Wildfires in California can be as varied as the state's geography. There are some that race through crowns of pine forests and there are others, like the current Rocky Fire, that sprout seemingly randomly from the dry earth of oak woodlands. For photographers, the state offers a unique and sometimes dangerous opportunity to closely catalogue the devastation. California state law permits all credentialed media access to the blazes.
Max Whittaker (@maxwhittaker, primecollective.com) is a freelance photojournalist based in Sacramento and a frequent presence at the state’s largest fires. He also covers news and social and environmental issues in the West for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Harper's, San Francisco Chronicle, Reuters and many other news outlets.
The fires Whittaker photographs can consume tens of thousands of acres, and figuring out the rhythms of wildfires and the crews that cover them takes time. But the primary safety rule is simple: Stay in the black; what has already burnt can't burn again. Here, Whittaker shares some of his strongest images from the fire line, including several from the currently burning Rocky Fire.Firefighters dig a fire line around a spot fire on the Rocky Fire in Lake County, California, on July 30. As of August 12, the fire had consumed close to 70,000 acres and is one of 23 wildfires burning in California.A firefighter runs to move a truck before it's overrun by a spot fire on the Rocky Fire in Lake County, California on July 30, 2015. As of August 5, the fire had consumed 69,600 acres and is one of 23 wildfires burning in California.Firefighters battle a spot fire on the Rocky Fire in Lake County, California, on July 30.Firefighters attack the Rocky Fire in California from the air and ground on July 30.Firefighters watch the Rocky Fire advance in Lake County, California, on July 30.Big Bear City Firefighter Josh Mandolini uses a fire house to pull himself up a steep hillside while fighting the Slide Fire in Running Springs, California, on October 24, 2007.The remains of a forest burned by the Rim Fire just outside Yosemite National Park on August 24, 2013. The Rim Fire burned 257,314 acres and is the third largest wildfire in California history.A firefighter sets a back fire on the Rim Fire near Buck Meadows, California, on August 22, 2013.Los Angeles County firefighters hike in on a fire line on the Rim Fire near Groveland, California, on August 22, 2013.The Rim Fire burns near Buck Meadows, California, on August 24, 2013.The McCain inmate crew struggles to cut a fire line on a steep slope on the Rim Fire near Buck Meadows, California, on August 24, 2013.Sunset on the Rim Fire near Buck Meadows, California, on August 22, 2013.Sacramento Metropolitan firefighter John Graf monitors the Rim Fire line near Camp Mather, California, on August 26, 2013.Firefighters protect an evacuated home while the Sand Fire burns behind it near Plymouth, California, on July 26, 2014. The Sand Fire destroyed 20 homes and burned more than 4,200 acres near the town of Plymouth.A plane drops fire retardant on a vineyard while battling the Sand Fire near Plymouth, California, on July 26, 2014.Forest Service firefighters and contractors pump water out of the already low French Meadows Reservoir to battle the King Fire, on September 22, 2014.Shasta County firefighter Bob Baker mops-up on the Clover Fire in Happy Valley, California, on September 10, 2013. The Clover Fire burned more than 8,000 acres, causing one death and six injuries. A former firefighter is charged with murder and arson in starting the fire.