“This one here was one of the major fire days for Sydney in 2019,” Nick Moir says, as he gestures to the silhouette of a fire truck being overwhelmed by flames. “The Green Wattle Creek fire.”
The veteran news photographer and storm chaser has spent 25 years photographing extreme weather, but has never been so “distressed and upset” by a project.
“The fire was only so high when it started at the back of the forest,” he adds. “But smoke had been sitting over the top of it, so fumes coming from the trees couldn’t escape.
“Then a slight southerly came through, and suddenly all that hot air was able to escape, and it just exploded. The forest went up in fire tornados.”
Moir’s work is on display at the NSW State Library as part of the Photos1440 exhibition of Sydney Morning Herald photographers.
The annual exhibition this year looks back at the last decade and features Moir’s Walkley award-winning photo series ‘Firestorm’, documenting Australia’s Black Summer of 2019-2020.
“The team was right there,” Moir says.
“Everyone was yelling to run. Which I didn’t do, obviously. I stopped and turned around, and snapped these shots.”
With the Herald’s photographic team, he followed the blaze that overtook Australia, covering the crisis alongside firefighters, from the frontlines.
“Around the 21st of December 2019, fires began sweeping through Bilpin, where I grew up,” he says.
“It had already been a solid three months of fire after fire after fire. Hundreds of fires. So it really was exhausting. Physically, and then mentally.”
Moir has always been interested in volcanos, tornadoes and fires. “Anything that makes a loud noise, really”.
He joined the Australian Severe Weather Association (ASWA) in 1997. A “community of hyper nerds”, they would study VHS tapes of America’s greatest storms, and apply the practices of US storm chasers to their own weather watching.
But he has never been driven by a fascination in the destruction that comes with extreme weather.
“I don’t have a lot of interest in going to war zones and seeing people suffer from other people,” he says. “That’s the kind of stuff I find soul destroying. I just don’t understand it.
“But storms and fires and the weather – that’s stuff you can work to understand.”
His father, Alan Moir, has been the Sydney Morning Herald’s editorial cartoonist since 1984. So, when Moir “did terribly” in high school, his dad found him a job in the Herald’s mailroom. And after stumbling across the photo department by chance, he “immediately knew” what he wanted to do.
“I grabbed my camera, and I started photographing,” he says.
It was the start of the 2000s that saw Moir and the SMH team start to cover Australia’s bushfires.
Fellow environment photographer Dean Sewell says it was Moir who was at the “forefront of pushing the Herald’s coverage” of fire season and extreme weather phenomena.
“He understood how fires work, got us training with fire services, and then we applied that to our bushfire chasing.”
Back then, Moir explains, it was a new thing to have media at fires, and there was no media training for the NSW Rural Fire Service. “I rang them up, and asked them to train us as RFS volunteers instead,” he says.
So by the time the 2001 Black Christmas Fires ravaged Sydney, Moir and Sewell were equipped for coverage.
“They were interesting days back then, because we were just changing from film photography to digital. So Sewell and I would go out in twos.”
Moir would shoot in digital, and file his photos back to the newsroom quickly. Though they were “super crap quality”, they filled the role of online breaking news. Sewell would shoot on film, and have a helicopter deliver his work back to the office. While his shots were “brilliant”, it often took so long, they would appear a day later.
In the past, Moir says, photography was the slowest form of media.
“But now? I could compete with radio.”
Following the success of their 2001 fire coverage, Moir was given more leeway by the editorial team. “When I told them I thought it’d be a bad fire day, the Herald would let me go out and wander around,” he says.
He did so on a particular day in 2002. He drove to the Sydney suburb of Dural, and it “exploded”, adding: “Thirty homes were destroyed and a person was killed. No television or reporters were there. So we got the pictures.”
And it was the “getting it first” that was the real driver. It was evidence that his background in meteorology, and storm and fire behaviour, meant he could anticipate, and therefore document, fires no other photographers could.
“That really gave the Herald a taste for this scraggly haired hippy who knows what he’s talking about when it comes to fires.
“But storms? That took a long, long time to convince them to trust me.”
So Moir would take on the early shifts, getting to work at 6am in the morning, and finishing at 1pm to go storm chasing in the afternoons. Until 2006, when he first went to the US to storm chase.
“People say that over in the US everything’s bigger,” he says. “But when it comes to storms and storm chasing, it really is true.”
Veteran Australian storm chaser Jimmy Degauara says the same.
“In the US, there are traffic jams of chasers in otherwise very quiet towns. But in Australia, you’re almost always on your own,” he says.
When Moir joined ASWA, he met Deguara. He recalls teaching Moir scientific weather tracking methods, and in turn, Moir helped him with his photography.
And when Moir interviewed Deguara for an article in 1999, they learnt their origins of interest in extreme weather were much the same.
“I had an interest in weather from a very young age … In my teenage years, when people were talking about football cards, I was mapping out the wettest areas of Sydney just by observation,” says Deguara.
That fascination has taken Deguara to the base of hundreds of storms around the US. The most confronting was his sighting of the largest tornado ever recorded; Oklahoma’s 4.2m wide ‘El Reno’.
“Even now, I look at that day in 2013 and it sends a shiver up my spine,” he says.
“The storm changed direction, sped up to twice its speed, and doubled its size, all in five minutes.
“Every single chaser near this tornado had to get out of its way, or have their cars flipped. You’re faced with a hail storm that flies straight through corrugated iron roofs, plus an expanding tornado, and you have no room to see or move properly.”
The overall consensus among chasers was to travel east. But Tim Samaras – presenter, National Geographic contributor, and storm chaser with 30 years experience – got caught. Himself, his son, and fellow storm chaser Carl Young were killed in the chase.
The following day, Deguara photographed Samaras’ overturned car, not knowing that it was his.
“It’s often dangerous, and a life commitment, and some people think you’re mad,” says Deguara. “They ask us, ‘what’s the point?’”
But, as Deguara recognises, it is the work of chasers like Moir that help people understand.
“Nick’s work has had a lot of impact,” says Deguara. “He has respect amongst the media, as well as the meteorology and storm chaser community. He’s very vocal in what he says, and has put extreme weather on the map for the public.”
“When it comes to the environment, you can be either a passive observer, or an active participant,” Sewell says.
It is photography and digital journalism like his and Moir’s that is an active contributor to dialogue around environment and climate. It can go a long way in engaging people in issues, and telling a story that is accessible.
“Really complex matters like climate change can get hijacked by politics. The public switches off when discussion is saturated in that jargon. And that’s where photography can help people better grapple with these issues.”
Moir recounts that, in the past, documentation of weather happened “by chance”. To the media, government and public, understanding the environment was never at the forefront of thought or discussion.
“There’s still a lot to discover. And we can make a contribution to try and understand it.
“I want to give voice to the scientists. My pictures are not exactly subtle. They are like ‘end of the world’ sort of shit. But sometimes, that’s what you need to do. Because just one picture won’t change anything. It’s about being confronting. And it’s about constant pressure.”
His work, therefore, is driven by a melding of motivations: impact, education, discovery.
“I want to go back to uni, do a science degree, and take my photography into meteorology and fire behavioural research,” he says.
“This is an area where we can truly be involved with scientists, media and politicians. Because they’re not out there. They’re relying on radars, and sensor stations, and firies recording weather. But on the ground, you actually need to understand what the hell is going on. You need a storm chaser.”