Photographer Stuart Palley On Climate Change & Wildfires

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During a fire, you’re out there with firefighters and have a really intimate understanding of the work that they do. What can people do to support first responders? What do they need?

I was actually up in Northern California last week and asked that same question. And they said they just wanted people to be aware of what’s going on out here, how our fires are getting worse, and how that’s affecting firefighters. Firefighters are spending more time away from families on the fire line and that can cause stress.

Appreciate the sacrifice that they’re making. And if you’re in an area that’s prone to wildfires, clear your defensible space. Help the firefighters help you.

What sort of emotional toll does this work take on you?

There’s something I’ve learned about recently called compassion fatigue. It’s almost a secondary trauma or PTSD that happens when you’re there as a journalist or storyteller witnessing these disasters. Like first responders, you’re seeing this human impact, this physical destruction, the death toll, entire towns burning down.

Especially after going to the Woolsey Fire and then the aftermath of the Camp Fire in Paradise, in Northern California, I really had to step back, take my hands off the camera, and just take some time to rest—to spend time outdoors just for the sake of spending time outdoors with friends and family. I focused on self-care to help recuperate both physically and emotionally from witnessing all that destruction.

And what does self-care mean to you?

It means getting good sleep, exercising, eating well, spending time with friends and family and just taking time for myself. Going for hikes. Going out for dinner with friends. It’s about realizing that there’s still a lot of really wonderful things that we have. It’s not mitigating the reality of the fires. It’s accepting the reality, but also realizing that there’s a balance to things.

Your photographs are so beautiful, and I know quite a few of them have gotten lots of attention. Is there one in particular that’s really struck a chord with people?

The most recent one that really spoke to the public is an image from the Woolsey Fire at about 3 o’clock in the morning, just a few hours after it started, of a gentleman named Masao Barrows, who’s a carpenter up in Thousand Oaks, just west of Los Angeles. He’s running out of his house, for his life, in his pajamas. No shoes, just in shorts and a T-shirt. The moment lasted for maybe 10 seconds.Time ended up featuring that as one of their top 10 pictures of the year. I think it really showed the human impact of these fires and how quickly they move.

In addition to that, a lot of the long exposures that I do—the wildfires at night component of TerraFlamma—have captured people’s attention.

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