It’s wildfire season in the West, and we’ve seen a lot of terrifying and dismaying scorched-earth photos, but none that are quite as stunning as Stuart Palley’s. The 28-year-old photographer, based in Newport Beach, California, has spent much of the summer chasing that state’s drought-fed blazes and shooting hard-working hotshot crews, gut-wrenching property destruction, and night shots that are just as eerie as they are beautiful. To find out more about how Palley works, we caught up with him late last week while he was coming back from the Blue Cut Fire near his home.
Photo: The Sherpa Fire burns late into the morning June 17, 2016 off El Capitan Canyon Rd. near El Capitan and Goleta, California, in Santa Barbara County. The fire was over 1,200 acres and 0 percent contained.The Blue Cut Fire burns in San Bernardino County on the evening of August 16, 2016. Palley says he likes to show up to a fire during the day to scope out his shots, then come back after the sun sets with a tripod to make the kind of night shots he’s known for. His night shots are part of a project he’s calling “Terra Flama.”The Blue Cut Fire burns in San Bernardino County on the evening of August 16, 2016. Palley started shooting wildland fires in 2014 and says he was hooked after his first one. “I was immediately, and continue to be, struck by the power of these natural events.”The Blue Cut Fire burns in San Bernardino County on the evening of August 16, 2016. During fire season, Palley’s bags are always packed so he can run off if something breaks out. The Blue Cut fire was near his house so he came home each night. But during other fires, he’ll spend days on the road, and can also go days without sleeping. The Blue Cut Fire burns in San Bernardino County Tuesday evening August 16th, 2016. The fire had burned 15,000 acres and was 0% contained, with multiple structures threatened and destroyed. Interstate 15 was also shut down at the 215.The Border Fire burns near Campo and Potrero Wednesday in San Diego County, California. Journalists are allowed almost unlimited access to wildfires in California, even if they don’t have any fire training. Palley, however, made sure to get basic wildfire training for his own safety, and because it makes embedding with fire crews a lot easier. “It makes the crews a lot more comfortable.” he says.The Border Fire burns near Campo and Potrero Wednesday in San Diego County, California. Palley’s never felt like he was in real danger. But he’s had to move fast when a fire changed direction. Last week he saw documentary film crew members lose a car when they couldn’t move it fast enough.The Blue Cut Fire burns in San Bernardino County on the evening of August 16, 2016. Palley drives a 2007 Ford Expedition EL because he needed something big enough for all his gear and to sleep in. For camera gear, he tries to go light so he’s mobile. His regular kit includes a Nikon D5, a Nikon 810, a zoom lens, and a wide lens. If he needs to go super light he just carries the D5 and a 35mm f/2.0.The Blue Cut Fire burns in San Bernardino County on the evening of August 16, 2016. Out in the field, Palley dresses just like a wildland firefighter. He wears Nomex, carries a fire shelter, use wildland boots, and even carries a Mystery Ranch wildland pack. He modified his helmet so he could mount a 3-axis stabilizer for GoPros.The Blue Cut Fire burns in San Bernardino County on the evening of August 16, 2016. Palley’s work has run in a number of different editorial publications including the Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, and Time magazine. He also shoots for commercial clients that make fire gear.
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