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Book Review by Robin Widmar

“Into the Inferno”

It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words, but Stuart Palleyís wildfire photos have value far beyond that clichÈ. Over the span of eight hellish wildfire seasons, Palley documented some of Californiaís most significant wildfires through a camera lens. His memorable images, which have been seen in numerous major publications, depict fiery catastrophes of historic proportions as well as human resilience in the face of disaster.ìInto the Inferno: A Photographer’s Journey into California’s Megafires and Falloutî describes Palleyís journey becoming a seasoned wildfire photographer. He imparts lessons he has learned ó sometimes the hard way ó and explains the world of wildland firefighting in understandable terms. Palley also provides background on how the earthís changing climate has spurred the current era of ìmegafiresî (accompanied by a lengthy list of references to back his narrative). He says, ìI have an obligation based on what Iíve seen, experienced, felt, and learned to share the story of wildfires and climate change.îPalley opens his story with a harrowing tale of a narrow escape on his first wildfire assignment: ìA wall of fire careened toward me from a few hundred yards away.î Some people would just decide on a career change right then, but Palley decided he actually liked this job. To reduce the chances of becoming a liability in hazardous wildfire areas, he acquired personal protective gear and communications equipment, attended wildland firefighter training, and improved his knowledge of fire behavior with every incident he worked.As Palley covered more fires and gained more insights, the connection to extended droughts, forestry management practices and abnormally destructive wildfires became clear. Climate change is no longer an abstract concept; it is a real-world problem. Severe and prolonged drought across the U.S. West combined with an unnatural buildup of natural fuels from decades of wildfire suppression have contributed to more frequent and intense wildfires. When increased human encroachment into wildfire-prone areas is factored in, the results are predictably bad: extensive economic and ecological damage, loss of life and added stress on firefighting resources that are already stretched thin.The wildfire images that Palley has made are striking, both for their stark subject matter and his ability to routinely create art from ashes. His photos are infused with a creative bent as he captures unique moments amid the ruins. At one point he observes, ìIn the destruction, here was a sort of strange beauty wrought by the flames.îAmong the photos included in the book are images of entire landscapes on fire, an anguished resident fleeing the flames barefoot and a nighttime scene of the Milky Way juxtaposed over a stand of scorched Joshua trees. Palley comments that he feels like an interloper when photographing entire communities leveled by a firestorm, or fire evacuees on their worst days. ìWitnessing someoneís pain never gets easier.î But through his work and that of his fellow wildfire photographers, people across the country and around the world can see the tangible costs of worsening climate conditions and the megafires they spawn.Those costs range from the loss of human life and incalculable ecological damage to lengthy economic impacts from lost homes and businesses. Then there are the invisible scars. ìFire leaves a mark on you,î Palley says. Those who repeatedly bear witness to fire and its aftermath do not walk away from the encounters unchanged. Palley thoughtfully addresses the mental tolls that never-ending fire seasons heap on firefighters, but also notes the personal impact his work has had on his own mental health and relationships. After witnessing the dismal aftermath of one catastrophic fire after another, he was tempted to walk away from his chosen path. ìWhat good was a camera when it seemed like the whole world was on fire?îBut Palley kept going. With humanity and compassion, he continues to tell the stories of people affected by historic wildfires and the dedicated firefighters who risk their lives to protect wilderness and communities alike. His narrative is evocative, with descriptions so vivid that the reader will have no problem imagining the flaming hellscapes Palley found himself involved in.ìInto the Infernoî is more than just Stuart Palleyís memoir. It is an insider perspective on horrific wildfires and urban firestorms, their tragic aftermath and the gritty realities of a changing natural world. Palleyís story should resonate with Coloradoans who have contended with their share of large and destructive wildfires over the past decade, and undoubtedly will face more of the same in the coming years.

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