Weekend Diversion: The Horror And Beauty of California’s Wildfires

The pictures of Stuart Palley tell a story that no words can.


“the way to create art is to burn and destroy
ordinary concepts and to substitute them
with new truths that run down from the top of the head
and out of the heart” -
Charles Bukowski

Those of us living on the west coast of the United States have been experiencing a pretty severe drought this year, with many places — including California — having had this last for many years. Have a listen to Josh Ritter sing about one of the inevitable consequences of drought, Wildfires:

while you consider the fact that prolonged droughts, when accompanied by long, hot summers, often lead to easily flammable terrain. And that’s when the aforementioned disaster — wildfires — tend to be at their worst.

Images credit: Stuart Palley, from his instagram feed at https://instagram.com/stuartpalley/.

Fire is one of those strange destructive processes that captivates and awes us even as it incinerates what’s before us. There’s a unique beauty that accompanies the horror that it brings, and one of the most elegant and humanitarian things that we do is band together to fight it when it goes out-of-control and threatens our lives, homes and livelihoods.

Images credit: Stuart Palley, from his instagram feed at https://instagram.com/stuartpalley/.

This has gone on for years, but all of the photos below are from this year alone: the (current) 2015 wildfire season in California. Thanks to the power of long-exposure photography, Stuart Palley has been able to document this destruction in a new and unique way, as well as the efforts of the brave men and women who work to fight, contain and extinguish these fires.

Images credit: Stuart Palley, from his instagram feed at https://instagram.com/stuartpalley/.

In a fascinating interview with TIME last month, Stuart talked about how he got into this type of photography, why it’s so important, and how it helps people viscerally understand a phenomenon whose effects are often hard to truly feel.

Drought can be difficult to visualize but frequent wildfire is its most acute effect, so the images are about creating a visual record of wildfire. I want to show the public how the drought is causing these fires to burn intensely. Maybe the images pique their interest in wild land fire, and they go learn more on their own. If a homeowner clears defensible space or conserves water after looking at my work, then the project is a success.
Images credit: Stuart Palley, from his instagram feed at https://instagram.com/stuartpalley/.
The project originally started as a reaction against tired and cliché coverage of wildfire. News stations simply zoom in on the biggest flame and focus on the aircraft dropping flame retardant, and that’s what everyone sees. There’s an eerie beauty to the fires burning, and at the end of the day, it’s a natural process that I want to show. Perhaps I can create some order out of chaos.
Images credit: Stuart Palley, from his instagram feed at https://instagram.com/stuartpalley/.

The story of these wildfires is a remarkable and sad one, where a confluence of circumstances results in prime conditions for devastation:

  • The prolonged drought results in moisture levels in the soil and the trees being far lower than what they like, ideally.
  • The reduced moisture means that sap levels in the trees are lower.
  • The lowered sap levels make them unable to fight off bark beetles, which can dry out and even kill the trees, turning them into kindling for wildfires.
  • This makes them all the more likely to go up in flames, particularly when the temperatures reach triple digits and the humidity drops into the single digits.
Images credit: Stuart Palley, from his instagram feed at https://instagram.com/stuartpalley/.

It’s a sad, dangerous and also beautiful story, and I hope Stuart’s project is a success. The more people that become aware of what wildfires are, what makes them dangerous and how to best combat them via conservation, awareness and precautionary measures by homeowners, the better off we’ll all be.

Follow Stuart Palley’s instagram for all the latest photos, and thanks to PetaPixel and This Is Colossal for bringing this photography work to me. While the air quality level throughout California, Oregon and Washington is tremendously low right now due to smoke, it’s never too late to start doing better. May we all learn from the beauty of these images, and get it as right as we can individually and collectively from this day forward!


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