*Updated: This post has been updated to show the explanation of the white circular object that appears in the top photo:
The object in the sky is an aircraft flying around the fire in a circle. It is the Air Attack plane, or the spotter/lead plane that flies over the fire to watch its progress, map it, and relay the information to firefighters on the ground. At that point in the evening they must have had the autopilot on or set the aircraft so it was flying in perfect circles. The blinking navigation lights created the pattern that you see in the circle.
Intense wildfires have been surging across southern and northern California with little reprieve for firefighters or residents for several weeks. The intensity of the flames has increased because of the sudden heat wave sweeping into peak wildfire season. Last week fires burned over 250 acres across the Sierra Nevada foothills, and over 70,000 acres have been burned east of Sacramento by what’s being called the King fire, forcing thousands to flee their homes.
In Sight spoke with photographer Stuart Palley who grew up in southern California and has spent the past several years following and photographing these chaotic wildfires in beautiful, majestic ways. Palley immersed himself in extensive training both physically and in the classroom before venturing out with his camera equipment and personal fire gear. Though he’s made himself known in the firefighting community, Palley generally ventures out and photographs wildfires on his own. “I am almost always in sight of firefighters or with them if they pull to a safety zone, but it’s still a calculated risk and there’s some danger at each fire, but it pales in comparison to the risks and dangers those on the line for days at a time take,” he said.
All photos by Stuart Palley
In Stuart’s words:
Visually the combination of smoke turning a sky orange creates a scene that is unlike anything I’ve seen. I am examining the disconnect that fires create, we have the idea of the suburbs, safety, community, comforts and amenities, and then this natural force that has been part of the ecosystem since time immemorial coming and upending all of that, sometimes in a matter of minutes. Southern California is home to the suburbs, freeways, convenience. Wildfires are the polar opposite, and it’s as much a commentary on the battle between man and nature as it is trying to create some order out of chaos.
Moreover, I want people to see the images and perhaps learn more about wildfire, whether it be how to better prep their homes against fire, etc. If making pretty pictures of disasters will get more people to learn about fires, and that causes even one house to be better prepped against wildfire, or raise awareness of what firefighters have to go through fighting these things, then the project is a success.
Related Gallery: Crews fight California wildfire