Photos: Chasing California wildfires

The Rocky Fire burns overnight near the town of Clear Lake, Calif. in Lake County, Calif. The fire was over 13,500 acres and 5 percent contained as of Thursday evening. Hot and dry weather caused the fire to burn actively at night, threatening homes and downing power lines. At least three home were destroyed.
The Rocky Fire burns overnight near the town of Clear Lake, Calif. in Lake County, Calif. The fire was over 13,500 acres and 5 percent contained as of Thursday evening. Hot and dry weather caused the fire to burn actively at night, threatening homes and downing power lines. At least three home were destroyed. Credit: Stuart Palley.

For some time now, Stuart Palley has run towards the heat.

The award-winning Los Angeles-based photographer has been chasing wildfires, compiling long-exposure images for his project Terra Flamma: Wildfires at Night.

His project, featured on numerous publications worldwide like Time and The Washington Post, was paid for through Kickstarter, completely independent of publishing house or institutional funding.

Terra Flama began after Palley finished an apprenticeship with a newspaper and said he felt disenchanted with the lack of prospects for jobs as a photographer.

“And I just realized that if there’s a project that I want to do, the only way that I’m going to be able to make it happen is to fund it and do it on my own, completely independently, without anybody steering the direction of the project or having any sort of expectation of my own product,” he said.

Although Palley’s wildfire and drought photography has been featured in a number of publications, few provided compensation or funding for him to continue to produce his work. It’s common issue that many photojournalists struggle with.

“A lot of these places, they love seeing work and featuring it, and want to see what you’re doing and work that’s new, but you know they’re not going to fund it,” Palley said.

Grants from the likes of National Geographic are out there, he said, but they can be hard to get and take time.

Crowdfunding allowed him to raise money quicker and pay the core costs to keep the project going, including gas and the protective gear necessary for him to be allowed inside fire zones.

The Rocky Fire burns overnight near the town of Clear Lake, Calif. in Lake County, Calif. The fire was over 13,500 acres and 5 percent contained as of Thursday evening. Hot and dry weather caused the fire to burn actively at night, threatening homes and downing power lines. At least three home were destroyed.
The Rocky Fire burns overnight near the town of Clear Lake, Calif. in Lake County, Calif. The fire was over 13,500 acres and 5 percent contained as of Thursday evening. Hot and dry weather caused the fire to burn actively at night, threatening homes and downing power lines. At least three home were destroyed.

That doesn’t mean he rushed into the process of putting together his Kickstarter campaign. Palley did ample research beforehand, studied successful and unsuccessful campaigns, spoke with friends who had gone through the process already, and took his time putting together a pitch video to attract backers.

“You need to do things properly and really think it out, and have a cohesive strategy on how you’re going to do a project,” he said.

The day after Palley’s project launched, it was featured by Kickstarter, and when the project closed, Palley had raised 260 percent of his goal, ending at $10,770. That, coupled with what he had saved up through various freelance work, allowed him to photograph California wildfires full-time this summer.

“The coolest thing was the huge validation for the project,” he said. Terra Flama is not the only wildfire-related campaign that has caught backers attention this summer. A fire relief fund initiated in part by a newspaper raised more than $1 million.

The public’s reaction to Terra Flamma: Wildfires at Night so far has been positive. Although, Palley said, there have been some people who have accused him of encouraging arsonists by creating images that make the fires look beautiful.

“It’s beautiful because it’s nature, but it’s also sobering because it’s damaging.

“The goal of the project is to document the drought and what I feel is climate change, but I want people to see the project on their own and reach their own conclusions on how fires affect how we live,” Palley said.

The Lake Fire burns in San Bernardino County Wednesday night and Thursday morning after coming back to life and burning thousands more acres. The fire was over 20,000 acres and 27 percent contained, down from 38 percent containment and smaller acreage the day before. Rim Rock was under a mandatory evacuation and Pioneertown was under a voluntary evacuation.
The Lake Fire burns in San Bernardino County Wednesday night and Thursday morning after coming back to life and burning thousands more acres. The fire was over 20,000 acres and 27 percent contained, down from 38 percent containment and smaller acreage the day before. Rim Rock was under a mandatory evacuation and Pioneertown was under a voluntary evacuation.

Palley plans to keep photographing wildfires throughout the rest of the year, with hopes that El Niño will make an appearance in the United States this year.

He plans to cover climate change for the rest of his life.

“I am committed to telling the story of climate change and fires in the west, and also telling the story of the firefighters,” said Palley. He is not completely sure in what shape this will take place going forward or if he will pursue crowdfunding again, although he says, it’s definitely on the table.

You can view more of Palley’s photography from Terra Flamma: Wildfires at Night on his website or follow him on Instagram.

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Sandra Proudman
Sandra is a writer and photographer based in Northern California. She is a believer in the power of crowdfunding to move projects and people forward.

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