Forest fires, brush fires, wildfires, in the wilderness and on the border of cities. From the hills of Lake County in the northern California to the US-Mexico border, if there’s a large fire, odds are I’m making pictures of it, documenting the drought and climate in the American West. I prefer to work at night, when there’s less media around, and I can work with the stars above and the glow of the fire to make pictures. I try to make organized images with some sort of geometric slant to make visual order out of natural chaos.
My name is Stuart Palley and I photograph fire.
The project, called Terra Flamma, started four years ago after moving back to a state entering the throes of a severe drought. Now, in 2016, Southern California is still in the grips of this dust bowl, and fires are more frequent and severe as ever. It’s always hard to say what will be “the worst fire season ever” until the rains come in the winter, but the data is there. Record dry fuels, consistent record-breaking temperatures, and drought stress and bark beetle kill are creating the perfect maelstrom for extreme fire behavior.
This year 66 million trees were surveyed as dead or impacted by Bark Beetles in the western Sierra Nevada mountains of California, making for prime wildfire conditions. That will not change anytime soon, and as long as we are in this period of drought, I will continue to document the fires. I’m drawn to wildfire, the most acute effect of extreme drought, and the colorful and awe-inspiring visual palette it provides, especially at night.
I feel a deep connection with nature while creating images at fires, due to seeing such a powerful force up close and personal. For each fire I try to make images representative of the place. Is it deep in the woods? Or close to homes? Is the fire wind-driven, or fueled by centuries-old trees? I want to show each blaze in it’s specific context to show the variety of places these fires happen, and how the effect both people and the environment. Sometimes that means a shot 10 miles away in a valley to get a whole mountain smoldering, or up close and personal with structure protection fire crews in a subdivision. It all depends on the particular fire, weather conditions, and time of day.
Often the question arises – “Aren’t photographing fires dangerous?” And the answer is they can be, but fortunately I have formal training as a wildland firefighter and am able to understand fire behavior to minimize risk on the fireline. Of course, we are dealing with extreme drought and there is always risk, but that comes with the territory and something that I’m always aware of.
Safety and staying out of the way of firefighters comes first, then pictures.
In addition to documenting nature, its also important to document the men and the women working on the fireline, the often-unsung heroes of the American west. Tens of thousands of them labor every summer in deserts, forests, and backyards to protect property or allow beneficial wildfires to happen. Most of them get fired at the end of each season, only to repeat the same thing again in the following year.
Deep in the forest and out of the public eye, wildland firefighters are modern day heroes. Fire can also be a destructive and ugly force, but also a beautiful and powerful one. I hope to capture that feeling in my work and help raise awareness about wildfires, California’s drought, preparing one’s home for wildfire and those who fight it.