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In Nighttime Shots of Massive Wildfires, a Photographer Shows Us the Light

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Shirley Fire, 2014. Stuart Palley

By Patrick Rogers

During the day, freelance photographer Stuart Palley covers news events for publications like the Los Angeles Times and shoots images for advertising and PR clients. By night, he pursues his passion: photographing the wildfires that have been ravaging, with increasing frequency, the forests, grasslands, towns and cities of his native California. Over the past five years, Palley has documented nearly 75 fires, from the Mexican border to the Shasta Trinity National Forest near Oregon.


Palley's infernal images, which are collected in a new book, Terra Flamma: Wildfires at Night, tell the story of an epic confrontation between humanity and nature. His photographs, such as the one of a man running from a burning house in Thousand Oaks last fall, named as one of Time's Top 10 Photos of 2018, depict the conflict's resulting fallout in dramatic fashion.

Stuart Palley

"On the one hand, you've got this incredible natural phenomenon that is awesome in the biblical sense, and on the other, it's ruining people's lives, it's killing people, it's burning their houses down," said Palley. "It certainly affects me. I'm a human being first and a photographer after that."

Largely devoid of actual people (and thankfully so), the images portray humanity in the fiery husks of houses and vehicles caught in the flames, in the trails of city lights on the distant horizon, and in the glaring electric searchlights of firefighters at their command posts.

Stuart Palley

Palley shot his first wildfire during a summer internship at the Orange County Register in 2012 and has since become trained in wildland fire-safety procedures. He wears the same protective clothing as the firefighters and carries a radio to monitor their activity on the fire line. After a night of shooting, Palley said, his car and camera equipment smell of smoke and ash for days afterward.

Shot with a tripod and using long exposures, the night skies in his pictures beam with stars and aircraft. They trace gentle circles above the fiery fury below that sends sparks leaping into the air.

Stuart Palley

Such spectacular plays of light, smoke and color—a glow that cannot be found anywhere else—inspire him. "Fire is its own light source and has its own energy. It bathes everything in this warm light, which is very fleeting and temporary but creates incredible colors," Palley said. "Essentially I'm using the fire to light and paint the scene."

By simultaneously capturing the fires' luminous and destructive power—the yin-and-yang appeal of pictures, as he puts it—Palley hopes Terra Flamma sparks conversation and encourages people to consider their own roles in a natural process that is increasingly being influenced by human action (and inaction).

Stuart Palley stands at the scene of a wildfire.

Drought and wildfire are a natural part of the California ecosystem, but people are fanning the flames through the drier conditions caused by a warming climate and the steady expansion of urban development into lands that are vulnerable to seasonal fires. In 2017, "we had the most destructive wildfire in California history, and here we are barely a year later, and we've already had the new most destructive wildfire, which has eclipsed the previous one," said Palley, referring to the Camp Fire that raged through the small town of Paradise and surrounding communities last November, killing 86 people and destroying nearly 14,000 houses.

Stuart Palley

"In the immediate term, fires are going to continue to become more destructive. People will die," said Palley, who donates a portion of proceeds from his fine art work to the Eric Marsh Foundation for Wildland Firefighters, which supports firefighters and their families with retreats and post-traumatic therapy workshops. But he is also hopeful. "The recent massive fires in California have put this issue in front of people all over the country and all over the world. People are starting to take climate change much more seriously." Like his images, Palley's outlook is both bright and dark: "Hope for the best, and plan for the worst."

Reposted with permission from our media associate onEarth.

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Protestors marched outside the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey on Monday, August 26, during the MTV Video and Music Awards to bring attention to the water crisis currently gripping the city. Karla Ann Cote / NurPhoto / Getty Images

By Will Sarni

It is far too easy to view scarcity and poor quality of water as issues solely affecting emerging economies. While the images of women and children fetching water in Africa and a lack of access to water in India are deeply disturbing, this is not the complete picture.

The city of Flint, Michigan, where dangerous levels of pollutants contaminated the municipal water supply, is a case in point — as is, more recently, the city of Newark, New Jersey.

The Past is No Longer a Guide to the Future

We get ever closer to "day zeros" — the point at when municipal water supplies are switched off — and tragedies such as Flint. These are not isolated stories. Instead they are becoming routine, and the public sector and civil society are scrambling to address them. We are seeing "day zeros" in South Africa, India, Australia and elsewhere, and we are now detecting lead contamination in drinking water in cities across the U.S.

"Day zero" is the result of water planning by looking in the rear-view mirror. The past is no longer a guide to the future; water demand has outstripped supplies because we are tied to business-as-usual planning practices and water prices, and this goes hand-in-hand with the inability of the public sector to factor the impacts of climate change into long-term water planning. Lead in drinking water is the result of lead pipe service lines that have not been replaced and in many cases only recently identified by utilities, governments and customers. An estimated 22 million people in the US are potentially using lead water service lines. This aging infrastructure won't repair or replace itself.

One of the most troubling aspects of the global water crisis is that those least able to afford access to water are also the ones who pay a disproportionately high percentage of their income for it. A report by WaterAid revealed that a standard water bill in developed countries is as little as 0.1 percent of the income of someone earning the minimum wage, while in a country like Madagascar a person reliant on a tanker truck for their water supply would spend as much as 45 percent of their daily income on water to get just the recommended daily minimum supply. In Mozambique, families relying on black-market vendors will spend up to 100 times as much on water as those reached by government-subsidized water supplies.

Finally, we need to understand that the discussion of a projected gap between supply and demand is misleading. There is no gap, only poor choices around allocation. The wealthy will have access to water, and the poor will pay more for water of questionable quality. From Flint residents using bottled water and paying high water utility rates, to the poor in South Africa waiting in line for their allocation of water — inequity is everywhere.

Water Inequity Requires Global Action — Now.

These troubling scenarios beg the obvious question: What to do? We do know that ongoing reports on the 'water crisis' are not going to catalyze action to address water scarcity, poor quality, access and affordability. Ensuring the human right to water feels distant at times.

We need to mobilize an ecosystem of stakeholders to be fully engaged in developing and scaling solutions. The public sector, private sector, NGOs, entrepreneurs, investors, academics and civil society must all be engaged in solving water scarcity and quality problems. Each stakeholder brings unique skills, scale and speed of impact (for example, entrepreneurs are fast but lack scale, while conversely the public sector is slow but has scale).

We also urgently need to change how we talk about water. We consistently talk about droughts happening across the globe — but what we are really dealing with is an overallocation of water due to business-as-usual practices and the impacts of climate change.

We need to democratize access to water data and actionable information. Imagine providing anyone with a smartphone the ability to know, on a real-time basis, the quality of their drinking water and actions to secure safe water. Putting this information in the hands of civil society instead or solely relying on centralized regulatory agencies and utilities will change public policies.

Will Sarni is the founder and CEO of Water Foundry.

Note: This post also appears on the World Economic Forum.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Circle of Blue.

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