Wildfires at Night
by Stuart Palley
176 pages, Schiffer Publishing
$25.85 at Amazon
Fires can be deadly, but they can also be beautiful. Most of us have spent time staring at a campfire or fireplace. It can be mesmerizing on a small scale, but when you see hundreds of acres being consumed by flames, it can be hard to turn away.
Television news might cover wildfires even less than they already do if the images were not so fascinating.
Flickering flames on a landscape at night can be captivating. A well-know wildfire photographer has made it an area of special interest during the last five years. After most fire photographers spent hours getting shots of fires during daylight hours and went home to rest, re-hydrate, and edit photos, Stuart Palley would often take advantage of the very special lighting, set up his tripod, and take multi-second exposures keeping the shutter open long enough for the dim light to be captured on the camera’s sensor.
Soon I found the night shots more interesting than the day. As the painter Vincent Van Gogh said, “I often find that the night is more colorful than the day”.
The book is a compilation of 110 color photographs of 39 wildfires shot at night in California over the past 5 fire seasons, including the Rim, Rough, and Thomas Fires. There is also an introductory section about his background, on photographing the fires, and his experience at the incidents in addition to statistics about each wildfire.
Terra Flamma, Mr. Palley explains, is a rough Latin translation for “earth on fire”. I am not a fan of using words from a foreign language in a motto, company name, or book title. If people reading it don’t speak that language, the words can be meaningless.
I took these three photos of the book cover and some of the pages within, but they do not do justice to the excellent photos and the beautifully printed pages. I didn’t even snap pictures of his best images, not wanting to spoil the pleasure of someone opening the book for the first time.
Too often we see photos that firefighters take at fires that have been tweaked and manipulated within an inch of the pictures’ lives, cranking up the intensity, screwing with the color saturation, adding Instagram filters, or merging three or more photos into one with high dynamic range. Or worse, using the camera’s software to manipulate just one image into what the vendor calls high dynamic range. These can become extremely unrealistic. I have fallen into that trap once or twice, making one very little post production “enhancement” that’s barely noticeable, then one more, and another. Then when done, I have compared the tweaked version to the original and see that they are very dissimilar, and may tell a different story. That’s when I start over.
But Mr. Palley explains that he used “minimal enhancement, with the goal to reproduce what I saw at the fire”.
And it works. His experience as a journalist, news photographer, his masters degree in photojournalism, and years spent chasing wildfires all over California can be seen on the 176 pages.
Earlier we wrote a review of John N. Maclean’s book that he officially released today, River of Fire: The Rattlesnake Fire and the Mission Boys. It covers the 15 fatalities that occurred July 9, 1953 on Rattlesnake Fire on the Mendocino National Forest in Northern California. Of those, 14 were members of the New Tribes Mission based at a nearby facility at Fouts Springs. Known to the locals as missionaries, they often mobilized firefighters from their group as needed when fires were burning in the area. The 15th person killed was a Forest Service employee who had volunteered to carry food to the missionaries who were working on a spot fire down in a drainage where they could not be seen by the other personnel on the fire. And, the missionaries could not see the rest of the fire.
Before having a chance to read the entire book, we asked photographer Kari Greer about her experience in providing the images. We also asked Mr. Maclean some general questions about the book and how it was different from Fire and Ashes published 15 years ago.
Their emailed responses are below — first, Ms. Greer:
Maclean’s objective in having me photograph for River of Fire, in my mind was to personalize the events of the Rattlesnake Fire in 1953 for a current audience, to make it visceral and logical. Since it happened so long ago it’s easy to perceive the legend with remote nostalgia. It’s an innocuous-seeming minor drainage and that’s where the warning lies. The chaparral fuel type and the now well-worn route of the race with fire (and subsequent recovery road) are cautionary for any slope at risk for sundowner winds.
I think a visual tour helps the mind process what to look for in other similar scenarios. The lessons are there and Don Will, Daren Dalrymple, Jon Tishner and Jim Barry have kept the hallowed site a laboratory for further introspection and reverence. It’s a heavy place loaded with ghosts who have something to teach us. Their help on-site was invaluable, I could not have seen the nuances without their expertise.
(From Mr. Maclean)
River of Fire has a very different theme from my first account of the Rattlesnake Fire, published in 2003 in Fire and Ashes. That version included the first extended account of the motives of the arsonist, Stan Pattan, a recreation of the events of the fire by more than 30 firefighters – the first semi-formal staff ride at the site – and a detailed check of the credibility of the fire report, which passed. River of Fire updates all those items, but its theme looks to the future: Passing It On.
In the years since Fire and Ashes first appeared the site of the Rattlesnake Fire has been recovered, the old firelines opened, and an explanatory memorial installed. Its lessons are being passed on to new generations of firefighters and others. These days hundreds of firefighters go there every year as part of a formal staff ride. Families of the fallen have visited the site and reconnected to lost parents, friends, and their own pasts. As stories of these encounters came in over the years I added them to the story – sometimes I wouldn’t touch the manuscript for a couple of years; other times I spent weeks in research and writing. One sad effect of the passage of time has been the loss of living memory, as participants and witnesses came to the ends of their lives, sometimes only a few days after talking to me. Earlier this year I looked at the manuscript and realized it had grown enough in bulk and scope to justify an update. Once Kelly Andersson, my longtime editor, and I started to pull it together this spring it became clear the Rattlesnake Fire had turned into a living event, its lessons now bright and alive to a new generation of firefighters. The contrast with what I had found two decades ago – a forgotten, overgrown canyon site fading into history – was extreme.
River of Fire quickly turned into a community project, a telling of the tale through the eyes of people who have lived for decades with the effects of the fire. Three past superintendents of the Mendocino Hotshots – Don Will, Daren Dalrymple and Jon Tishner, keepers of the flame – helped enormously, and many others willingly told their stories. River of Fire contains everything that was in the old version: a precise account of what happened July 9, 1953, and the immediate aftermath. But as Will correctly states in his foreword, the Rattlesnake Fire has become a story of resurrection.
River of Fire would not have happened without the sustained enthusiasm of Andersson, who once lived in Willows herself, frequented Nancy’s Café, and knew some of these people. Andersson kept after me for years until I had the material for a new book. She then made contact with Kari Greer, whose photos bring the new reality crackling to life. She worked with the hotshot superintendents; Chris Cuoco, the meteorologist who provided insight into the weather events of that day in 1953; Jim Barry and others. The result is a deeper examination of a once nearly forgotten story, restored by a community to its rightful place as a landmark in the history of wildland fire.
When I worked at Log Springs in 1968 on the Mendocino National Forest in Northern California I don’t remember much discussion about the catastrophe that killed 15 wildland firefighters only a couple of dozen miles away 15 years before. The Rattlesnake Fire was not a huge campaign fire that blackened tens of thousands of acres and took weeks to contain. It burned about 1,300 acres and was declared under control roughly 40 hours after Stan Pattan threw the match out the window of his green Buick, July 9, 1953.
All but one of the firefighters that perished that day were affiliated with the New Tribes Mission based at a nearby facility at Fouts Springs. Known to the locals as missionaries, they often mobilized firefighters from their group as needed when fires were burning in the area. Some had taken fire training, and others had none. The 15th person killed was a Forest Service employee who had volunteered to carry food to the missionaries who were working on a spot fire at night down in a drainage where they could not be seen by the other personnel on the fire. And, the missionaries could not see the rest of the fire.
John N. Maclean, an author well known in wildland fire circles for his previous work, has released a new book about the Rattlesnake Fire, titled River of Fire: The Rattlesnake Fire and the Mission Boys. The official release is today, June 23 at the 75th Region 4 Smokejumper Reunion in McCall, Idaho.
The book builds on the piece about the fire that Mr. Maclean included in his Fire and Ashes book published in 2003 which also had sections about three additional wildland fire topics. The new book adds more details and includes information from, and sections written by, firefighters who have recently worked in the area, including three past superintendents of the Mendocino Hotshots. There are also photos freshly-taken by Kari Greer, a photographer who specializes in wildland fire. Mr. Maclean told us that one of the themes of this book is “Passing It On”, which is the title of the foreword written in May, 2018 by Don Will, Superintendent of the Mendocino Hotshots from 1988 to 1994. The book explains that the Mendocino Hotshots were the unofficial caretakers of the tragedy site for years.
River of Fire has a number very compelling stories scattered throughout. For example, it describes the process of developing the first air tanker that could drop water on a fire. In the early 1950’s there had been some attempts at designing an apparatus that could drop water from an airplane, but everything was crude and not effective. Two years after the fire, in 1955, Joe Ely, the fire control officer on the Mendocino who also helped fight the Rattlesnake Fire, worked with a crop-duster pilot named Vance Nolta who designed a tank with a gate and a dump valve that could be operated from the cockpit. A test of the system on a fire intentionally ignited along a runway at the Willows, California airport was a success. Later that year it was first used on a wildfire near Covelo on the Mendocino National Forest.
There is also a touching story about a young child who lived at the Fouts Springs missionary camp when the fire started in 1953. Her father was killed in the fire, and as she grew up her mother did not talk about him or how he died. But in 2010 she found information about the tragedy online and had to find out more. After driving eight hours from Oregon she contacted the Forest Supervisor’s office in Willows and asked for directions. Here is an excerpt from one of the later sections of the book:
…Instead, they acquired two eager tour guides, the former and current hotshot superintendents [Daren] Dalrymple and [Jon] Tishner, who volunteered to take them to the site and show them around. “I knew there had to be people like her out there,” Dalrymple said. “It was the best day on the hill I’ve ever had.”
The tragedy led to the development of the 10 Standard Firefighting Orders as well as changes in wildland fire training, safety standards, and awareness of weather and fire behavior.
For decades there was not much at the site to identify it or interpret what took place on that fateful day. In 1993 a plaque was installed that had the names of the firefighters that perished, and in 2005 a new interpretive and training site overlooking the area in Grindstone Canyon was built on the old Alder Springs Road. It features exhibits describing the events that day in 1953, and trails lead visitors along the routes taken by those 15 firefighters, and the ones who survived.
The development of the memorial and the maintenance of the trails and the original firelines and dozer lines help to facilitate the numerous visits and staff rides each year. Passing on the lessons learned to new generations of firefighters can help build up their knowledge base about fire behavior and weather and may keep them from repeating some of the unfortunate decisions that led to the deaths of 14 missionaries and one agency employee.
There are, of course, other wildfires where large numbers of wildland firefighters died — the 1910 fires (85 killed), the Griffith Park Fire in 1933 in a Los Angeles City Park (29, most were not firefighters but were pulled from other tasks to work on the fire), Blackwater Fire of 1937 (15), Mann Gulch of 1949 (13), Inaja in 1956 (11), South Canyon Fire of 1994 (14), and the 2013 Yarnell Hill Fire (19).
We asked Mr. Maclean for permission to use an excerpt from the book (longer than the brief one above), and this is what he sent us:
During the photo shoot for this book this spring, Kari Greer, photographer, and Daren Dalrymple, former Mendocino Hotshot Superintendent, ran into two young men, a former firefighter and a hopeful one, hiking the firelines at the site.
“When Daren and I were up there,” said Kari, “these two guys drove up and chatted with us briefly when we were shooting near the Gillaspy ranch. They said they were headed for the Rattlesnake site and they proceeded on to the Overlook. They must have stopped there, paid respects and read about the fire, and then walked around a bit from there.”
She said the two continued all the way up to Powderhouse Turn, while she and Daren stayed at the Overlook wrapping up the photo shoot. They watched as the hikers made their way along the stand trails and the staff ride locations, spotting them now and then through the brush and across the canyon on the north slope.
“It was interesting to see it to scale,” said Kari, “the size of the guys hiking in the chaparral and their pace as they traversed the landscape. They did the entire thing, even going down to Cecil Hitchcock’s cross at the bottom and clear up to Stanley Vote’s cross at the top. This showed us that they knew the history and were doing the full experience.
“Daren and I made our way up to Powderhouse Turn, and we caught up with them as they were hiking out, coming up the Access Route that goes downhill to the Missionary Spot Fire. We talked a bit more with the two of them and learned that José Gonzalez was here being mentored by Daniel Hartrum, who is a former firefighter, now a teacher. José was working hard; he was wearing a Pack Test Vest and carrying a tool. They told us he was hoping to get hired onto a crew and Daniel was giving him some field experience at the site.”
The book is very well written and edited, as usual for a John N. Maclean product. As mentioned above, much of the content is from the Fire and Ashes book published 15 years ago, but there is a good deal of new text and updated information covering what has transpired in the intervening years. The contributions by the three hotshot superintendents are especially valuable. I recommend this book for Students of Fire and all wildland firefighters for the lessons that can be learned, especially if they have not read the Fire and Ashes book. It would be a good reading assignment before participating in a staff ride at the site.
The black and white photos are helpful to figure out the context and geography. The electronic version expected late this summer or autumn will have Kari’s photos in all their glorious color. It will be available for Amazon Kindle devices or apps, and Apple products.
It is believed by many that the 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hot Shots that died in Arizona on the Yarnell Hill Fire in 2013 were hiking to a private ranch near the fire, which was thought to be a bomb-proof safety zone. While still hundreds of yards away, they were overrun by the rapidly spreading fire pushed by shifting outflow winds from a thunderstorm.
One of the owners of the ranch, DJ Helm, has written a book about their experiences before, during and after the fire. Below is an excerpt from the book, Fire on the Wind, published with permission.
We didn’t know it was coming, that fire on the wind, but we did know it was blazing out of control way over to the north of us along the base of the distant mountains. I had gone to our front window to check its progress just before we sat down for lunch on that unusually hot Sunday afternoon of June 30, 2013.
We weren’t overly concerned about it as we watched the aerial attacks of water and crimson retardant being dumped in that area. The fire was definitely burning away from us and looked as if it had burned itself out on the mountainous state land to the northwest of our house where it started.
I had so looked forward to our three-day Grand Canyon vacation that began Thursday, June 27, 2013. Then right in the middle of it came the phone call. It was early Friday evening, June 28th, and there was smoke on the mountain above our house. The neighbor who called said it was caused by lightning from thunderstorms booming in the skies over Yarnell and Glen Ilah.
Lightning struck on the tallest mountain’s ridge near time-sculpted boulders barely visible above thick native vegetation. Having been deprived of adequate rain for several years it was bone-dry, a volatile wildfire-prone condition. Local fire departments began receiving a flood of calls from those who saw the first smoke. Everyone within the comfortable circle was confident the problem would be taken care of as they continued to go about their daily routines for the next two days.
Judging by first impressions, an aerial report noted it was just a couple of acres of brush burning among a pile of rocks up there; not much of a threat. The rough terrain would be accessible by helicopter only and darkness was setting in; there would be no action taken at that time. It was the beginning of the Yarnell Hill Fire—and we weren’t home.
Sunday afternoon, June 30th, we were back home, and shortly after 4:00 pm the unimaginable happened. Firefighters and residents alike were caught off guard when the northbound fire was clutched by a ferocious storm brandishing strong southbound winds, suddenly turning it around, driving it in this direction. Pushing forward at a speed many firefighters had never experienced, there was no chance of stopping the powerful epic phenomenon. The wind-driven torch swathed across boulder-strewn valleys and over mountains heading toward our communities and the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshots, trapping them in a flat-bottomed, three-sided box canyon.
In a flash, smoke and flames engulfed the neighborhoods, causing unprepared occupants to flee the fast-approaching wall of fire. Leaving everything behind except a few personal items grabbed in haste, desperate residents were forced to evacuate as theblazechased them out. Driving through blinding smoke along twisting narrow streets, crawling bumper-to-bumper away from the advancing inferno, a steady stream of traffic surged onto State Route 89. With the Sheriff’s Department’s assistance and neighbors helping neighbors, everyone made it out safely. Everyone but 19 of the Hotshots.
By happenstance we were most likely the first civilians to be made aware of the 19 young men’s deaths. One of the other firefighters told me about the tragedy later after several of them hiked down here from the fatality site. I was standing by the house, staring in disbelief at the devastation surrounding us in every direction, when he walked up behind me. He wanted to know how to get back in here so they could recover the Hotshots’ bodies from the side of the mountain.
The unrestrained Yarnell Hill Fire became one of the deadliest in U.S. history, swiftly taking thousands of acres that Sunday afternoon. Desecrating the pristine high-desert countryside, it left naked, blackened boulders behind as well as 127 burned-out homes in Yarnell and Glen Ilah. Several buildings on a ranch in Peeples Valley were also burned. Amazingly, though it was harrowingly close for so many of them, no civilians were lost.
Tragically, 19 of the 20 Granite Mountain Hotshots’ lives were cruelly taken. They had descended from the mountain top and perished in a box canyon one-third of a mile from our home and about a mile southeast of where the lightning had started the fire. Before long the fatality site was enclosed within a chain-link fence. Outside the fenced area to the north a flagpole was erected, which began flying American and Arizona flags.
This book is about our personal experience with the Yarnell Hill Fire and the first hectic weeks that turned into months—now years—as fire officials, police, forest service investigators, government officials, and family members—by this time well over two thousand people—have come up our driveway, through our property, and over the newly-cut bulldozer line to the site.
In “My Lost Brothers” Brendan McDonough writes about his journey of becoming a wildland firefighter, and the loss of his 19 “brothers” in 2013 on the fire in Arizona.
Above: Most, but not all, of the members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots at the world’s largest alligator juniper tree in 2013. The crew protected it while fighting the Doce Fire near Prescott, Arizona about two weeks before the tragedy at Yarnell. Photo by Chris Mackenzie.
Last August I interviewed Brendan McDonough, the only firefighter of the 20-person Granite Mountain Hotshot crew that survived the Yarnell Hill Fire south of Prescott, Arizona in June, 2013
He told me that he was working on a book about his life – his background, drug problems, burglary conviction, and becoming a father at age 19. “That’s what I’m saying in the book,” he said. “I’m sharing the stories and the great memories I have of them, and I’m telling my stories about Yarnell – what I saw, how I felt, and what I think happened.”
He said working on the book was therapeutic for him, collaborating with best-selling author Stephan Talty, author of A Captain’s Duty about Richard Phillips, captain of the MV Maersk Alabama that was captured by Somali pirates and later rescued by Navy SEALs.
My Lost Brothers: The Untold Story by the Yarnell Hill Fire’s Lone Survivor, is scheduled for release on May 3, 2016 but may be available before that in bookstores. After reading an advance copy, I found it to be an extremely personal account of Mr. McDonough’s life before becoming a member of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, his experiences while on the crew for three seasons, and how he dealt with the tragedy — the fire that killed 19 of his “brothers” on June 30, 2013.
The 20 men were fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire near Yarnell, Arizona, 90 miles northwest of Phoenix that day. A passing thunderstorm created very strong outflow winds that suddenly changed the direction the fire was spreading, forcing it to make a right turn. The fire raced toward 19 men on the crew, trapping and killing them in a box canyon. Mr. McDonough survived because he was serving as a lookout in a location separate from the others. He also had a close call as the blaze burned toward him, but was rescued by the crew Superintendent on another Hotshot crew who gave him a ride out of danger on a small utility vehicle.
I was hoping that the book would reveal more about WHY the 19 men left the safety of a previously burned area (the “black”) and hiked cross-country through dense unburned brush where they were entrapped by the fire. That is a crucial piece of the puzzle not yet revealed to the public. A piece that could add to the body of knowledge about firefighting that could be a valuable lesson learned — possibly preventing similar fatalities.
But a clue was in our interview eight months ago when he said:
I would never … if my brothers did make mistakes, I would never keep that a secret to put in a book. There’s nothing that is going to be in there that people don’t already know.
And he was true to his word. While he revealed a great deal about his private life, there is little about what happened on June 30, 2013 that has not already come out in the investigations, reports, and the video recordings made by various firefighters that day that included audio of radios used by firefighters. While there are many quotes of radio conversations in the book, most of them appear to have been previously revealed in the recordings. There are no earth-shaking revelations about who made the crucial decisions, or why, that led to the Granite Mountain Hotshots being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Many wildland firefighters live in areas where firewood is available, as long as you have a permit and know how to use a chain saw. The Guardian has an interesting review of a new book about a very old subject, collecting and processing your own firewood.
“…Now, at last, wood is being rehabilitated. More than that: it is suddenly fashionable, and Norwegian Wood has become one of the most uplifting publishing stories of 2015. A simple, elegant book about how to fell trees – about how to move the timber and then split and stack the logs in the most efficient, aesthetic ways – it has already sold hundreds of thousands of copies. It is one of those books, full of lush, earthy photos, about which people seem to become almost evangelical.
The reason for its appeal is clear: in this depressing age of bombs and bullets, of financial instability and screen-mediated reality, there is something honest, solid and reassuringly ancient about wood. As Lars Mytting says about the woodpile: “Its share price doesn’t fall on the stock market. It won’t rust. It won’t sue for divorce. It just stands there and does one thing: it waits for winter. An investment account reminding you of all the hard work you’ve put into it.”
It helps that Mytting is able to put primitive yearnings into lyrical prose. He quotes beautiful poems, like one at the beginning of the book by Hans Børli: “The scent of fresh white wood / in the spring sap time: / as though life itself walked by you, / with dew in its hair.” And the fact that he is Norwegian gives him much authority and many anecdotes: in Norway, 25% of energy used to heat private homes comes from wood, and half of that wood is chopped by private individuals. It is a country obsessed by all aspects of firewood, and, as Mytting jokes, many weddings and funerals have seen heated arguments about the best make of axe, or whether wood should be stacked bark up or bark down…”