As California Burns, This Wildfire Photographer Shows What’s At Stake

One of our most popular stories over the last year was this Q&A with wildfire photographer Stuart Palley. This week, Palley was pushing 36-hour days and exposing himself to extreme risk to shoot the Kincade fire in Northern California. You can follow his updates on Instagram.

We’re on the Klondike Fire in southern Oregon, and we’ve just completed a full day of burning—12 hours of dragging a drip torch through poison oak and yellow jackets, lighting brush and on occasion, a few of the Douglas firs and lodgepole pines amidst it. The main fire is now less than a mile away and our goal is to create a solid black edge along the road, our containment line, protecting it from the approaching front.

After tying our line in with another hotshot crew that had been working toward us, our shift ends and we begin our walk back to our vehicles while devouring whatever pocket snacks we have left—half of a melted Snickers bar, the last of our fruit snacks from the lunch we finished eight hours prior. The sun has been gone for hours now. As we walk back to our rigs, we’re mesmerized by the fire around us: the stumps, trees, and piles of logs still burning are now aglow with the contrast of darkness; each one looks a bit like an enemy fire in the distance, thousands and thousands of them as far as the eye can see.

The Shirley Fire burns near Lake Isabella, California, in June 2014.

To see a wildfire at night is an experience I will never forget. From afar, there’s the removed and relatively safe perspective of something at once destructive and wildly beautiful; up close, there’s the heat and smell of trees torching out a few feet away from you. Then there’s the eerie, soft glow against a cloudless night sky, the light from a thousand burning trees rivaling that from the constellations above.

The Erskine Fire burns near Lake Isabella and Kernville, in Kern County, California.

Photojournalist Stuart Palley has been chasing and documenting this precise experience for the last five fire seasons as a freelance photographer for the US Forest Service. In that time, he has foregone a normal sleep schedule to spend his nights driving into California’s most fire-prone areas to capture long-exposures of some of the most destructive fires in the state’s history. His new book, Terra Flamma: Wildfires at Night, is born of these fires and of his experience of them.

The Rim Fire burns in the Stanislaus National Forest and Yosemite National Park in September 2013.

Terra Flamma isn’t just a beautiful and haunting collection of images that I would totally put on my coffee table (if I had one), but a timely call to action after a record-setting year that has continued the trend toward increasingly massive and costly wildfires in California and beyond. It also illustrates that as the climate continues to change, as fuels grow drier, and fires grow ever larger, Palley’s passion for documenting the mega-fires of our time has not only become increasingly relevant but profoundly important.

My own wildfire experiences are largely limited to wilderness fires in sparsely populated areas deep in the mountains. What makes Palley’s body of work unique is his incorporation of human elements, of communities on the fringes of wilderness as well as urban sprawl and decay—a sign that these fires are becoming less and less wild and that humans are a big part of this landscape and ultimately affected by its destruction. One image shows a US Forest Service sign reading, “A Beautiful Forest is a Matchless Sight,” in the foreground, as the 2015 Cabin Fire emits a deep orange glow in the background. Other photos show the burnt remains of vehicles, RVs, even school buses against a blackened landscape—a stark example of the wildland-urban interface, or the places where man and wilderness have merged. This intersection, which has developed as more and more people move into the mountains, has resulted in a new age of firefighting as fires continue to destroy not just entire swaths of forest, but neighborhoods and communities, too.

The Rocky Fire burns near the town of Clear Lake, California.

But for every image of profound destruction, of burnt belongings, of city lights illuminating valleys while wildfires burn just above them, there are countless images of fires burning as they always have: in forests dense with brush or on mountainsides within even the faintest of city lights, under skies dark unpolluted and brilliant with the light of the Milky Way. These are the wildfires I know at night, and these are wildfires as they have always been, as they will always be. Fires are at their essence deeply troubling for that very reason—they are at once a humbling, catastrophic thing, something that takes everything in its path with ease, but are, nonetheless, beautiful and mesmerizing and altogether necessary for healthy, thriving forests. It’s this duality that Palley seems to confront and capture perfectly, balancing images of devastation and the pure, wild beauty of a fire burning fast and hot against a clear night sky.

A truck off Interstate 15 destroyed by the Blue Cut Fire, August 2016.

For me, the most memorable image in Palley’s collection is that of a couple walking hand in hand along the San Clemente Pier while the 2017 Christianos Fire burns in the foothills above million-dollar homes in the distance. It’s a juxtaposition that is particularly jarring after such catastrophic fires as the recent Camp Fire, which as of this week has wiped out the entire community of Paradise, California, killing 48 people and becoming the deadliest fire in California’s recorded history; or the Woolsey Fire devastating Malibu; or the Carr Fire, which killed eight people and destroyed over 229,000 acres just three months ago; or the 2017 Thomas Fire, which at 281,893 acres caused $2 billion in damages and briefly became California’s largest fire to date (a spot it has since conceded to the 2018 Mendocino Complex).

The Sand Fire burns in the Angeles National Forest Saturday July 23, 2016 under triple digit heat.

The new reality is that coexisting with fire is going to become more necessary as record-setting fires become the norm—wildfires will continue to be as much a part of the landscape as the hillsides they char and the night skies they illuminate. And sometimes, all there is to do is stand back and watch. Just as we always have. Just as we always will.

You can purchase a copy of Terra Flamma here.

To follow current US fire conditions, visit Google’s wildfire crisis map here.



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