spec's - Dual processor 2 GHZ, 2GB DDR 3200 RAM, two 250GB SATA hard drives,  23-inch Apple Cinema display, and all the other basic features on a factory machine except 128MB dual head graphics card.

DMN: In addition to your core applications, what other tools did you use in the creation of this film?
JK: Sony DSR 11, Contour Shuttle Pro, 120GB Firewire hard drive, Miller tripod with DS-10 head, Lectrosonic 100 series wireless, Sennheiser ME-66 with rycote softie, XL1 mini mount from Lightwave Systems, Century precision .6x wide angle adapter, Cinnesaddle, hoodman viewfinder cover, bogan 510 head with 3147 legs, Logitech ball mouse.

DMN: Is this the first time that you cut a project on the Macintosh platform? How do you like working on the Mac as opposed to a Windows-based PC?
JK: I practiced cutting two 5 minute programs for a non-profit group just prior to cutting the Glacier Park fire program. I found that reading the "Visual QuickPro Guides" for FCP and DVD Studio Pro were very informative in helping me learn both programs on the fly. "Fighting Fire with Fire" saving West Glacier was the true kick off to organizing all my footage and editing a real show for television. So yes I would say this is the first real cut on my Mac. I know this, had I cut this on my PC, I would still be editing and in return losing sales to something that is highly time sensitive.

Editor's Note: For more information on Jim Kinsey, you can visit his website at

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John Virata is senior editor of Digital Media Online. You can email him at [email protected]
Related Keywords:Jim Kinsey , West Glacier Fire 2003, Montana forest fires, forest fire documentary


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