Photographer who captured iconic images of Gatlinburg fires retraces steps

Fire erupts on both side of Highway 441 between Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, Tenn., Monday, Nov. 28, 2016. In Gatlinburg, smoke and fire caused the mandatory evacuation of downtown and surrounding areas, according to the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency. (Jessica Tezak/Knoxville News Sentinel via AP)

GATLINBURG (WATE) – A photographer tells a story through his or her pictures, but sometimes telling that story is difficult, both physically and emotionally. That was the case for Bruce McCamish, who managed to fight the elements the night of the Gatlinburg wildfires to capture images that went viral.

With winds whipping more than 80 miles per hour, McCamish hunkered down atop the Dupont Springs Fire Tower in Sevierville to capture images of the Gatlinburg wildfires like no others. He retraced his steps nearly six months later.

He started by climbing the narrow steps of the 70-foot tower with his camera gear. This time, it was a serene panoramic view with a light breeze, a far cry from the night of the fires.

McCamish says the reality of what was happening below him that night was almost too much to think about.

“In a way you have to detach yourself from the emotion, thinking that people are dying. That is the first thing I was thinking about, that people are dying at this very moment,” said McCamish. “As tearful as a photo shoot I’ve ever done in my life – I felt that it had to be told.”

McCamish timed his shots after each gust of wind, with  the shutter set to stay open longer to capture more light. That left some images blurry, yet telling a crystal clear picture.

“I stopped and just said is this really happening?” he said. “And it was. It was really hard to watch.”

Sometime between 3 and 5 a.m., McCamish moved to a second location, a parking lot just off Veterans Boulevard about a half mile from Dollywood. He captured shots people all across the world woke up to see.

“Someone I never even knew had seen the six images I posted on Facebook, through Twitter., a friend of a friend here in Knoxville. They went completely viral – four million views, 60,000 comments, over 300,000 likes in just a matter of a few hours,” McCamish said.

Among those seeing the images were news agencies around the globe, wanting the rights to use his photographs and to talk to the man who seemed to have a bird’s eye view of one of the most devastating events in the state’s history.

McCamish says while his job is to tell stories through his work, this is one story he wished he never had to tell.

“To have this fire of the century, the epic fire, whatever it’s been deemed, to happen in front of you and knowing these are people you care and love, it’s difficult,” he said.

McCamish says he was offered money for the pictures, but he didn’t take a dime, saying he could not profit off the tragedy. Many people have also asked if he altered the photos. He says because he was so far away from the fires and because of the shutter speed, things looked compressed.

McCamish continues to document the cleanup and rebuilding efforts as well. provides commenting to allow for constructive discussion on the stories we cover. In order to comment here, you acknowledge you have read and agreed to our Terms of Service. Commenters who violate these terms, including use of vulgar language or racial slurs, will be banned. Please be respectful of the opinions of others and keep the conversation on topic and civil. If you see an inappropriate comment, please flag it for our moderators to review.

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