Firefighter Andrew Klein Documents the Work of Battling Blazes

Rebecca Rose

Firefighter Andrew Klein Documents the Work of Battling Blazes

An orange rage tears through a smoky sky. Silhouetted in black are two figures, frozen in the moment, seemingly transfixed by what lies before them.

It takes the eye only a moment to recognize the figures as firefighters, their signature bell-shaped hats piercing the horizon. The graceful brutality of the moment was captured by Orcutt photographer Andrew Klein, who’s a firefighter himself.

“With my photos I try to demonstrate what we do as public servants,” Klein said. “It’s all about helping people. And people can see what they really get out of their tax dollars. They can see the hard work that we do.”

Klein is the featured artist of the month for May at Valley Art Gallery in Orcutt, where he resides with his two daughters and wife. His collection of images highlights the immensity of battling blazes but also documents some of the lesser known aspects of fighting fires, putting a human face on the revered profession.

The firefighter started studying photography as a student at Ernest Righetti High School. He began shooting fires more than a decade ago and has had his work published in several magazines, including Firehouse. Klein has worked at the Santa Monica Fire Department for five years, previously serving with the Orcutt and Vandenberg Air Force Base fire departments for 13 years.

“Early in my career, I worked a number of fires where there were photographers on the scene, capturing great images,” Klein said. “But then the newspapers would publish images that weren’t as action-packed.”

Klein said he noticed there were a lot of images the public was seeing that featured the aftermath of a blaze—burned-out buildings, collapsed garages—but not of the actual fires themselves.

“That doesn’t really paint the picture of what we do for the average person,” he said. “I thought that was kind of weird.”

So Klein set out to document what it looks like to actually face down a fire on a daily basis. Klein doesn’t shoot any of the fires he battles with his department (the obvious demands of the job supersede his photography) so in his off-duty time, he documents the work of other departments in and around North Santa Barbara County. He has also traveled to Detroit to shoot the infamous “Devil’s Night” on Oct. 30, which often results in dozens of acts of vandalism and arson. He said his main goal is public outreach and improving a community’s understanding of what their firefighters do.

Klein also has firsthand experience with the astounding power a single image can have. In 2017, a photo of Klein resuscitating a small dog rescued from a fire in Santa Monica went viral, making him a brief and beloved internet sensation. The story ran on several major sites including Time and People. The fame wasn’t necessarily wanted, but Klein said it helped show the public that firefighters do more than just save people.

“It very quickly went from just another day at the office to ‘this is way too much,’” he said of his viral fame. “But it shows how powerful images are. Photos do tell stories.”

Bends the Eye

Klein said he still keeps in touch with the owner of the dog and sees the moment as an opportunity for more public outreach, just like his own photographs. The photographs of fires can also help in training and education, he explained. After a building collapse in a fire, for example, departments can examine the images learn to spot the signs of an impending collapse, possibly helping prevent future injuries or deaths.

Klein’s work is distinctly humanistic. His images capture a raw fragility in the work that is often unseen in pop culture surrounding firefighters. Yes, here are the heroic men and women, climbing ladders and staring the face of death squarely in the eye. But there are also the darker places: the haunting look in a man’s eye; the scarred uniforms, charred and stained to the point of exhaustion; or the face of a school bus, torn beyond recognition.

But Klein doesn’t ask for pity or hero worship in his work. Rather, he bends the eye to the commonplace, highlighting the everyday nature of traumatic work. The firefighters Klein captures are doing a job, albeit a highly dangerous one, and within that simplicity lies the heart-wrenching truth.

He shoots with two Nikon digital cameras, a D90 and a D80, having learned from his role as a firefighter to always think of a backup.

“All the other [photography] training I’ve had is from experience,” he explained. “It’s from trial and error. Being a firefighter you never want to be empty handed. You always want to have a tool in your hands. If a lens gets broken or a battery goes bad, you rely on a backup set.”

He is currently working on a book about his experiences as a firefighter and has explored the idea of putting a photo book together. Mostly he hopes his work will show the public the true impact of firefighting.

“The mission for me is to share the story of what we do as firefighters,” Klein said. “It’s not always a glamorous job. You know, we don’t always get to save lives. But that’s what we want to do.”

Arts and Lifestyle Writer Rebecca Rose always has a backup. Contact her at

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