Photographer sees more than danger and destruction in the glow of nighttime wildfires
Hauntingly beautiful. Those were my first thoughts as I looked over the large photos on the wall at Santa Ana College’s SantoraSpace205 gallery in downtown Santa Ana.
Glowing hillsides and fiery landscapes artfully composed and captured, often with a majestic night sky as a background, almost make the observer forget the destruction they represent. The serenity conveyed by the photos belies the hard work and danger.
The images are part of “Terra Flamma: Wildfires At Night” by photographer Stuart Palley, a self-proclaimed environmentalist from Newport Beach who has spent the last six years documenting wildfires up and down the state. One could appropriately say it’s his passion — one he’s spent countless hours, and dollars, chasing.
Palley’s show runs through Sept. 27.
After getting a degree in finance from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, an internship at a bank helped Palley conclude that the banking life wasn’t for him. A graduate degree from the University of Missouri followed and he returned to Southern California to find his way.
Palley is a former photo trainee and intern for the Orange County Register, working for the paper during the summer of 2012 and again in late 2013. One of the first fires he covered was for the Register in 2013, when he talked his boss into sending him to the Rim Fire burning in and near Yosemite to document Orange County firefighters as they battled the blaze, one of the largest wildfires in California history.
It’s been a long, smoke-filled journey since then.
“Safety is my first priority,” says Palley, who has taken wildfire safety classes in addition to having all the correct safety gear, a must if you’re trying to tell the stories of firefighters on the front lines.
Building relationships with the fire community and gaining their trust is something else he’s spent a lot of time on.
“The men and women I’ve gotten to meet in the wildland fire world are some of the most selfless, hard-working people and they do it because they have pride in their work and pride in their job and and I like sharing their story,” he said.
Having a healthy respect for fire and the people who put their lives at risk fighting it is something he takes very seriously. “I’m really grateful that I have this opportunity and that firefighters have allowed me to tell their story and that they’ve trusted me.”
As hard as he works, Palley seems to appreciate the position he’s in, documenting a particularly volatile piece of California’s history.
“It’s amazing being out in these incredibly beautiful, natural places that are punctuated by fire,” he said. “It’s this destructive force that can wreck people’s lives and kill, but at the same time it’s a natural force. I’m very much struck by this juxtaposition that it’s something so beautiful and natural but that it’s also influenced by the hand of man and that it can be so destructive.”
If you go
“Terra Flamma: Wildfires At Night” runs through Sept. 27 at Santa Ana College’s SantoraSpace205 gallery, 207 N. Broadway, Suite Q, Santa Ana. Hours are 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays. For more information, call 714-564-5615.
You can see Stuart Palley’s work on his website, www.stuartpalley.com; his book “Terra Flamma: Wildfires At Night” will be available through Amazon beginning Saturday, Sept. 15. For prints, or a signed copy of the book, go to www.terraflamma.org/store.