Photo of the Week: Hell Descends on California Wine Country
Driving through scenic Napa Valley is typically a peaceful, relaxing experience. But when photographer Stuart Palley visited Tuesday night, it was hell. Turning a corner on Wooden Valley Road, he saw an entire mountainside ablaze, the orange flames threatening the verdant vineyards below. It took his breath away. “It was just a wall of fire,” Palley says.
Palley was driving toward the Atlas Fire, one of more than a dozen blazes ripping through California’s wine country near San Francisco. Fueled by powerful winds, they have scorched more than 200,000 acres since Sunday and forced tens of thousands of people to flee. At least 31 are dead, most of them elderly. Thousands of homes and businesses—including several wineries—have been burnt to ashes. More than 7,000 firefighters are fighting the blazes with hundreds of fire engines, tankers and aircraft, but it will take at least another week before they’re fully contained.
“It’s by far the most destructive and deadly fire I’ve ever photographed,” says Palley, who has documented more than 70 wildfires over the past five years. “Entire housing tracts have been completely leveled. It literally looks like pictures from Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the atomic bomb was dropped.”
The scene on Wooden Valley Road is by no means the worst of it, but for Palley, the spectacle gave the destruction some much-needed context. “When you think Napa, you think wine,” he says. He immediately pulled over, set his Nikon D5 on a tripod, and took this long-exposure photograph just as lights from passing fire trucks threw the green vines into eerie relief. It’s a surreal, horrifying glimpse of hell’s descent on pastoral beauty.