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FIRE CHASER: Jeff Zimmerman

Posted: September 3, 2016 11:13 a.m.
Updated: September 2, 2016 11:13 a.m.
Jeff Zimmerman looks at the pictures he has taken in his 40 years of photographing fires. (Nikolas Samuels / The Signal) Jeff Zimmerman looks at the pictures he has taken in his 40 years of photographing fires. (Nikolas Samuels / The Signal)
Jeff Zimmerman looks at the pictures he has taken in his 40 years of photographing fires. (Nikolas Samuels / The Signal)
Jeff Zimmerman looks at the pictures he has taken in his 40 years of photographing fires at his home in Neenach. (Nikolas Samuels / The Signal) Jeff Zimmerman looks at the pictures he has taken in his 40 years of photographing fires at his home in Neenach. (Nikolas Samuels / The Signal)
Jeff Zimmerman looks at the pictures he has taken in his 40 years of photographing fires at his home in Neenach. (Nikolas Samuels / The Signal)
Jeff Zimmerman poses for the camera in front of his self-restored Crown Fire Truck from the 1950s with one of his photographs hanging in the background, at his home in Neenach. (Nikolas Samuels / The Signal) Jeff Zimmerman poses for the camera in front of his self-restored Crown Fire Truck from the 1950s with one of his photographs hanging in the background, at his home in Neenach. (Nikolas Samuels / The Signal)
Jeff Zimmerman poses for the camera in front of his self-restored Crown Fire Truck from the 1950s with one of his photographs hanging in the background, at his home in Neenach. (Nikolas Samuels / The Signal)
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Editor’s Note: This is one of two profiles of freelance photographers whose work we have profiled in The Signal over the years.

Jeff Zimmerman published his first picture of a fire at 15 years old, armed with only a black and white camera and a bicycle.

He rode his bike 20 miles back and forth from the Ledger newspaper in Glendale to get his film developed and published in the newspaper.

Forty years later, he is still chasing fires.

“I’ve been places where nobody’s been,” Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman may not be as lean as he was in his younger years, but that hasn’t stopped him from chasing the hundreds of fires he has shot over the decades.

At 55 years old, he sits on a couch at his self-built house in Neenach suffering from a little cough that he apologizes for by explaining he has been “in smoke for about a month.”

Zimmerman’s been chasing wildfires up and down the state in the past couple months, including Santa Clarita’s Sand fire, capturing both frightening and heroic moments with his lens.

And he has the same zeal for chasing and photographing fires as he had when he was a kid.

“I am always out in the field,” he said in one email.

Idolizing firefighters

Of all the things in the world to photograph, Zimmerman has focused on photographing fires and the people associated with them ever since his grandfather gave him his first camera at 12 years old.

“I kind of idolized firefighters,” he said. “They were my hero back in the day.”

That interest in firefighters led him to eventually serve as a fire captain in San Luis Obispo.

As a firefighter, Zimmerman would find himself in the midst of flames that he was expected to fight. One such time was in Arizona, where he and his fire crew drove a fire truck for 16 hours, arriving just in time to rescue endangered houses.

Zimmerman and his crew saved 60 homes that day.

While on the job he has slept in the trenches at night, and on the front porches of the homes he rescued, to catch a wink of sleep.

To some, sleeping in the midst of a 500,000 acre fire may sound completely crazy, but those are the kind of thrills Zimmerman seeks in both his career and his photography.

“Fire photography is a passion of mine. I love the fire service, I love the pump of adrenalin, (sic) I love staying active, I love photography, so you put it all together and you have a pure adrenalin (sic) junky addicted to caffeine shooting photographs hours on end,” he said in an email.

Because Zimmerman spent most of his life chasing fires as a firefighter, he is able to capture that same adrenaline rush in photos that he feels when chasing a fire.

He becomes excited when he talks about driving through flames to escape a fire, while photographing the flames that also chase him.

Thinking like the flames

After all these years, chasing fires has become an instinct for Zimmerman.

“You have to constantly out-think the fire, always thinking about where it is going and who it is going to impact,” he said.

Zimmerman retired from firefighting six years ago, but never gave up his chase of fires. Only now he corrals the flames with his camera.

To offset the adrenaline rush, he spends time with his other passion: his home.

Zimmerman built his three-story home to be completely self-sufficient with solar panels, a well, a garden, and plenty of other resources.

His photographic eye contributed to his architecture of the house, which he built to tell a story, just like his photos. Every window on his property points to a mountaintop.

He explains that if you look straight out the window with the bottom tip of his living room chandelier in your eye sight, it will line up with the mountain- top out the window.

These are the kind of details that a photographer focuses on and Zimmerman has made two passions one with the building of his home.

As for what is next for Zimmerman, he is not sure. He plans to make a video showing his experiences chasing fires; he has a self-awareness regarding his news gathering that he expresses quite eloquently.

“Covering spot news, we are but a feather in the wind blowing from story to story,” he wrote.

And if the Santa Ana winds come in the fall, you can expect Zimmerman will let them blow him right to the next fire.

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