Stuart Palley is a photographer of wildfires and the people who spend months every year battling them. He got his start in wildfire photography, in part, as an intern with The Taos News in 2010. His …
Stuart Palley is a photographer of wildfires and the people who spend months every year battling them. He was an intern with The Taos News in 2010 and got his start in wildfire photography, in part, in Taos. His book, Terra Flamma, was published in the fall of 2018. With firefighters now gearing up and getting deployed for the fire season, we recently asked him what it's like to capture images of fires on the front lines of climate change.
How long have you been photographing wildfires?
I started in 2012, more or less. I was in between my two years of grad school. I came back to California to intern for the Orange County Register and there was a pretty large brush fire about an hour away. In California, if you're credentialed media you're allowed access to the fire line pretty much unfettered. I convinced the editor to let me go photograph it. It was only a few hundred acres, which in the scheme of things is pretty small. The firefighters weren't able to save this house but they were trying to pull whatever they could out. I was very much struck by this collision between man and nature, and this juxtaposition of the power of fire and how it's destructive but beautiful at the same time. I said, "Hey, there is a story I can tell in my own backyard." There were some huge fires in 2013, and I just started going to them.
Did you ever photograph wildfires in Taos?
One of the first fire photos I ever took was of the Ranchos de Taos Church under a glowing orange sky. The summer after I was an intern, I was up for a couple of weeks and the Las Conchas fire was burning. It was sending this plume of smoke and this weird, hazy orange color over the church. I do have memories of starting my fire stuff around Taos.
What's your essential gear?
The equipment I use is pretty much the same that any firefighter would carry: standard Nomex pants, shirt, fire-resistant helmet, gloves, goggles, fire shelter, water, radio, etc. On the camera equipment, I basically use a Nikon DSLR, a wide-angle lens and at night a tripod. I try to keep it light, neat and simple.
How has photographing wildfire changed your thoughts on climate change?
Fires have gotten progressively worse since I started. They're only going to continue getting worse as the largest, deadliest and most destructive wildfires happen. I'm out there seeing this on the fire line. It's helped solidify the belief in the science in front of us. Fires are a very acute effect of drought and how we've built where we've gone, but primarily [a result of] climate change.
How do you see wildland firefighters handling these ever more destructive fires?
They're there to be first responders and to save houses and lives and property, and these megafires are destroying everything in their path. Fires are already, by their nature, very dangerous. And then [the firefighters] are gone for the summer. They're away from their families, they're stressed, they're exhausted, more of them are dying. It's leading to PTSD, higher rates of suicide, things like that. There are negative effects on the firefighters. And what we're seeing is there's such a need for firefighters all the time.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity. For more, visit stuartpalley.com.
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