Day 6

Fire through their eyes: An inside view from the photographers documenting California's wildfires

Gabrielle Lurie and Stuart Palley are photographers who've both been in the thick of the California wildfires alongside firefighters. They tell Day 6 what it’s been like to document the U.S. West Coast as it burns.

'I think there is so much tragedy happening right now, but we need people to see,' said Gabrielle Lurie

Two inmates work alongside professional firefighters to battle the wildfires in Butte County, Calif., on Sept. 13, 2020. (Gabrielle Lurie/San Francisco Chronicle)

The images coming out of the ongoing wildfires on the U.S. West Coast have been heartbreaking and powerful. 

"I think there is so much tragedy happening right now, but we need people to see," said Gabrielle Lurie, a photographer with the San Francisco Chronicle.

She's been photographing the wildfires in California for the past four years, but she says this year is different.

"I think this year is crazy. We're very early on into the fire season. And I feel like there have already been hundreds of fires. Lots of them [are] small. But it just feels very ominous for the rest of the fire season," explained Lurie.

That's also why she feels it's so important for the rest of the world to see photos that capture the enormity of the situation.

"I think you can read about something that's happening and you can say out loud what's happening over there, but when you see it and you can put yourself in someone else's shoes, you can really have that empathy," she said.

Murals and recovery in the town of Paradise, Calif., in Butte County on March 27th, 2019. (Stuart Palley)

Stuart Palley just wrapped up an 11-day project photographing the fires for National Geographic. He agrees that it's important for others to see the destruction.

"This year is different in that we've had the most amount of acres burned in all of modern recorded California history. We're at over three million acres burned and that is a huge amount," he explained. "This is a glimpse into our future."

Protective measures

Photographing wildfires has its unique challenges, so Lurie, Palley and their colleagues have to plan in advance. They make sure their gas tanks are filled up and pack their cars with water, batteries, food and extra clothing in case they spent the night at the site. 

They also wear Nomex fire-resistant clothing, which is what's worn by the firefighters. And although they're competing for the best shots, the photographers also keep an eye out for each other.

I feel like I can stand in the middle of what used to be a community and it feels like Mars, because everything is just eerily quiet.- Gabrielle Lurie, San Francisco Chronicle photographer

"We have a text message chain. We share locations with one another. And I think that whether or not that is a false sense of safety, it makes me feel safe," said Lurie.

She also keeps her car running while she's shooting the fires.

"You keep your car on all the time because it needs oxygen to start. And if you're in a place that's consumed with fire, you might not have the ability to turn your car on" — which you might need for a quick escape, said Lurie.

A man stands in the remains of a garage burned by the wildfires in California. (Gabrielle Lurie/San Francisco Chronicle)

Palley, who also has training as a firefighter, says he always travels with a fire shelter and a chainsaw — the latter to help cut up tree trunks that might obstruct a road.

"It's just one of those things that's another tool in my tool box in addition to the cameras that allows me to do my job," said Palley.

Capturing disaster

When he arrives at a fire, Palley says he goes through three steps.

"The first of which is, am I staying out of the way of first responders? And am I not making myself a safety liability? And when those two things have been accounted for, then I will go in and take photos," he explained.

He says he tries to capture photos that put the fire in context.

One of the many wildfires in California captured by photographer Stuart Palley. This photo was taken in 2014. (Stuart Palley)

"What's at risk? What's being impacted? Is it sequoia groves or is it subdivisions? What is going on here? How do we capture the crux of the moment? So when people see that image, along with the written story published somewhere that people say, hey, this is something I need to take seriously or this is an issue I'd like to learn more about," he said.

Lurie says the first few days are usually about the fires themselves, but then her lens turns to the people affected by the fires.

"I feel like I can stand in the middle of what used to be a community and it feels like Mars, because everything is just eerily quiet and there's not this sense of urgency that you would maybe think that you would feel in a disaster," she explained.

"But then once you see like a scrap of someone's photo or a dead animal, it can all just feel like, oh, my gosh, these are someone's. This was someone's home. This one was someone's life."

A firefighter walks in front of the flames of a wildfire in Butte County, Calif., on Sept. 13, 2020. (Gabrielle Lurie/San Francisco Chronicle)

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