The Shirley Fire burns overnight near Lake Isabella, Calif. on the evening of June 15, 2014. By morning the fire had burned 2,200 acres and was 10 percent contained. (Stuart Palley)

*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.

 


The French Fire burns overnight in the Sierra National Forest near the town of North Fork, Calif. on Aug. 1, 2014. (Stuart Palley)

The Shirley Fire burns overnight near Lake Isabella, Calif. on the evening of June 15, 2014. (Stuart Palley)

The Silverado Fire burns near homes in Silverado Canyon on Friday, Sept, 12, 2014, in Orange County, Calif. Part of the canyon was under mandatory evacuations as the blaze creeped closer to homes overnight. (Stuart Palley)

The Silverado Fire burns near homes in Silverado Canyon, Friday, Sept. 12, 2014, in Orange County, Calif. (Stuart Palley)

The Meadow Fire burns overnight near Half Dome in Yosemite National Park early Monday, Sept. 8, 2014. (Stuart Palley)

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. (Stuart Palley)

The Etiwanda Fire burns shortly after dusk on April 30, 2014 in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. (Stuart Palley)

A long exposure of the Mountain Fire on Monday, July 16, 2014, near Mountain Center, Calif. in Riverside County. (Stuart Palley)

A full moon rises over the active flank of the Colbert Fire off San Gabriel Canyon Road in Azusa, Calif., the evening of Jan. 16, 2014. (Stuart Palley)

The Shirley Fire burns overnight near Lake Isabella, Calif. on the evening of June 15, 2014. (Stuart Palley)

The Shirley Fire burns at night off Old State Road near Lake Isabella, Calif., on the evening of June 15, 2014. At least two structures were lost. (Stuart Palley)

A firefighter looks out over the terrain as the French Fire burns overnight in the Sierra National Forest near the town of North Fork, Calif., on Aug. 1, 2014. (Stuart Palley)

The Butts Fire burns near St. Helena, CA in Napa County Tuesday evening July 1st, and Wednesday evening July 2nd around Pope Valley Road. Stuart Palley.

Related Gallery: Crews fight California wildfire

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