Plumes of thick smoke billow out from the mountains beyond the trees as red and blue lights blare from emergency vehicles on the ash-covered road. The striking image, captured by photographer Stuart Palley, might be mistaken for an action scene from an apocalypse movie if it weren’t for the traffic sign in the foreground that reveals its location: “Little Tujunga Canyon Road, 3 miles,” it reads. It’s one of dozens of shots Palley snapped last weekend in the Santa Clarita Valley, where thousands of firefighters have struggled to contain the raging Sand Canyon fire that’s burned more than 37,000 acres since Friday.
“This thing is just not stopping for anything,” Palley, a freelance photographer who trained with the U.S. Forest Service and holds a so-called “red card” in fighting wildfires, told us on Monday. “The field is so dry [and] there’s so much dead field that the fires are just, they’re burning fast, they’re burning aggressively, they’re burning faster than people can imagine,” he said.
Panorama from Little Tujunga Rd at the #sandfire in the Angeles National Forest an hour ago. There is extreme fire behavior influenced by wind, topography, and fuels. Firefighters have disengaged from parts of the fire due to safety and the fire is actively burning into the forest. It's going to be a long afternoon and night. #cafire #cadrought #anf #usfs #calfire #fire #wildfire #forestfire #losangeles #la #orange #july #terraflamma #socal #ca
The Orange County native has been chasing wildfires since the summer of 2013, when he moved back to California after earning his master’s degree from the University of Missouri and was shocked to see how the severe drought — now in its fifth year — had ravaged he state, creating conditions ideal for wildfires to spread.
FIREFIGHT: The Sand Fire rips along Placerita Canyon Rd just north of the Angeles National Forest in LA County this afternoon. Extreme fire behavior continued with erratic winds, long range spotting, and fire literally everywhere. Here some Forest Service engines peel out with a bulldozer and dozer tender in tow as the fire burns up canyon. The fire is probably 40,000 acres or more, and is still doing what it wants. Had to abandon my position seconds after taking this photo. #cafire #sandfire #la #losangeles #socal #california #summer #fire #wildfire #forestfire #anf #angelesnf #antelopevalley #smoke #flames #usfs
A photo posted by StuartPalley (@stuartpalley) on
“Every year, every month we go without rain, we just get worse in the drought,” said Palley. “I think there’s an important story of the drought here to tell and I’m telling it in a different way.”
Over the last three years, he’s photographed devastating wildfires across the state, from Clear Lake to Vacaville to San Bernardino National Forest to the Sierra National Forest. His images show both beauty and destruction — red skies and burned-out homes — and flames jumping from lush forests and remote highways to suburban tract homes and strip malls.
“It’s kind of eerie, seeing the sun as an orange glow, and you never quite get used to it,” he says. “You’re at the mercy of Mother Nature.”
A rainbow appears over Placerita Canyon Rd after the @lacofireairops Firehawk drops a load of water at the #sandfire Saturday afternoon. Rainbows are refraction of all light in the visible spectrum, much like fires run the gamut from beautiful, to destructive, to awe-inspiring, to terrifying. In moments like these there’s a strange beauty to witnessing such powerful forces of nature firsthand. Fire, water, a rainbow, and ash all in the same place. #wildfire #cafire #rainbow #forestfire #la #losangeles #cafire #ca #socal #california #july #summer #orange #fire #cadrought #water #climate #nikon #photo #documentary