Photograph by Stuart Palley
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The Meadow Fire burns overnight near Half Dome in Yosemite National Park on September 8, 2014. The Meadow Fire was one of thousands of fires to burn in California in 2014, from the Mexican border to the border with Oregon in a deadly wildland fire season.
Photograph by Stuart Palley

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.

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.”

Climate 101: Wildfires

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.

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The Border Fire burns near Campo and Potrero in San Diego County, California on June 22, 2016. The fire was 15% contained and had burned approximately 6,500 acres.

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.

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A night-flying aircraft flies over the Shirley Fire in the Sequoia National forest near Lake Isabella, California on June 14, 2014.
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The Sand Fire burns in the Angeles National Forest Saturday July 23rd, 2016 under triple digit heat. The fire had burned 20,000 acres by that evening and was 10% contained as firefighters battled low humidity, shifting wind, and high temperatures.

“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.