Flame retardant covers asphalt near Sonoma, Calif. (Stuart Palley for The Washington Post)

The burned sheet metal of a car in the Fountain Grove neighborhood of Santa Rosa, Calif. (Stuart Palley for The Washington Post)

California native Stuart Palley remembers when Laguna Canyon burned in 1993 when he was a young child. He remembers when he was a teenager and ash from a nearby fire covered the floor of his school’s Halloween dance. He remembers when he was assigned to cover a brush fire in Riverside County by a local newspaper nearly a decade later — the first time he photographed a fire.

“It’s always been on the periphery of my life,” said the Orange County-based photojournalist who estimates he has now photographed 70 wildfires in his career and whose project “Terra Flamma: Wildfires at Night” has received international recognition.

Last week, Palley, added a new set of fires to his list.  On assignment for The Washington Post, he covered the Tubbs Fire and other fires in Northern California. While there, his heart-wrenching images of devastation landed on The Post’s front page twice and accompanied stories documenting the fierce fires and their spread to more than 200,000 acres in a cluster of counties north of San Francisco. Officials now say at least 41 people have died and more than 3,500 buildings have burned, most of them houses.  “The scale of the destruction is almost indescribable” Palley said.

For Palley, grappling with how to cover this scale was a challenge. “Even from a helicopter, it is very difficult. You can drive in the disaster zone for miles, and all you see is burned forests and homes,” he said.

With this in mind, rather than simply taking a step back to document the fire’s magnitude, Palley began to zoom in on the everyday objects left behind. From car windows to tricycles, Palley’s intimate images reveal the capacity of fire and its meticulous devotion to destruction.

For as Palley said, “Sometimes when the scale of disaster is so large, you have to focus on the micro to get the big picture, and get in close until it feels personal. “


A burned ladder amid scorched earth in Sonoma, Calif. (Stuart Palley for The Washington Post)

The burned sheet metal and melted glass of a truck in the Coffey Park neighborhood of Santa Rosa, Calif. (Stuart Palley for The Washington Post)

Melted aluminum from the engine compartment of a truck in Santa Rosa, Calif. (Stuart Palley for The Washington Post)

Flame retardant covers a Century Plant on Pythian Road in Santa Rosa, Calif. (Stuart Palley for The Washington Post)

The burned sheet metal of a sedan in the Fountaingrove neighborhood of Santa Rosa, Calif.. (Stuart Palley for The Washington Post)

The melted back window of a car in Santa Rosa, Calif. (Stuart Palley for The Washington Post)

An electric circuit box on fire with exposed wiring burns in a detached garage in Sonoma County, Calif. (Stuart Palley for The Washington Post)

A burned street sign in Sonoma County, Calif. (Stuart Palley for The Washington Post)

The burned sheet metal of a Volvo sedan in Santa Rosa, Calif. (Stuart Palley for The Washington Post)

A burned child’s tricycle in the Coffey Park neighborhood of Santa Rosa, Calif. (Stuart Palley for The Washington Post)

Timber smolders beneath a singed copper door in a garage destroyed by the Nuns Fire in Sonoma County, Calif. (Stuart Palley for The Washington Post)

Singed vines at a winery in Sonoma County, Calif. (Stuart Palley for The Washington Post)

The burned Santiago Drive  street sign in the Coffey Park neighborhood of Santa Rosa, Calif. (Stuart Palley for The Washington Post)

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