These Wildfire Photos Are Gorgeous and Terrifying at the Same Time

Photographer Stuart Palley spent his weekend alongside firefighters battling the Sand Canyon flames

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.

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.

“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.”