Wildfires have been ravaging California with terrifying frequency in the midst of its historically terrible drought. The sheer power of these blazes is fearsome, but it can also be bleakly captivating. For more than a year, Stuart Palley, who Eric Holthaus interviewed for Slate in July, has been documenting the fires by day for news organizations and capturing them by night in these mesmerizing photographs.
“I kind of grew up with these fleeting memories of fire around me,” Palley recalls. Palley was raised in Orange County, California, before he left the state for college and grad school. As a kid, Palley remembers occasionally having to leave the area due to fires and heading into the desert because the ash aggravated his asthma. When he returned to his home state and took an apprenticeship with the Orange County Register, Palley found himself around fires once again.
“I got sent to a fire by the newspaper out in northern San Diego County,” Palley said. “I got there, and almost within five or 10 minutes of arriving, I’m watching a probably million-dollar home burn to the ground.”
From then on, Palley set out to document wildfires in a new way: His long exposure photos aim to capture not only the powerful destruction these disasters can cause, but also the dark beauty of the process itself. He shoots most of his photos at night, away from urban centers, where there is little to no light pollution and the sky is filled with stars. His exposure is set anywhere from one second to a minute or two, allowing the pictures to display more than what our eyes can take in at one time.
“I’m trying to show the magnitude of it, because the fires are burning many more acres than before,” Palley said. He tries to capture the fires’ scale in his photographs by shooting large areas like housing developments and mountains. This way, he hopes, he can show just how much area these wildfires can consume—and raise public interest.
“I take this very seriously. Sometimes I risk my life to go shoot these fires,” Palley said. He added later that although he’s well-versed in fire behavior, has all the appropriate safety gear, and shoots at night when fires are a bit more moderate, he’s always aware of the risks.
“A fire can move faster than you can run. … Sometimes you can’t even outrun it in your car. You have to be very, very careful. … You have to weigh the situation against the shot you’re trying to get.”