Stunning Wildfire Photos

A photographer’s work fighting fires gave him rare, up-close access to California’s wildfire epidemic, and the result is breathtaking.

Stuart Palley has spent a lifetime both fascinated by and well-accustomed to wildfires—a captivation that he has kindled through his career.

Growing up in California, the native photographer has spent the past five years photographing wildland fires in the state.

He has captured a vast array of stunning images from Orange County to Yosemite.

With wildfires throughout California burning hundreds of thousands of acres, Palley has had no shortage of opportunities to continue his ongoing project.

Obviously, access to these sites are not only dangerous, but only specially credentialed media are allowed in the fire zones themselves.

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.

The El Portal Fire burns on a hillside in the Stanislaus National Forest and Yosemite National Park on Sunday evening July 27, 2014. The community of El Portal was under a mandatory evacuation. By Tuesday the blaze had burned nearly 3,000 acres.
Long exposure image.

Beyond expertise, photographing fires requires a steady supply of equipment, as evidenced by Palley’s melted lenses and broken camera parts. “Normal weather sealing is not preventive against fire damage,” he says.

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.

“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.