Hey everyone! My name is Stuart Palley and I am a photographer based in Los Angeles, CA. I am documenting California’s 2014 wildfire season by making long exposures of the blazes at night. Despite their destructiveness, wildfires can be eerily beautiful, and I want to show you fires in a way atypical from standard media coverage. I became interested in wildfire coverage during the 2012 season after photographing my first fire. "Terra Flamma" is a rough Latin translation meaning "earth fire."
Wildfires so far, such as the May 2014 fires in San Diego, have proven that this will be a particularly vicious, active, and unprecedented wildfire season with serious impact on peoples’ lives and property. We are in one of California’s worst droughts on record, with the Sierra Nevada snowpack at record lows in some places.
I am documenting new blazes as they occur, hiking out onto the fire lines and making long exposures of the flames at night. My existing Wildfires at Night Photos have been published all over the world, most recently in Time Magazine, but I need your help to continue.
What Your Support Does:
The cost of traveling to these fires, the protective gear, expenses such as food and lodging (when available, I usually camp or sleep in the car), equipment maintenance and repair add up. The heat, ash, and smoke are incredibly hard on sensitive camera gear, and it frequently needs to be professionally cleaned and in some cases repaired, costing hundreds of dollars, and in one case, $800 to fix a dirt/ash/smoke damaged lens. The fires are often in far-flung mountain locations, requiring hundreds of miles of driving. With fuel prices at over $4.00 a gallon in SoCal, expenses adds up fast. Add to that car fuel and air filters that need more frequent replacement after driving near fires.
Also, I’ve invested over $2,000 already into Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to be up the national standards for wildland fire safety, as well as taken two weeks off from any paid photo assignments to audit federal wildfire training classes. The PPE includes a fire shelter, special fire boots, Nomex clothes, etc. Below is a general breakdown of the Terra Flamma budget of $5,000:
In some cases I’ve been paid by photo agencies on a daily basis to photograph fires, but more often than not, I’m on my own, especially for the more remote fires where the most beautiful photos can be made. The day rates for journalism photography of the fires hardly cover the cost of getting out there, and don’t even begin to cover the cost of all the safety gear, insurance, repair, etc. I also lose the rights to the photos, after putting my life on the line in some cases.
For my fellow creatives out there, nothing hurts more than not having ownership and creative control over your own hard work borne from sweat and blood. One of the biggest benefits to your support is the ability to share these photos with you and the world at large, without the stress and worry of who owns what rights. Your support allows me to retain the distribution rights to any and all work produced in the project.
How I'll Do It:
As fire season heats up this summer (pun intended), I will document new blazes as they occur, going into standby mode during times of high fire danger (Red Flag Warnings, etc), clearing my schedule during those days to be ready for anything that pops up. I always keep my fire gear, food, water, and a tent packed in my car to head to a fire ASAP.
Covering wildfires is more than just a photo project, - its about educating the population at large of the growth of wildfire danger, and sharing the efforts of wildland firefighters who put their lives on the line to stymie the destructive path of fires. Its to show that these fires can be beautiful in a way that only nature could create. Despite their destructive nature, there is a surreal beauty of the fires photographed at night under long exposure, with all due respect to those that lose homes or property in fires.
I’ve photographed 18 fires so far in the last three seasons, and have the training with the US Forestry Service. As mentioned already, I own the proper nomex and safety gear, and have extensively studied fire behavior and previous incidents to better understand the conflagrations. My background as a photojournalist and reporter allow me to be calm and professional in a potentially dangerous situation. I’ve photographed riots and other natural disasters, and while I take calculated risks, always put safety ahead of photos. My number 1 goal while photographing at wildfires is to stay safe and stay out of the way of firefighters, and once that is assured, I make photographs.
The Final Product:
The final product of Terra Flamma will be a documentary photo essay displayed online and self-published in a limited photo book that will be distributed to some backers based on their level of sponsorship. In the future other editions of the book may be printed as I photograph in the coming years. Based on my existing work and what's been published, there is a good chance the images will be published in major national newspapers or magazines, and I hope to display the work in a gallery in Los Angeles come springtime. Again, the goal of this project is to raise awareness of the impact of wildfire, and encourage public discussion of living with a natural force and preventing impacts to homes, etc.
Below is a photo of my previous self-published photography book, Thou Shalt Offer Salt: Dispatches from the Salton Sea. I photographed at the Salton Sea over the period of a year for my Master's project at the University of Missouri for graduate school. The book has 100 color photographs and gave me the experience necessary to execute another long-term photography project on the environment.
Thank you for reading, for your consideration, and for your support! -
Risks and challenges
The biggest set of risks and challenges to Terra Flamma after successful funding are 1) logistics of getting to the fires, 2) accessing the fires, and 3) staying safe on site, each of which are addressed below.
I’m not worried about whether the fires will happen or not, so far the amount and size of wildfires occurring in Southern California alone indicate that there will be significant continued fire activity in the coming months.
I have a four wheel drive SUV that allows me to access the remote and unmaintained roads that fire crews access, and own and know how to use the same exact NFPA approved fire gear that any wildland crew would have, down to the White’s Smokejumper boots and Mystery Ranch packs to hold my water and fire shelter.
I have a scanner programmed with almost every important radio frequency used by fire agencies in Southern California, both the dispatch and tactical channels in order to have real time information in the field. I’ve studied radio communications for wildland firefighting, and understand the jargon used. This helps keep me aware of wind shifts, runs, or any other potentially life threatening situation in real time. I trust my gut instinct and leave an area if I ever feel unsafe, no picture is worth injury or death. I follow the lead of the pros, the firefighters, and if they leave, I leave. I always stay out of their way, yield to their traffic, and always do my best to identify the department, engine, and name of a firefighter if I photograph and publish an image of them working.
From a research standpoint, I check weather forecasts daily from NOAA and SoCal Fire Predictive Services that keep me updated on potential upcoming fire weather. I read the bi-monthly fuel discussions where departments measure how dry certain plants (fuel moisture levels) are at a given point in time, and read the discussions and forecasts issues by various agencies. Its important to keep an ear to the ground to get an idea of where a fire might break out, and to know the quirks of certain areas and terrain in advance. I’ve hiked numerous forests in Southern California to learn some of their topography and fuel characteristics. I’ve also studied past wildfires and learned about their behavior and how firefighters reacted to and learned from them.
California has a law on the books that allows credentialed media into disaster zones, whereas most other states do not. If you have proper PPE and media credentials, access to fires are guaranteed by law so long as you stay out of the way of fire crews, law enforcement, etc. In some rare cases, and at the discretion of law enforcement and incident commanders, access has been restricted to fires in California (Rim Fire, September 2013). Even then I still was able to photograph the fire with an approved escort. However, at 17 of the 18 fires I’ve photographed, there has been no issue with access.
3. Safety and Experience:
During the past year I have trained both physically and in the classroom for fire season. In March of 2013 I spent two weeks training with the US Forestry Service and a new Type 2 hand crew on the Cleveland National Forest to obtain my S-190 Introduction to Wildland Fire Behavior certificate. To those in the know, this is just a certificate from classroom instruction that firefighters receive to better understand fire basics, terminology, and behavior. The S-190, or field certificate from hand tool training, hikes, and another test I cannot get since I am not actually a firefighter. However, I did accompany the group on their field day hikes and practiced fire shelter deployment, reverse tool orders, and construction of fireline and essentially have the same qualifications.
I’ve made connections with all levels of firefighters from multiple agencies, so in the case of a fire, I usually run into people I know who can vouch for me should any questions arise to my liability on the fireline as a photography. I train 5-6 days a week by running, cycling, hiking, and weight lifting to be in physical shape to carry the weight of all my PPE, water, and cameras out on the line.
A list of fires I’ve photographed:
1. Volcano Fire 8/12
2. Dodge City Fire 8/12
3. Tucker Prairie controlled burn 3/13
4. Powerhouse Fire, 5/31/13
5. Chariot Fire 7/9/14
6. Mountain Fire 7/13
7. Silver Fire 8/8/13
8. Anaheim Hills Vegetation Fire 8/19/13
9. Rim Fire 9/13
10. San Juan Capistrano Vegetation fire 9/29/13
11. Baker Fire 10/13
12. Colby Fire 1/14
13. Back Bay Newport Fire 3/14
14. Etiwanda Fire 4/30/14
15. Rancho Bernardo Fire 5/14
16. Carlsbad Fire 5/14
17. Cocos Fire 5/14
18. Shirley Fire 6/14/14
For many of the project backer levels I can fulfill the rewards almost immediately, since they include prints and digital downloads of existing fire work. For the $250 level and above, I will not start editing the final book until at least January of 2015, to allow fire season to wind down. This final book, as well as any of the portfolio reviews or personal photoshoots will need to be scheduled for the Spring of 2015 well in advance.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
- (31 days)