Inside California’s race to contain its devastating wildfires

A heat wave and strong Santa Ana and Diablo winds put most of the West Coast on red alert for severe fire damage.

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The El Dorado Fire burns in the San Bernardino National Forest on September 5, 2020, near Yucaipa, California. The wildfire escalated during a record-setting heat wave where temperatures upwards of 110 degrees Fahrenheit and low humidity caused bone-dry fuels to be set ablaze.

In Southern California, a massive wildfire has scorched more than 10,000 acres of land since Saturday morning. Caused by a smoke-generating pyrotechnic device set off during a gender reveal party in El Dorado Ranch Park in Yucaipa, the fire intensified amid weekend temperatures that soared above 110 degrees Fahrenheit.

It is one of 25 major blazes that firefighters are currently battling across California, where wildfires have burned 2.2 million acres this year so far—a record-breaking figure with another four months left in fire season.

California-based photographer Stuart Palley—a qualified wildland firefighter who has photographed over 100 fires across the stateis documenting the devastating effects of the El Dorado fire, which has forced more than 20,000 people to leave their homes as it continues to threaten the region.

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Lake Oroville and the Loafer Creek Boat Launch create an eerie foreground to a smoke-filled sky on Thursday, September 10. Oroville, the seat of Butte County, was threatened by flames from the gigantic North Complex fire, which has pushed air quality into extremely unhealthy territory.

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The Bear Fire burns near Oroville and the Plumas National Forest on Wednesday evening. The blaze scorched over 200,000 acres in the previous 24-hour period, driven by strong winds. The fire originally started in August during the powerful lighting storm that swept across northern and central California, but exploded in size when winds hit the fire three weeks later.

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Cal Fire Camarillo (Ventura County) Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) crews cut brush to prepare for the approach of the front line of Bear Fire.

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An aircraft drops flame retardant to slow the spread of the El Dorado fire. Over the weekend, wind shifts and erratic winds pushed the fire in different directions across the region. Flames were visible from 40 miles away as the fire moved up steep slopes through dense vegetation.

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At night the fire headed toward Oak Glen, a mountain community at an elevation of nearly 5,000 feet. Residents were ordered to evacuate as the flames threatened the town’s apple orchards and businesses such as the Pilgrim Pines Camp. On Sunday, Cal Fire announced that the blaze had been caused by a pyrotechnic device that a family had used to reveal their baby’s gender. There was an immediate public outcry against those who started the fire for hosting a party both during the COVID-19 pandemic and a major heat wave with high fire danger.

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Members of Cal Fire’s San Bernardino Unit were operating on four hours of sleep and had been working all day in the extreme heat to combat the El Dorado fire when they were photographed in the afternoon of September 6. Covered in ash and dirt, the tired crew worked to build a fireline by cutting and scraping away vegetation to prevent it from adding fuel to the fire. At dusk, Cal Fire engine crews fought the fire with air tanker support north of Oak Glen Road, where the burn exploded into 30-foot high flames, dwarfing the fire engines. Air tankers dropped retardant while bulldozers cut a fire break.

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The El Dorado Fire burns in the San Bernardino National Forest on September 6, 2020, in Yucaipa, California. Homes and other structures throughout the region were threatened. By midday on September 8, the fire was 16 percent contained and estimated to have burned about 10,574 acres as it continued to rage.