See Inside Massive Wildfires with These Stunning Pictures

A photographer’s work fighting fires gave him rare, up-close access to California’s wildfire epidemic.

Wildfires are again sweeping central California, with Santa Rosa and Napa hit hard. See the Napa fire and a Santa Rosa fire map, where wind-fueled blazes have destroyed over 1,500 structures. This is a photographer's account of what it is like to photograph wildfires like these, with an inside look of some of California's past fires. Original story published in September 2017.

Growing up in California, photographer Stuart Palley has spent a lifetime both fascinated by and well-accustomed to wildfires—a captivation that he has kindled through his career.

Fire crews hike with chainsaws, axes, and pulaskis work along a firing operation at the Border Fire in San Diego County on June 23rd, 2016. Firing operations are designed to ignite brush in front of the main fire on firefighter's terms, depriving the main body of fire fuel when it reaches the burned area from the firing operation.
Fire crews hike with chainsaws, axes, and pulaskis work along a firing operation at the Border Fire in San Diego County on June 23rd, 2016. Firing operations are designed to ignite brush in front of the main fire on firefighter's terms, depriving the main body of fire fuel when it reaches the burned area from the firing operation.
Photograph by Stuart Palley

Based in Southern California, Palley has spent the past five years photographing wildland fires in the state, capturing a vast array of stunning images from Orange County to Yosemite. (Learn wildfire safety tips.)

This year, with raging wildfires throughout California burning hundreds of thousands of acres, Palley has had no shortage of opportunities to continue his ongoing project. “I thought since we had a wet winter the fire activity would be mitigated,” Palley says, “but grasses and dead trees impacted by the bark beetle have caught fire.”

Up-close photographic access to these fires can be hard to come by; only specially credentialed media are allowed in the fire zones. But Palley says that even this access can be insufficient: "The opportunity to hike around with the crew, though—that takes time and experience.”

As it happens, Palley is uniquely suited to enter the blazes. Not only is he a photographer interested in fire, he is also a qualified base-level wildland firefighter. Because of this, the firefighters aren’t as worried about Palley's safety when he is right alongside them.

Beyond expertise, photographing fires requires a steady resupply of equipment, as evidenced by Palley's melted lenses and broken camera parts. “Normal weather sealing is not preventive against fire damage,” he says.

Despite his personal relationship with California wildfires, Palley prefers viewing these natural disasters from a distance, as emblems of humans' fraught relationship with the environment.

“Fire is critical to the health and maintenance of the ecosystem," says Palley. "However, we’ve suppressed these fires so much there is now a massive fuel overgrowth.”

But even as the flames remind Palley of humans' toll on the environment, he remains painfully aware that wildfires pose their own devastating toll as well.

“I see people who don’t know whether their house has burnt down, and they are in limbo," he says. "It’s hard to watch.”

See more of Stuart Palley's work on his website and follow him on Instagram.

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