Episode 010: Creating a Record of California Wildfires and Climate Change with Photographer Stuart Palley
In November 2018, a series of violent fires throttled California and its surrounding landscape. Outside of Los Angeles, the Woolsey Fire resulted in a three casualties and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of residents. The Camp Fire, decimated the town of Paradise in Northern California, a small retirement community, which killed at least 85 people and cause 16 billion dollars in damage. It is one of the deadliest natural and social disasters on U.S. soil.
This episode of Monument Lab our guest is Photographer Stuart Palley, a photographer of the wildfires. We found Palley through his Instagram page, where during the Woolsey and Camp Fires, he shared daily updates from the frontlines, alongside firefighters, and later, search and rescue teams. Palley is creating a record of wildfires and climate change, tracing how hotter, drier conditions on the ground increase the risk of fire.
Palley has photographed for National Geographic Magazine, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and in his own book Terra Flamma, a five-year visual inventory of the wildfires. Over the course of 5 years he documented nearly 100 wildfires in his home state of California. Palley is currently working on a book of fiction writing, and continues to document the wildfire crisis. You can follow him on social media @stuartpalley.
You can read the full transcript of this and every conversation we have on the podcast on our website, thanks to our partners at Rev.com who are supporting us with on-demand transcripts all season long. Anyone can use it to transcribe interviews, first drafts, or almost anything recorded for just $1/minute. Thank you Rev!
Paul Farber: Stuart Palley, welcome to the Monument Lab Podcast.
Stuart Palley: Thanks for having me.
Farber: Last fall you published your book Terra Flamma, a visual record of five years of California wildfires, and two months later, two of the most devastating, deadly wildfires hit California. What was going on in your mind as these fires broke out?
Palley: Well, my first thought was unfortunately some of the factors I talked about in my book in regards to climate change, wildfires burning later in the year, faster, larger, more deadly, unfortunately that came to fruition in quite possibly the worst way it could have with the Camp Fire in Paradise and also the Woolsey Fire here down in Los Angeles. And this was coming on the heels of having had the largest wildfire in modern California recorded history in December 2017 in the Thomas Fire in Ventura, and we actually held up publishing of the book so I could add a little bit of writing and also photography from the Thomas Fire. That was done in December 2017, and I said, "Okay, we can send the book to press now because I've got this fire," that at that time was the largest wildfire in California history, and that provided sort of a natural stopping point for the book to go out and say, "Here's where I started with the project and here's kind of a pause point." And then we see less than a year later after I photographed that fire and then just a few months after having published the book we have the deadliest, largest, and most damaging wildfires in California state history, so in a way it's scary because these trends that I've seen that I've been talking about, that I've been sharing on my Instagram writing about, these trends are happening, and you hope for the best and plan for the worst, and when the worst is happening, it's really scary and frankly a little bit disheartening.
Farber: Your work from the Woolsey Fire was featured on the front page of newspapers within days, and of course if someone follows your work on Instagram, you would see live footage and images really right in the middle of walls of fire. Where did you go first when you heard that the Woolsey Fire was breaking out?
Palley: I actually was up in the area, not at the Woolsey Fire initially. I was at the Hill Fire, which started a few miles west of the Woolsey Fire that afternoon, also in Ventura County off the 101 near Thousand Oaks and the Conejo Grade and what not, and I left my house at about 2:30 down here in Orange County, and of course with traffic going through LA at that time of day it took me about three and a half hours to get to the fire. So I was already in the area at the Hill Fire, and while I was driving up to the Hill Fire, the Woolsey Fire started, and I was listening to the radio dispatches of what was going on with the Hill Fire and the Woolsey Fire, and at that time during the day the Woolsey Fire actually ... it was a concern, but it had not gotten out of hand. It was burning up in the property owned by Boeing, formerly the Rocketdyne property, up above Bell Canyon, and it wasn't a huge issue and they were still dealing with the Hill Fire, which was much closer to homes. And as the day went on, it got later, it became dark, it was six or seven o'clock, I was very much aware of the weather forecast and where this fire was and also the fire history in the area, and I said to myself, "Stuart, you've got a gut feeling that this could get much worse because of where the fire is." After seeing how fires had behaved all the summer and the last five summers prior to this, my intuition was telling me that this is a potential to become a much bigger fire than it already is. Typically, when the Hill Fire died down, I would just go home, but since the Woolsey Fire was burning, I said, "Hey, I'm going to go drive around the perimeter of the fire, try and get close to it, and see what I can photograph." At that time, it was 8:00 or 9:00 p.m. at night at that point, it was very difficult to access the fire because the one entrance was through Bell Canyon, which was private property, and the gate guard wouldn't let me through. Then the other end was Boeing property, which had private security. So essentially for the first few hours of the fire, unless you were a firefighter, you couldn't access the fire because it was on private property. Now, in California, we've got really great media access laws, which allow you into a fire or other disaster area if you're credentialed media. So that was a little frustrating for me that I wasn't able to access the fire more closely. I was just driving around trying to see what I could see, photographing from afar, but knowing the fire history in that area from the Topanga Fire in the early '90s to the Trancas Canyon Fire in the '50s, there's been dozens of fires in the last 100 years that have burned along that path from the Simi Valley Thousand Oaks area over the 101 or before the 101 was even there straight to the Pacific Ocean in a day or two. So I said, "Given the fuels, the timing, the Santa Ana winds," I thought that may happen. So it's about 10 o'clock at night and I'm standing up on the hill above Bell Canyon and Woolsey Canyon, and a 55, 60 mile an hour gust of winds pick up. It almost knocks off my fire helmet, and Santa Ana winds typically intensify late at night and early in the morning, so I said, "Okay, here come another round of strong winds," and as I'm thinking this, I see the fire flare up and glow, and after that it was off to the races. And for the next I would say 36 hours, it was pretty much nonstop following this fire to the ocean until it hit Point Dume in the beach in Malibu.
Farber: You mentioned listening to emergency reports from your vehicle, but also you hint at a research process that includes some deep preparation. Before that moment where you hear about an outbreak of a fire, what goes into your research process to prepare?
Palley: There's a pretty significant preparation and learning a research process that I go through. Overall, in addition to being a photographer and storyteller, I consider myself a student of fire and wildfire, so I'm constantly reading books about fire history, new academic papers that come out about how certain climate factors influence fire behavior, reading about the health of the forest, how certain fuels, trees, brush respond to drought, extra rain, and things like that. So it's something I'm constantly learning about, and reading about fire history I had known that that area for some time, like I just mentioned, has a potential to have really extreme fire behavior, but for me some of the preparation is going back and looking at these fires and media accounts from 10, 20, 30 years ago of Santa Ana wind-driven fires and saying, "This is how the fire started, this is what it did in this amount of time, and this is where it ended up in a 12, 24, 48-hour period." I had an idea of the factors that go into what these fires do, so, again, it was my gut feeling saying, "Hey, this is something that could end up being a much bigger issue than it is." But as far as additional preparation, I have a Firefighter II, which is a base level of wildland fire training. It's just a couple weeks of fire training, and that just means in official parlance that you can fight wildland fire under close instruction of a more senior firefighter. So basically what that means is I learned how to deploy a fire shelter, I learned how radio communications work, you pass a base level fitness test, you know how to act on a fire ground, you learn about the Incident Command System, you learn about base things about how to fight wildland fire, their wild and-urban interface, and of course I did that for a better understanding and appreciation of what first responders are doing, and then additionally now with my contracted work with the Forest Service also it was some qualifications that I needed to get so I could also participate with the public information officers as a photographer on the incident side. So what that allowed me to do is basically give me more preparation to put my mind in the eyes of a firefighter, a wildland firefighter. "Okay, what are the needs? What's going on at a fire? How are you thinking?" And by learning that thought process, I was able to kind of straddle the line between being a journalist and photographer and also somebody who was engaged in the fire. Again, of course, I'm not a firefighter. I'm just a photographer, but it helps me get into that mindset. It's a game of chess and try and see what's coming next.
Farber: In watching the footage that you post alongside your images, the GoPro video footage, it's jarring of course to see. I'm curious for you, what is your relationship like with firefighters as you're documenting this visual record, Do you operate in a sense that you are there present on the scene working together fighting the fire, or do you see your work as distinct?
Palley: I think it possibly is a combination of both. First and foremost, my first two rules at wildfires is number one is to stay out of the way of firefighters and other first responders doing their job. No picture is worth me getting in someone's way, blocking a road, impeding them from doing their job. It's unethical and also in some cases illegal, and I'm very proud of the fact that I always put safety first and that also no picture is worth really risking my life or safety for. With those two components in mind, I view myself as an observer, as a fly on the wall, as a storyteller, a chronicler, if you will. Now, when say I'm working for the Forest Service on contract, which is usually the exception to the rule, usually I'm just there as media, then I will work a little more closely with firefighters, talking to crews, learning about what they're doing, letting a captain in an area or a safety officer know I'm coming and going and what's going on because there I'm part of the incident and there's a little bit more integration with firefighting personnel themselves, but I'm there as more of a support role. But when I'm there as media, I usually take a step back and just kind of observe. Occasionally, I'll talk to a captain in an engine or a crew superintendent for a Forest Service hand crew at a fire in the wilderness just to let them know I'm there, what I'm up to, and kind of what I'm doing to let them know that I've got some experience and qualifications so they don't view me as a safety liability, because a lot of times, especially in Los Angeles with the profusion of media, you have well-meaning journalists go in, but they don't always have the safety gear or safety knowledge, and of course that makes firefighters nervous. So in addition to them having to do their job, they have to look out of the corner of their eye for the news van or whatever that's there. Now, again, there's a lot of people who have safety gear and proper training that are not an issue, but I always try and make my presence known if safety and time allows for it. If they're running to pull hoses to save houses that are burning, I'm not going to get in their way at all, just kind of go up and tap them on the shoulder while they're doing something being like, "Hey, I'm here taking pictures. Just let me know if I'll be in your way But it always depends on the situation. So, again, I approach it, I'm a journalist, I'm a photographer there documenting things, but I also, if there's any safety concerns, I let them know that I've got safety training and that I have some idea of what I'm doing and that I'm not going to be a safety liability for them. But, again, that also depends on the situation. Sometimes things are so crazy where I just, there's not an opportunity to talk to them, again, and that's just staying out of their way and letting them do their job.
Farber: Your images are, as we discussed, on the front pages of major newspapers, but you also have said that you're working to create a visual record of wildfire, something that moves across the kind of pace of news headlines and takes a step back. How do you balance or how do you reconcile the search for news and also a larger sense of how we see and understand wildfires?
Palley: For the Terra Flamma project, there's two interrelated components to it, and the first of which is I'm there as media and a news photographer and a photojournalist shooting the hard news of a wildfire, where it's going, what it's doing, how it's impacting people, and that's the work that I've done for the Los Angeles Times or The Washington Post or Time Magazine where I'm there shooting it for more of a news angle, but the common thread throughout all these fires I'm photographing is my longer term project documenting wildfires and climate change and how they're getting worse, either with the long exposures of fires at night or increasingly more firefighters during the day and sort of the action and things like that. When I say I view myself as a chronicler or a documenter of wildfires, I'm trying to build a visual record of how these fires are getting worse. So as I continue this project, which will be a lifelong project to some extent, there may be years where I shoot fires less or more depending on where I'm at in my life, if I end up having a family or other projects I'm working on, but I'm always going to be photographing these fires. I want to build a body of work that shows how when I started in 2013 till whenever I shoot the project how these fires have gotten increasingly worse and have that visual record. In a way, of course, I don't want to say I'm like these photographers because they're incredible, legendary photographers of the past, but I imagine like the Works Progress Administration and things like that in the 1930s where the federal government hired photographers to go out and document the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and things like that, and I view climate change as the biggest actual threat to humankind in the world, and I see these wildfires very much related to that in California. There's other factors such as housing, forest management that play into it. It's an incredibly nuanced and complex answer to why we have all these fires in California, but climate change is part of it, and I want to be there to document it and tell that story. And I think that building a body of work, it's kind of become somewhat of my life's work I guess, and don't mean to be egotistical about that or anything like that, but I feel very strongly that this is something I've developed some experience in and that I have a bit of a platform and trust with firefighters and experience to keep telling this story. And the scary part is that these fires are getting worse. I mean, I've been on the ground for the majority of the deadliest and destructive and largest wildfires in California in the last five years. I wasn't there for the Carr Fire in Redding and I wasn't there for the Camp Fire in the first few days, but in November at the Woolsey Fire in Malibu, there was a 12-mile wide wall of fire coming down to the beach, and I was standing there dumbfounded. I've seen a lot of really crazy fire behavior, Paul, but to see hundreds of houses burned down in a day, and it ended up being over 1,500 structures burned down, and seeing people run for their lives and screaming as they watched their homes burn down and people having to suffer so much on the worst days of their life, it was a really powerful, and I don't want to say humbling, but it was a very shocking experience that I've seen time and time again, and I just feel very strongly that the general public needs to see this and what's going on, which is why I view myself sort of as a chronicler of this.
Farber: Your image of Masao Barrows fleeing for his life in his pajamas in the Woolsey Fire went viral, and it was honored by Time as one of the 100 most important images of 2018, and you recently re-posted some of the other frames that you took. How did you encounter Masao Barrows, and can you take us back through this moment of you documenting this incredibly harrowing escape for his life?
Palley: At that point, Masao, it was about three o'clock in the morning on Hill Crest Avenue in Thousand Oaks when Masao and his roommate, who ran out a little bit before I started taking pictures, basically had to leave his house as it was starting to burn to run out of the fire area for his life. Now, his house ended up not being destroyed. The firefighters were able to save it. There was moderate damage to the house. His truck was heavily burned. He had a trailer full of tools because by profession I forget if he was a carpenter, electrician, but he's in professional trade, and he lost a lot of his tools, and at that point, again, it was three o'clock in the morning. I had left at about two o'clock in the afternoon at the fire, so I had been running around at that point for nine hours straight, and from midnight until about 4:00 a.m. it was complete mayhem. The fire went into Oak Park, Lindero Canyon, burned over the hills into Thousand Oaks, and then basically came out of the mountains and started barreling into Hill Crest Drive and burned down a couple of houses there, and Hill Crest Drive is in Thousands Oak proper. It's in the flat lands. It's not in the hills, but the embers from the fire coming off the hills got into the houses, which pushed more embers into ornamental vegetation for a couple of hours, which eventually pushed it over the 101 Freeway, and once it hit the Santa Monicas it was off to the ocean. So that moment with Masao in some ways was by pure luck and also just understanding how fires behave, because I was basically following the front of the fire as it hopscotched from subdivision to subdivision. The fire was moving at maybe five miles an hour, which doesn't sound very fast, but it is, I mean, that's like a slow jogging pace for a human, so you're seeing the fire literally move on the horizon. At this time you have to understand there's tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people being evacuated, the roads are jam-packed with people evacuating. And I'm trying, of course, to drive ... I'm letting, at stoplights I'm letting people pass me. I'm letting people go by first at stop signs waving people through because I don't want to be impeding people's progress that are trying to evacuate or emergency vehicles, so it's taking me a while to get around. It's like being in rush hour traffic. I'm trying to duck in cul-de-sacs, roads, and I don't know the area very well, so I'm trying to follow this fire but also not get too tangled up on any dirt roads, because one of the rules of firefighting in general that you need to watch out for is if you're in terrain that you haven't seen in daylight, and I wasn't familiar with any of this area, so I had to play it very safe staying to main roads where there was lots of traffic. And I'm listening to my scanner, which was listening to fire traffic, and they said, "The fire is coming down impacting Hill Crest Drive. Send units to make a stand here on this road," because it's sort of parallel to where the fire was coming down. So I went and parked. I was walking around, and I see a bunch of fire engines near some ornamental vegetation that's burning, so I park my vehicle a few hundred feet down the road, and I start speed walking over there. I've got all my fire equipment on, fire shelter, camera, all that. You know, it weighs 20 or 30 pounds, which isn't a lot overall, but I get there and I'm taking pictures. There's a Ventura County fire captain that has his hand on a gate, and I poke my head in, and I see this man, who ends up being Masao, in his boxers and shirt and no shoes just walking out of his house at a light jog, a little bit bewildered, and the firefighter says, "Hey, you need to go. You need to go. Get out, get out." And he looks up and he just says in somewhat of a resigned tone, "This is everything I have. This is everything." The firefighter just waves him down the street, and he's like, "Just go that way away from the fire." I went and looked at the time tags on my camera, and that moment was maybe 10 seconds tops where he was walking out past me. I mean, we're talking five seconds. It was a very quick moment, and I had just parked my vehicle down the road maybe five minutes before, Paul. It was pretty much pure serendipity that I was able to capture that moment, but to me that is the crux of how these wildfires are affecting people. I mean, people who don't even live very close to where wildfires happen are being roused from their sleep in the middle of the night and having to run for their lives, and I ended up going back a few days later and talking to Masao, and I actually caught him when he was coming home from work at about five o'clock in the afternoon. He was driving his 1980s Ford Ranger that had been fire damaged, whole side of the car was singed, the paint was all damaged due to the fire. One of his taillights was melted, but the truck was still running. He still had to go to work. The house had no power. They were running off of candles and a generator, a battery power or something, and he was just telling me how he got woken up. His roommate came in and woke him up, and there was smoke everywhere and embers flying outside of his house, and he basically had to run for his life. Eventually, a Ventura County sheriff's cruiser picked him up, tossed him in the back. There was also a cat that the deputy had rescued, so the whole time the deputy just driving him out of harm's way to a strip mall down the street he's trying to avoid this cat scratching him, which is freaking out. He's had to evacuate his house, run/jog for his life, get into a police cruiser, fight off a scared cat, and then he got dropped off in a shopping center just as a safe area, and then of course he's there in his pajamas. So eventually some shopkeepers that were there that had been evacuated from their home, they were at their shop spending the night, so they took him in and they gave him a pair of sweatpants, and that's how he spent the night. And he relayed this whole story to me afterwards, and it's just this incredible story both of survival and having to face something, one of the scariest days probably in his life and that he got out okay, and it's these stories of survival that are happening and they happened at the Camp Fire where people had to shelter in place, happened when people had to evacuate Malibu. And so for me, that moment was so powerful because you're seeing these fleeting moments that happen so quickly, and I just really am very lucky that I was in the right place in the right time to capture that moment, but that was repeated thousands, if not tens of thousands of time over just that day, because earlier that day the Camp Fire had started in Northern California, and then the Woolsey Fire. They evacuated almost 300,000 people at that fire overall, so a lot of people left in advance, but a lot of people didn't have any warning and literally had to run out of their homes to their cars with the clothes on their backs. So for me, it really encapsulated the human impact of these fires.
Farber: You said that you went back and had a conversation with Masao Barrows. Do you go back to find people after you have shot on location, and are you ever worried that you will find even more destruction or you won't be able to find the people that you were photographing?
Palley: It's a little bit of both. In Masao's case, I was driving through the area to see what houses had been saved and what houses didn't survive to do a survey of damage to see what had happened between when I was there and when I came back. In this situation, I, again, it was luck. I just happened to be driving down the street when his truck had just pulled in the driveway and he was pulling stuff out of the back of his truck, and I pulled up and I said, "Hey. Oh, I'm Stuart. Nice to meet you. I photographed you basically when you were running for your life. I'm glad to see you're okay and your house is still standing. Do you have a few minutes to talk?" And then we ended up talking for a little bit, and he shared a story with me and things like that, but other times places are closed for a week, two weeks because they're still an evacuated area, and the homeowners can't come back. So I can't go back and talk to people because they can't get in. In this case, the fire had already passed through, and the first responders, the firefighters, the sheriff had deemed it safe for people to come back. In some cases, I have people who know I'm at a fire who will reach out to me on Instagram and say, "Can you check on this property?" and things like that, and it's my policy not to go and check on people's houses because it blurs a little bit of an ethical line. I'm there to photograph as media, and it's not typically my job to be telling people whether their houses have burned down or not. Now, again, if I'm in the area, I will happily go check on it because I know that it can be incredibly tough and frustrating and scary not to know whether your house is standing or not, and people who have lost their homes in wildfires and whose homes have been saved have told me that the worst thing is not knowing. They just want to know whether their house has been saved or not so that if it's there they can breathe a sigh of relief, or if they've lost their home they can begin the process of grieving for having lost their home and basically all their possessions and everything they've worked so hard for. I try and balance me doing my job with giving people that information that they need, and in a lot of ways that helps me connect with people who've been affected by fires. There's Sarah Dowd and Jordan Pope who were evacuated from Trancas Canyon, and they basically stayed there until the fire they thought was going to burn their house down, and that was another picture that Time ended up publishing as they're standing there crying, watching, worried that Sarah's house that her family built 30 years ago was going to burn down. At that time, I thought, "There's no way this whole neighborhood is going to end up standing," but the fire came through and I reconnected with them later on Instagram actually, and 22 out of 30 houses in upper Trancas Canyon in Malibu were destroyed, but their house was one of the eight that was still standing. And honestly, it's a miracle. Seeing that fire behavior, I don't know how that house is standing, but they had some defensible space and it ended up being okay. They lost some water wells and some vegetation, but their house is still there, and now they're grappling with being grateful that their house is there but also the loss of their neighbors and people that they know. I try and follow up with these people just to debrief with them a little bit, to hear their experience, give them a chance to tell their story, give some more context to the images too. And for me too it's very powerful and humbling to be able to talk to these people that I've photographed on probably the worst day of their lives that have been gracious enough in their moment of pain to allow me to make pictures and to share that experience with other people. And I like to follow up with them, see what's going on, and kind of see that they're okay, and talk to them a little bit, and I think it's a very powerful experience for all the parties involved, and of course, again, to share that story.
Farber: The image that you just mentioned of the Malibu residents Jordan Pope and Sarah Dowd was on the cover of the LA Times. Do you get a sense from those people who are so deeply affected and their lives and their homes are threatened, do you get a sense when they see their images in wider circulation, are they able to connect with them as images of themselves? Are they not concerned with those media accounts?
Palley: That's a really good question, Paul. Typically, people I've seen in these situations that have experienced terrible loss or shock or trauma that the resiliency and the graciousness of the human spirit really comes out, that people are so kind and friendly. I mean, I've had people that are evacuating offer me a bottle of water, and I'm like, "Hey, I should be offering you guys Gatorade or something like that. I'm fine. I've got supplies and equipment and stuff." And people are just incredibly kind, and I've found that the response after the fact is people want to share their stories. People are traumatized. People just want to be heard and be able to talk about what they went through, and I think sometimes they see me as somebody who happened to be there telling the story and they want to share what happened, both just as from human to human being able to share their story and be heard and be seen, but also as somebody who can share these stories with the pictures and captions and has a bit of a platform to amplify and magnify that story so other people can appreciate and see it and understand what's going on. Typically, it leads to some very powerful moments, conversations, just people have been through trauma and they're just reacting and trying to make things the best that they can. For example, the Camp Fire, people lost homes, friends, pets, families, moms, dads, and they, being able to share it in a way. So I don't want to say I'm a therapist sometimes, but sometimes I end up becoming somebody that they can just talk to and share their story with, and that's an incredible privilege and responsibility to be a good steward of in that situation because you have at that time for example in Malibu, the firefighters were trying to save houses. They were just running around getting people out, trying to save their lives, and there wasn't a moment for, "Hey, it's going to be okay," kind of a thing. I mean, it was really a matter of survival for a lot of people leaving at that point. Jordan and Sarah, they were watching, and they were really worried their house was going to be lost, and I just put it on the shoulder. I said, "Hey guys, it's going to be okay. The most important thing is that you guys are going to be safe and you should probably get out of here and then later on they went me an email and this means more to me than anything really is that they said, "Hey, we could feel that you were there supporting us, that you were there for us in this moment, even though you were there working and doing your thing." They said, "Thank you for being there with us." And for me, that made all this worth it. And of course, again, my job is there to be a storyteller and a chronicler of this, but at the end of the day we're all human, and if I can also, I don't want to say help make people's experience easier because that's not it, but if somebody is in a really tough situation and on the worst day of their lives, if I can lend them some sort of support or presence or just be there to be like, "Hey, the most important thing is that you're okay," then I'm really grateful that I'm able to help with that while I'm there in some indirect or minimal way.
Farber: In the midst of an ongoing wildfire, are you able to take time for yourself to deal with the mental and the physical strain that you experience?
Palley: While I'm at wildfires, typically no. The reckoning and the fallout happens afterward. A couple days after the fire once I've come home and unpacked and washed up, cleaned my car, gotten some sleep, then I typically have a little bit of time to take a day or two to process everything, to talk about it. This series of wildfires in the fall compounded with the Santa Rosa Fire, the Tubbs Fire, the fire siege last October and the Thomas Fire, it's really taken a toll on me. I actually had a wildland firefighter friend reach out and her husband debriefs firefighters who've been through traumatic work, and I ended up not speaking with him because of the holidays and I got caught up with my family and it's still on my docket to speak with him, but my firefighter friend was like, "Hey, don't hide this just because you were there as a journalist." She said that, "You've experienced the same things that we see, and you should talk to somebody who specializes in debriefing on this because you've seen a lot of really intense things." And I thought to myself, I'm like, "You know what? She's right," because as a firefighter a lot of the times, you see a lot of really crazy and terrible things in your line of work, and also you're at a fire as a firefighter and you're deployed to a certain part of the fire and it can be really quiet and nothing can happen for days, or you're in the crazy part of the fire for two days. It depends on where you're deployed at the fire, but as a journalist, you're basically trying to go where the story is happening, as a photographer where the fire front is. So by virtue of the fact that I basically have free rein on a fire ground, I'm following the flaming front, so I'm seeing all the destruction, all the carnage, everything that's going on constantly in a fire like this, watching hundreds of houses burn down. So I'm seeing a really heavy concentration of destruction, and it takes a physical toll on you, the smoke, the air. I don't want to say it's caused definitive respiratory issues, but I have pretty bad asthma, and I have to get respiratory pulmonary function tests after every fire season to make sure that these fires aren't really severely impacting my lungs. But I can imagine that down the line there's going to be some issues with it related to a increased risk of cancer, other pulmonary issues, and I'm very careful of where I'm at at fires and things like that, but of course to be there and there's certain components of it that you're breathing in all this air, this toxic particles from homes burning and all the building materials that's there and all kinds of things. So that's something that weighs on me very heavily, and the destruction and in some cases death I see of all the animals that have been killed, burnt rabbits, squirrels, deer in Malibu, and they're just there, I mean for lack of a better description just rotting away in the road completely petrified. The smell is awful. I mean, it's obviously not a war zone, but I'd imagine it's the closest you can get to like a conflict area within the domestic United States. So, yeah, it's definitely a reckoning that I have to spend time thinking about, processing. I mean, every once in a while reach out to a therapist and talk to them too, and I think it's really important, and I think that's something I'm going to be talking a little bit more about this year because firefighters in general and first responders have a much higher suicide rate than the general population, and I know firefighters who've killed themselves in the last couple of years. And it is a huge tragedy, and I think that overall mental health awareness in the wildfire world and also people who are affected by climate change. I mean, people experience depression and other emotional trauma because of effects of climate change is a real thing and an ongoing issue, and I think that we, in addition to all this, as much as our physical health we need to have a conversation about mental health, make sure people who are evacuated and affected by fires, who've lost their home or loved ones are not only taking care of their physical health, eating, sleeping, having shelter over their heads, but also their mental and emotional health because this affects you in very profound, in visceral ways. So, yes. To answer your question, I do take time for self-care to physically and mentally and emotionally rehabilitate myself because as some who's a human being fundamentally at the end of the day, I see this constant carnage and shock and trauma, both to the firefighters and people who are affected by fires, and as somebody who wants to be there and tell the story in an intimate way, it definitely affects me.
Farber: You mentioned that you're doing more writing, and on your blog you shared pieces like "The Memory Remains," which are incredibly harrowing. They're your firsthand account of seeing paths of destruction, of climate violence, in the wakes of these fires. Is part of your art making the way that you process and want people to process with you?
Palley: Yes, that's definitely a component of it, and one of the reasons I became a photographer was that I found that photography was a way for me to respond to emotions and feelings and things that I was seeing and capture it with a camera and share that feeling through the image with other people. I really got into photography when I was 16 years old. My uncle used to live in Thailand, and I went and visited him on a family trip when I was in high school, and we were in Phuket in the Gulf of Thailand in southern Thailand, and it was six months after the December 2014 Southeast Asian tsunami that killed hundreds of thousands of people, and we went down to an area of Phuket that had been completely run over by the tsunami and they were rebuilding there six months after the tidal wave. They had piles of rubble and homes that they were rebuilding, and in this pile of rubble as we were walking around with some locals who were kind of showing us what was going on, there was this kid's Raggedy Ann doll that was sitting on a pile of rubble, passports from Europe of tourists who'd been killed in the wave and things like that. Of course, as a 16 year old you don't quite know how to respond to this, but, again, I have this early digital camera with me, and I just I guess started taking pictures and had that body of work. And I was like, "Wow, these pictures really capture the feeling," and of course they weren't great photos and I didn't really understand sort of the context and the enormity of the event, but I took pictures to respond to it, and I think that as I developed as a photographer in school. Pictures are one way that I try and talk to myself about an event and share them with other people, and I think that any form of journalism, whether you're a writer with a beat on politics or you're a crime writer or even an artist or a storyteller that's not a journalist, you in a lot of ways are responding to your own self when you're telling these stories. Now, ultimately the story isn't about you. You're in the service of sharing the story with others, but we're inextricably linked to the stories that we tell and how we tell them, and for me photography is one of those ways to tell a story to also kind of process things myself.
Farber: You photographed the Camp Fire tragedy but weren't there in the height of the wildfire. You've written and said that among the reasons you weren't there was the ground conditions were quite hazardous. When you went to Paradise, California, the site of the Camp Fire, days later, what struck you in that immediate aftermath?
Palley: I've seen some pretty terrible wildfire destruction, both in the Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa with thousands of homes and neighborhoods leveled like Fountain Grove and Coffey Park, or complete moonscapes like the Thomas Fire or just recently in the Woolsey Fire. But, I mean, 90% of Paradise was destroyed. I mean, you're talking about the center of town, the banks burned down, the pavilions, the supermarket burned down, the mechanic, the gas station, the dance studio, the tax office. I mean, just think about driving down Main Street America with a town of 20,000 or 30,000 people, and just imagine the entire thing burned down. I mean, it looked like the pictures of an atomic bomb hitting Hiroshima or Nagasaki. The only difference was that most of the trees were burned but still standing, because the fire was wind driven. It was also a crowned fire, so the fire would hopscotch from tree to tree. You'd have occasionally patches of trees that were still there, but other than that the town was leveled, At that point, I did spend some time photographing the last bit of fire with some fire crews way out in the forest, twenty miles away from Paradise where it ended up being fully contained, but I also spent a lot of time as the search and rescue teams were there basically with cadaver dogs searching house to house in their white bunny suits and their respirator masks looking for bodies. At that point, I'm like, "Oh my god, this is no longer a wildfire. This is a search and rescue recovery operation. I mean, this is like being in the aftermath of an earthquake or a tsunami or some other natural disaster where you have a lot of death." And at that point, there were hundreds of people missing. The missing list at some point was almost 1,000 people. Of course, it got narrowed down as people were found elsewhere or the information was updated, but I was with the El Dorado County search and rescue team and I was at a house and their priority was homes where elderly people were missing, and they found remains of a wheelchair or like an electric bed for people who are house bound, and if they found anything that was potentially organic material from a burned body, they flagged it and had the cadaver dog come in, and that happened a couple times. To see this, and fortunately where I was that day they didn't find anyone, but the previous days they had, and I said, "I could be walking with this team," and of course I was keeping my distance to give them space to work within their boundaries, but I'm like, "I could be walking on the edge of a property right now on the street where somebody died a couple days ago." Of course, you see destruction and fire behavior a lot of the times, but now I'm like, "This is where people died," and dozens of people, almost 100 people died in Paradise. About 30% of the residents in Paradise were senior citizens, and there was just an LA Times article that came out that talked about how one of the reasons the Camp Fire was so deadly is because there were so many retired people in Paradise that were older, more elderly and firm, not able to move easily, not very well-connected with social networks that didn't get the warnings to leave in time for the fire. In these trailer parks, these mobile home parks that were affordable retirement areas, but because of the flammability of these older structures and the close-packed nature of them led to incredible flammability and spread of fire in these structures. Being there and knowing fire behavior and seeing this I just walked through this town and I'm like, "Where this fire came from in the Feather River Gorge and where the winds blew it, this entire town with the lack of major roads to get everyone out in a certain amount of time, it was a death trap." And I felt like I was just driving through a mausoleum of destruction and shattered dreams and lives and people who were gone and not been found yet. They haven't identified almost 30 of the bodies that they found. They've only positively identified about 60 out of the 80-something people who perished in the fire because some of these bodies are not – They're so burned, and I hate to be graphic, but it's the reality of the matter is they're burned beyond recognition and in some cases forensic analysis. It's going to take a long time for loved ones to find out whether their family members have perished for sure or not.
Farber: In days after the outbreak of the Woolsey Fire and the Camp Fire, President Trump tweeted disparaging remarks about forest management in California, and it drew direct critical feedback from associations of international and state firefighters. President Trump eventually did go to Paradise, California. How did you take his message and did you intersect at all in Paradise in the days that you were shooting there?
Palley: I did not arrive to Paradise until the day after President Trump visited, but I ended up speaking with some firefighters and going to the area where he visited the incident command post and getting walk through where his visit was and followed sort of some of him and his delegation's footsteps through the Camp Fire. The first thing is of course for the record factually he's completely incorrect and doesn't know what he's talking about to put it bluntly, and it's an incredible disservice and disrespect to all the firefighters, law enforcement, search and rescue volunteers that are there risking their lives to save people in the recovery operations afterwards just to say that we don't manage our forests well and that they need to be raked and things like that. And it's profoundly disrespectful to the dead, to the families who have been negatively affected and things like that. I think that his very presence there was disrespectful to the memories of those who had just been killed and to the destruction that he would say such callous and inaccurate and terrible things in the wake of such a tragedy, but of course that's the precedent and track record that he's set as a president that his entire leadership and administration has been marked by fear, hatred, lies, factual inaccuracy. Out here people are suffering and people are dying and you've got some guy 3,000 miles away that's not qualified to be a leader of this country saying things about raking the forest, and the fact of the matter is a lot of the forests in California are federally managed, and that's something on them that the federal government in the last few years has cut funding to these forest for fuels prescribed burn projects and things like that. So it's kind of like the pot calling the kettle black. In Cal Fire, which manages some forests but not a lot, they've put hundreds of millions of dollars into forest funding, and it was only after the Camp Fire did the federal government say they were going to put a few hundred million dollars back into forest management, but, again, to use a cliché, President Trump is not seeing the forest for the trees here and that we can do fuels management and have fire-wise communities, which is really important, but the fundamental driver of climate change with more days per year of hotter and drier weather that support large fire growth, these fires are getting worse and more frequent as we're seeing. You look at a graph of wildfire size, and it's an upward trend for the last 10, 20 years, and this is happening. I mean, scientists, there's a broad consensus that of course carbon emissions are leading to warmer atmosphere, which is leading to changed weather patterns, which is creating more days per year that support large fire growth, and then when you're got humans living in the wildland-urban interface, power lines going down, human-caused ignitions, you have this recipe for disaster. And you've got somebody coming in that doesn't know what they're talking about, and it's just – I mean, it's beyond frustrating. It's hard for me to put the words together to describe how profoundly insulting it is to people who have died and first responders, and honestly it makes me a little angry, Paul, that he said that. And then just the other day with that presidential [announcement], the senator from Minnesota [Amy Klobuchar], but she just had her rally yesterday to announce her presidency in the snow, and Trump saying, "Well, she's in the snow but she's talking about climate change," and the man doesn't even understand the difference between weather and climate, and he's supposedly the leader of the free world. It's very frustrating, and I get a lot of really negative feedback sometimes from people saying like I'm a shill or I'm a crazy liberal or things like that, but I actually grew up pretty conservative, and I'm not so much anymore, but my view is is that you can't deny what's going on on the ground. They're trying to say your eyes lie to your gaslight. It feels very 1984-esque in the fact that we're being told one thing or shown one thing, and people aren't being fooled. In the last year, 7% more Americans believe in climate change than they did in 2016, and it's about seven out of 10 of Americans now believe that climate change is a serious issue in this country, and it's the highest amount since they've started polling people on if they're worried about climate change. To go back to your initial question, yeah, it's just it's profoundly disappointing.
Farber: During a recent government shutdown, you were posting on your Instagram about Scott Gorman, a superintendent at the Angeles National Forest. What connections do you see between the real breakdown of federal leadership on the climate crisis and on wildfires and the experience on the frontline for first responders or people who are really working to prevent catastrophe?
Palley: It's a classic conundrum or phase of events where you've got people on the ground like Scott who's the superintendent of the Dalton Hotshots here in the Angeles National Forest who leads twenty men and women out into the most dangerous active parts of a fire to save people's lives, to save people's houses, to help mitigate damage to the forests. They risk their lives for really modest pay every year, and as we can see, not that great of job security after the shutdown, and then we've got people in Washington who've never set foot in a forest, who have never been a stakeholder in what's going on out here, never seen the destruction and power of a wildfire who are using them as pawns in a political game, and it is really disappointing. It's a huge disconnect, but this is something that's happened since the founding of the Forest Service in the early 20th century when Gifford Pinchot after the big burn in the early 20th century for the last 100 years is that the brass in Washington on the political side has had a pretty big disconnect with what's going on on the ground out here, and you've got people who are just out there trying to do their job as first responders being negatively affected by what's happening back east. The victims here end up being the public. Fuels programs that were necessary here have been delayed or stunted because of the shutdown, and it's also caused a lot of emotional and financial trauma to firefighters and other first responders, and I know for a fact that some of them went looking for other jobs and some of them got other jobs. So now we've lost some tremendous public resources as some of these firefighters and other people have gone into the private sector because they said, "Hey, I can't have my paycheck held hostage for five, six weeks while these politics play out."
Farber: You have documented the California wildfires from the front lines, and you've been able to take a step back and have us reflect through your books and through your writing. If you could imagine an appropriate monument or memorial for the wildfires that you've encountered, what would you like to see as we move forward and also try to remember?
Palley: I think there's two components to that, the first of which is on a immediate literal level. I think that in Paradise where the Camp Fire was, possibly where the Woolsey Fire was, I think that having some sort of memorial, or maybe even in Sacramento, to the victims of people, of civilians who have died in wildfires. There's a really beautiful memorial here in the Cleveland National Forest off Ortega Highway in between San Juan Capistrano and Lake Elsinore, and it's the California Wildland Firefighter Memorial, and it's this beautiful memorial out in the forest to all the wildland firefighters who have died in California in the last century, and the thing that really strikes me about that wall is there's a bunch of blank plaques for names of firefighters who have died, and to me it's like they know that more firefighters are going to be hurt and killed in these fires, and that's why they have so much space in this memorial, It's a very sobering and sad thing to see because as I've started this project I've seen more names get put on that wall after firefighters have perished in wildland fires, and I think that as we have a bigger civilian toll I think we're going to be seeing actual literal physical monuments to honor those who have perished in these climate-related disasters. I think that just having some sort of place where people can grieve, pay their respects, leave flowers, some wall that memorializes the names of each of these people who've been killed gives them a their name, their age, their hometown, kind of like a war memorial where we have a place to reflect on what has happened, that this doesn't just get lost anonymously in history. But for me, one of the biggest monuments if we want to talk about more of the figurative sense, is that we need to, the government of the United States needs to take decisive action on climate change, and most recently we've seen talk of the Green New Deal that Congress and senators have been talking about, spearheaded by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the freshman congresswoman from New York. And I'm seeing talks about climate change and climate action on a national level and dialogue that isn't there before, so if there's any silver lining as a monument to what's happened it's that people are talking about this and maybe we'll see some change, and there's a lot of questions that need to be answered. How are we going to do it? How are things going to be done? But, again, going back to what I said earlier, climate change is a huge threat to the future of humankind, and if we want our children, our grandchildren to inherit a world that's habitable, that isn't marked by increasingly violent oscillations between hot and cold, dry and wet, we need to do something, because things are changing and I've seen it happen. You can't argue with what's going on on the front lines. There's room for debate and the best ways to go about it, how we pay for it, what should be done, but the fact is is that we need to start doing something because we've put it off so long. I think really the best way to honor in my opinion the memories of those who perish, in addition to a physical monuments, is to do something about it, to better prepare communities for wildfire, to increase our funding for forest management, and to take decisive climate action on reducing our carbon emissions so that the warming that we've been locked into for the next couple of decades, that one and a half to two degree temperature rise, Celsius temperature rise, is mitigated as much as possible.
Farber: Stuart Palley, thank you so much for joining the Monument Lab Podcast.
Palley: Thank you so much. Thank you so much for your time, Paul. I really appreciate it, and that was very powerful to let me share that. I mean, some of these things that we've discussed I haven't had a whole lot of time to decompress, so thank you for the opportunity to share it with you.
Farber: Yeah. Well, thank you. You put yourself on the line to honor people and places quite profoundly, and it shows through your work in reflective ways and urgent ways, and we're just grateful to see this through your eyes and understand the sacrifice that you give, too.
Palley: Well, thank you very much for the kind words, and I hope that in the future I can continue to be somebody who shares this story.
Stuart Palley is a photographer based in Southern California specializing in environmental, art, editorial, and commercial/corporate subjects. Born and raised in Southern California, Stuart has photographed for National Geographic Magazine, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and many other publications. His work has appeared TIME Magazine, WIRED, New York Magazine, and The Washington Post. Stuart received his BBA and BA from Southern Methodist University and studied finance and history and minored in Photography and Human Rights. He holds a Master’s in Photojournalism from the University of Missouri. When not photographing wildfires Stuart can be found on road trips throughout the Southwest photographing the Milky Way.