California is in the midst of one of the worst droughts in recorded history. According to a study recently published in the journal Nature Climate Change, snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountains is at its lowest point in 500 years.
With drought comes an increased risk for fire.
The recent Valley Fire is said to be the third worst in the state’s history. It destroyed more than 74,500 acres of forest and 585 homes in Lake County, California. Three people died as a result, according to Reuters.
Photographer Stuart Palley was there for the end of it.
“I’ve never seen destruction like that from a fire in my career, and I’ve shot about 60 wildfires,” Palley, who has been documenting fires across California for the past three years, said to Business Insider.
Growing up in Newport Beach in Southern California, wildfires were always part of Palley’s life.
“I remember playing football in high school during the fires and going to practice, 100 degrees out, and ash was just falling onto the field,” Palley said.
Palley’s series, entitled “Terra Flama,” includes surreal wildfire photos that depict the beautiful chaos.
In 1993, a major forest fire burned down 400 houses near Palley's childhood home in Southern California. Although he was just a kid, Palley remembers the ominous fire and smoke coming over the hill. His family decided to evacuate the area and escape the smoke.
During his freshman year of high school, in 2003, he missed an entire week of class due to another round of wildfires in Southern California.
In 2007, during one weekend visit home from college, Palley photographed his first nearby fire. Still, it wasn't until five years later that he first took professional photos of a wildfire, during an internship at the Orange County Register.
While the rules for media access to wildfires can vary from state to state, and even from wildfire to wildfire, the State of California has a law that allows the media unrestricted access.
During his first experience documenting a wildfire in 2012, he drove to Riverside County, outside of Los Angeles. Upon his arrival, he witnessed a million-dollar house completely ablaze. Although he had personal experience with wildfires, Palley said the sight was 'shocking.'
Since then, his interest in documenting fires has grown. With his work, Palley aims to tell the entire story of the fire and its effect on the landscape. While the work is definitely dangerous, Palley is well-prepared.
He's received professional training from the US Forest Service to learn about fire behaviour, and he's read numerous books about wildfires and their history. He's also invested thousands of dollars in equipment to protect himself, including fire boots, clothes, helmets, goggles, radios, weather scanners, and meters.
Even still, you can never be too safe. 'No photograph is worth me risking my safety,' Palley said. Sometimes he stays close to his car so he can be ready for a quick getaway. In other cases, he shoots from a vantage point far enough away for it not to be a problem.
Palley is hyperaware of his presence among the firefighters. He's sure to stay out of their way, and allows them to do their job without any extra stress. Sometimes, he'll shadow crews or ride with captains to document their process. Eventually he wants to incorporate more of their personal stories into his work, too.
Within the next decade, the US Forest Service estimates that their costs for fighting wildfires will increase from $1.1 billion to $1.8 billion.
'The firefighters are selfless and put their lives on the line to help communities that are threatened by wildfires, and forests as well,' Palley said. 'A lot of them can make a lot more money in another field, working far less hours with less strain on their family life, but they do it because they have a conviction to help and are very much dedicated to their job and protecting the forest at home.'
Palley insists that he doesn't take an opinion or stance with his photos; rather, he wants to show what's happening for the world to see, and then let them draw their own conclusions.
This historic drought, combined with the numerous fires that have occurred in the past few years, has kept Palley motivated to keep taking photos. Ultimately, he wants viewers to get inspired and educate themselves on how fire interacts with our planet, especially in California.
'It will heal itself, and fire in itself isn't bad for nature, but when we have these fires that totally consume the trees and kill the bacteria in the soil, it takes decades -- if not centuries -- for these forests to grow back,' Palley said. 'A lot of these areas that are being damaged will never be the same in our lifetimes.'
(Instagram) A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fire crewman from Texas helping to fight the #cabinfire on the Angeles NF in August. Dedicating the rest of this week to the men and women out there fighting fire. More firefighter portraits and action shots to come. Thank you for your service and in honour of those who died in the line of duty this year. #ca #cadrought #wildfire #california #la #losangeles #socal #fire #forest #summer #orange #nikon #night @chief_miller @usinterior @everydayusa
A photo posted by StuartPalley (@stuartpalley) on Sep 1, 2015 at 5:10pm PDT
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