Ember Storm

Four-time Gold Tripod-winning news cinematographer Kevin Hudson finds himself filming inside an inferno during the 2018 NSW bushfires – by James Cunningham

1. A scene from 'Ember Storm' - DOP Kevin Hudson
A scene from ‘Ember Storm’ – DOP Kevin Hudson

Surrounded by a firestorm capturing the courage and desperation of firefighters trying to save an entire neighbourhood is a long way from the real estate story that had taken up the first eight hours of award-winning news cinematographer Kevin Hudson’s shift. It was mid-April 2018 and the final day of the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast.

There had been two auctions across the city that Hudson had covered and there was a late interview to be shot up in Pittwater. The journalist would stay in the city to write the story, and Hudson would shoot the interview and send it from a feed point at NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) headquarters in Olympic Park.

Fire had already broken out near Liverpool before Hudson arrived in Pittwater. “I could see white smoke in the south-west of Sydney before driving down the escarpment towards Mona Vale,” remembers Hudson. Another camera was dispatched to Holsworthy. “I was into my tenth hour before arriving onto the fire ground.

Holsworthy had already survived the aggressive fire front before Hudson arrived at a roadblock on Heathcote Road. “The fire was now in military lands,” he says. “I was there to try and get in front of the fire while the other camera was following the aftermath.”

For over an hour Hudson sat, dressed in fire gear that already smelt of bush fires gone by. All he could do was watch fire truck after fire truck go past at the police road block. The six o’clock news was on air. Sometime after that he was called by the RFS Inspector who directed Hudson thirty minutes east via Fairford Road, and to approach Heathcote Road from the other end. Hudson began observing the fire front that was now close to crossing Heathcote Road.

2. A scene from 'Ember Storm' - DOP Kevin Hudson
A scene from ‘Ember Storm’ – DOP Kevin Hudson

The fire leapt over the line of waiting volunteers. “It was hurtling down into the valley at a frightening speed,” says Hudson. The fire was heading towards the suburb of Menai. Hudson was escorted to the suburb of Menai to see the next confrontation with RFS fire fighters.

Flashing lights filled the darkness as firefighters’ numbers grew, waiting for the front to make itself visible. “It is always a surreal feeling when almost everyone heads away from the location that you are now waiting at,” says Hudson. The unmistakable glow of the approaching fire illuminated the horizon. Downhill, the fire front was leaping ahead of itself at great speed. The look in the eyes of experienced firefighters indicated this wouldn’t take long to reach them.

Unsurprisingly, this was not Hudson’s first bushfire in the last three decades shooting news out of the Seven Sydney Newsroom. With his camera on standby, Hudson knew he could only wait to see what would happen. 

This was the first time I had ever needed to be at Rosewall Drive in Menai,” says Hudson. “You need to constantly assess the area you are in and be mindful of your departure point. These days you are quite often working by yourself so this is a personal priority. My RFS chaperone had his job to do for the defence of the surrounding streets, but I was grateful for his checking in on me.

Hudson walked towards the approaching fire, being careful to avoid moving RFS cars, trucks and late leaving residents. Hoses were being unravelled down the fire trail. The fire had already started to burn fences and thousands of tiny embers were now flying over the rooftops. At the same time the fire was crowning across the treetops. He followed firefighters down the rear of the properties, his camera still recording.

3. A scene from 'Ember Storm' - DOP Kevin Hudson
A scene from ‘Ember Storm’ – DOP Kevin Hudson

I had a Sony 510 XD Cam,” he says. “A ten-year-old workhorse, standard-definition news camera.” Attached was Hudson’s eighteen-year-old Fujinon lens. He made the decision not to use the portable light; the fire would be his light source. Hudson just needed to position his lens in a line to try and silhouette the volunteers up against the flames, constantly trying not to get in the way. 

Hudson remained on a 5000 degrees Kelvin colour temperature. “The Sony 510 only has a black and white viewfinder,” he says. “I was still waiting for the colour upgrade!” With modern day fire trucks flashing red and blue LED lights, with this camera and a decade of seeing how it reacted to light, Hudson knew the balance would alleviate some of the blues bleeding.

The fire front whipped up in front of Hudson as the water was turned on. It is rare for a news cinematographer to have such accessibility to a unit of firefighters. Luckily, the terrain was favourable for Hudson as the embers filled the sky; the properties now being bombarded with the tiny but deadly flakes of gold. 

Then, the embers got worse. It became intense as Hudson continues filming. “An ember attack is not unusual,” says Hudson. “It usually only lasts a few moments, minutes even. But this was relentless.

The bitumen road was covered in a blanket of gold flying under Hudson’s feet. Where possible, Hudson used fire trucks or tree trunks to block the embers flying into his face. “I needed to pan left many times to shelter behind the lens, and to wipe the gathering embers away from the edges of the mask,” he says. “The wind was strong and constantly trying to pull the camera from my shoulder. 

It was an event that went on into the early hours of the morning and would take almost two weeks to get the smell of the bush fire out of the camera. Hudson’s fire suit still smells of the smoke.

Hudson’s images became the most successful pictures in commercial news in New South Wales. They won the state’s journalism awards, Kennedy Awards for ‘Outstanding TV News Camera Operator and it was the first time in the seven years of those awards that a recipient had ever gone on to win an ACS Gold Tripod, which Hudson did in this year, with the same entry.

With these pictures, the night was described by Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons as… an ‘ember storm’.

Kevin Hudson works for Seven Network in Sydney.

James Cunningham is the Editor of Australian Cinematographer Magazine.

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