Chasing Blazes: Sublime Photos of Wildfires

Stuart Palley, Chasing Blazes
Stuart Palley
The El Portal Fire burns on a hillside in the Stanislaus National Forest and Yosemite National Park, July 27, 2014.

Over the last two fire seasons, I’ve photographed wildfires in Southern California at night. On location, there is absolute calm and stillness in the burn area of a wildfire. In May I stood atop a mountain overlooking San Marcos and Escondido in San Diego County, alone and under the moonlight, with the distant roar of flame and fire engine siren lights in the valley below. Smoke hung low over the valley, enveloping the cities in an ashy cocoon as the Cocos Fire smoldered. I setup my tripod and made images as the fire danced vertically into the air, inexorably marching forward, towards more homes.

This is, for me, a typical evening photographing fire.

Deciding which fires to roll out on, accessing them, scouting the right spot, and hiking around steep hills and mountains at night in smouldering and unfamiliar terrain can be a challenge. Often there is falling rock and debris to watch out for, in addition to “snags” — wildland fire parlance for trees or limbs that are still burning at the stump or damaged and about to fall.

The Chariot Fire burns in the mountains south of San Diego July 08, 2013. Crews worked overnight to contain the blaze which destroyed numerous camps in the area. Long exposure photograph.

Stuart Palley—Orange County Register

The Chariot Fire burns in the mountains south of San Diego July 08, 2013. Crews worked overnight to contain the blaze which destroyed numerous camps in the area. Long exposure photograph.

When I photographed the Brand Fire on June 22, multiple firefighters were injured from falling rock. I constantly remind myself to keep up my situational awareness as I focus on making pictures. I’ve trained physically as well to stay sharp after long hikes and hot days.

From a safety standpoint, the Introduction to Wildland Fire Behavior class I audited with the U.S. Forestry Service has proven invaluable. Of the 10 Standard Firefighting Orders I learned, #2 and #3 say “know what your fire is doing at all times” and “base all actions on current and expected behavior of the fire.” Because of the severe drought gripping California, erratic fire behavior is normal on many fires I have covered. Santa Ana Winds or dry thunderstorms exacerbate the danger and fuels in July are already burning like it’s late August.


Stuart Palley is a Los Angeles based photographer documenting wildfires, backroads and night skies.


Related Topics: , , , , , ,

Latest Posts

Stephen Waddell

Off the Radar: Jeff Wall Puts the Spotlight on Stephen Waddell

TIME LightBox asked Jeff Wall to select an image maker whose work he admire yet may be unknown to a wider audience. His choice: Stephen Waddell

Read More
Driftless: Photographs from Iowa

Photojournalism Daily: Nov. 25, 2014

2014.  Gaza.  Palestine.  Schoolchildren head to class at the Sobhi Abu Karsh School in the Shujai'iya neighborhood. Operation Protective Edge lasted from 8 July 2014 – 26 August 2014, killing 2,189 Palestinians of which 1,486 are believed to be civilians. 66 Israeli soldiers and 6 civilians were killed.  It's estimated that 4,564 rockets were fired at Israel by Palestinian militants.

Inside Gaza with Photographer Peter van Agtmael

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 19,336 other followers