As the Carlton Complex fire roared across central Washington state, Chelan videographer Sy Stepanov tagged along with a friend who owns a real estate firm to assess the damage.
Stepanov brought his drone to record video of the destruction. “When I got there, it was just a no-brainer," he said. "People need to see this.”
The two videos he has released – stark and sweepingly beautiful – have gone viral, picked up by major media outlets.
Watch the first video of the Carlton Complex Fire:
Stepanov said he's seen big fires before, but the damage from the Carlton Complex wildfire was the worst devastation he’s seen.
“It was heart-wrenching to see because I spent a few years of my childhood growing up in the affected areas. It was really traumatic to see that,” he said. He also spent years living in Pateros, one of the towns hardest hit by the Carlton Complex fire that has so far burned nearly 400 square miles across north central Washington.
Stepanov spent five hours on Friday filming at six locations, framing his shots by monitoring a live feed from the drone's camera. He took another 40 minutes to do a rough edit once he got home and uploaded the footage on Friday evening.
In the clips, the camera floats through a charred forest, along melted railroad tracks and just above untouched fairways of a local golf course. Stepanov said he was wary of stirring emotions and chose to present the images without any sound or music.
Watch the second video of the wildfires:
To get the footage, Stepanov used a custom-built DJI Innovations F550 Hexa Copter outfitted with a stabilized GoPro HERO3+ Black camera. The rig costs about $2,500.
The FAA does not currently allow drones to be flown above 400 feet, so Stepanov kept his Hexa Copter below 150 feet and steered clear of any air activity or first responders.
He also had a spotter on the ground at all times and made sure any people in the area knew where he was and what he was doing.
Stepanov, who has been trying out drone photography for about six months, says aerial photography done properly is very safe. Still, he welcomes regulation by the FAA.
“I don’t feel comfortable seeing dozens of these little things flying around and knowing that the majority of the people using them could possibly hurt somebody.”
Drones remain controversial among federal and state officials. Although the FAA is slowly opening up airspace for drones, it is a slow process. At the state level, Gov. Jay Inslee recently issued a 15-month moratorium on drones. And just this week, TVW, a nonprofit station, was denied the right to fly an aerial drone over the Capitol, according to the Olympian newspaper.
But the hunger for drone-footage is apparent to Stepanov, who said his footage had racked up 150,000 views online as of Tuesday afternoon, not including millions who have seen his mini-documentaries elsewhere.
“It never really dawned on me until I got out there, and everybody just walks up and looks at it like it’s some kind of exotic sports car,” he said. “I guess it’s still not as mainstream as I thought it was.”