Stuart W. Palley knows how to photograph wildfires. He has photographed more than a hundred over eight seasons, started the Terra Flamma project and has published a book on wildfire photography. But even for him, 2020 has been a different experience. “The speed and severity at which these fires grew in the absence of strong winds is astonishing,” he said, speaking of the fires that erupted before the strong winds came in September.
Thousands of lighting strikes, a heat wave and ensuing dry timber and ground cover resulted in fires exploding into conflagrations this year. When dry winds blowing from land to sea hit in September, some of the fires that still weren’t contained, like the Bear Fire, grew even larger. “It used to be 10,000 acres in a day was a lot, or even a 10,000-acre fire. Now I don’t even blink at a 100,000-acre fire or when it burns as much in a day,” Palley said. “I’ve lost track of the fires that have burned and where they are. There are dozens. Taking into account merged fires and complexes, we have entered gigafire, or 1 million-plus acre fire territory.”
Typically, Palley focuses his coverage on the immediate effects of the fire: flames, evacuations and firefighters at work, dousing the flames and cutting fire lines. But while he was on assignment last month for The Washington Post covering the Walbridge Fire during the mid-August lightning siege in California, he decided that despite the unprecedented pace of the fires, he would slow down and turn his camera away from the action for a day.
By taking this approach, his imagery softened. Away from the energy and frenetic nature of the flames, his quiet photographs embrace a sort of intangible grief as they grapple with what is left behind. “I hoped to convey the enormity of the climate crisis we are facing” he said. “I wanted to take a day and spend it paying my respects to what is lost during fire: both homes and people’s dreams — what they spent years working for — but also the destruction to ecosystems.”
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