The Meadow Fire burns behind Half Dome.
The Meadow Fire burns behind Half Dome.
Indefinitely Wild

Terra Flamma: The Destructive Beauty of Wildfire

One photographer's attempt to find art in fire, even as climate change makes conditions more deadly

The Meadow Fire burns behind Half Dome in Yosemite National Park shortly before dawn in September, 2014.

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Wildfires are lots of things. They’re a natural part of the western ecosystem. They’re destructive and deadly. They’re hugely expensive to fight. And they’re getting worse. But wildfires are also something else. Wildfires are beautiful.

That’s the subject of Terra Flamma: Wildfires at Night, an art project and book created by Stuart Palley, a freelance Forest Service fire photographer. He documented 45 major fires over five fire seasons, shooting them at night as their flames glowed against the night sky.

Palley works as a freelance fire photographer for the Forest Service, meaning he needs to have much of the same training and gear as the firefighters.
Palley works as a freelance fire photographer for the Forest Service, meaning he needs to have much of the same training and gear as the firefighters. (Stuart Palley)

Palley was first struck by the beauty of wildfire while interning at the Orange County Register in 2012. Tasked with shooting a local brush fire, he witnessed first responders trying to save a burning house. “They were pulling what they could out of the garage—tools, family photos, a kid’s electric Barbie car—while a tanker dropped retardant on the burning hillside behind the house,” Palley recalls. “I was struck by the juxtaposition between the scale of human life and the force of nature that is fire.”

But it wasn’t until 2013, while shooting the Powerhouse Fire in Los Angeles County, that Palley found a way to translate the balance between beauty and destruction into art. “I was there one night, and I’ve always enjoyed shooting stars, so I busted out my camera and made a few long exposures,” he says. The next day, he included those shots when he filed his photos with press agency. They loved them and asked for more. “So I started hanging around fires after dark,” Palley says. The photos that resulted over the next five years became Terra Flamma.

The El Portal Fire.
The El Portal Fire. (Stuart Palley)

“When I started the project, I assumed fires would get worse for a few years, then the rain would return and they’d get better,” Palley says. California was in the middle of a drought, which at the time was credited for worsening wildfires. If that had been the end of the story, Terra Flamma would have succeeded in documenting a particularly challenging period in the state’s history. Instead, as he was called to photograph more and more damaging fires, Palley came to the conclusion that something much bigger than a multiyear drought was happening.

“There are no signs that fire conditions are improving,” the photographer says. “All signs point toward fires becoming larger, more destructive, and the fire season going to year-round. In the past 12 months, we’ve had the largest wildfire in modern California history—the Thomas Fire—then seven months later, it was eclipsed by the Ranch Fire in Northern California. The two biggest fires in state history in one year is a pretty big deal. If you look at the statistics of acres burned, average high temperatures, property destroyed, and death, it’s all going up. The reality is that human-caused climate change is most certainly a contributing factor.”

The Railroad Fire.
The Railroad Fire. (Stuart Palley)

Palley’s on-the-ground conclusion is backed by scientific research, which has determined that wildfires will increase exponentially as the earth continues to warm. How bad can it get? Palley points to this summer’s destructive Carr Fire near Redding, California, as an example. “A perfect blend of fuels, heat, and wind created a fire tornado that measured in as an F3, with winds over 158 miles per hour. We couldn’t fight it. All we could do was get out of the way. It was pretty scary to watch,” Palley says.

He’s also quick to point out that the warming climate isn’t solely to blame. Construction practices over the past few decades are a major contributor to putting lives and property at risk from fire. Since 1990, 60 percent of new homes built in western states have been built in fire-prone areas. “Especially in California, we’re stuck between a rock and a hard place,” Palley explains. “We’ve got a pretty serious housing shortage, so we need to expand, but if we do that outward instead of upward, we’re putting people at risk. We’re building homes in an ecosystem that is naturally replenished by fire.” People’s desire to live close to nature is also putting them close to fire.

The Blue Cut Fire.
The Blue Cut Fire. (Stuart Palley)

Palley estimates that over the past five years, he’s probably watched “a few hundred” homes burn down while he created the art in Terra Flamma. How does he reconcile his ability to find beauty in fire with the very real toll those fires have on human lives? “I really want to put fires in context as more than just pretty pictures of nature doing something,” he says. “I want to create a conversation about them.”

Accompanying the photos, Palley tells a story of what it was like to experience each of the 45 fires, while also tackling the issue of climate change head-on. His conclusion? “Fires are not going to stop getting worse until we reduce our carbon emissions.”

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The Rim Fire.
The Rim Fire. (Stuart Palley)

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