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A forest firecloud rises above Foresta in California's Yosemite National Park

The Story Behind: Foresta Firecloud

As I write this, it’s prime fire season here in California and much of the western U.S. Walking outside, I smell the distinct odor of fire smoke and I see the orange-red color of the ever-present hazy light. Although the fires are burning primarily in the Sierra Nevada— the closet being about 40 miles from me— the San Joaquin Valley where I live is a bowl with mountains on both sides and the notorious summer high pressure systems lock the smoke in throughout Central California.


The aroma instantly takes me back to my earliest fire experience from my days living in Yosemite National Park. In August of 1990, several fires burned many acres just west of Yosemite Valley both inside out outside of the park boundary. The multiple blazes had the effect of actually closing Yosemite Valley because they burned across all 3 roads leading in and out. I was deemed an essential employee so I did not have to evacuate. Normally, August is the busiest month in the valley, so the evacuation of so many people created a very interesting scenario— a park normally jam-packed was nearly empty and an eerie light surrounded us.


On August 9, the massive A-Rock fire swept through the small, private community of Foresta, near the HWY 140 entrance to the park. I was wandering around that afternoon, wondering if I might see something worth shooting in the smoky environs. To the west, I saw a very large fire cloud begin to rise— later I found out that it was Foresta Meadow being consumed. I watched as the cloud rose to an amazing height, blocking out the afternoon sun from my vantage point 9 miles away. I was told that the cloud reached an altitude of almost 35,000 feet at it’s peak. The backlit cloud created a bright lining at it’s edge and a halo formed in the smokey atmosphere. I moved around, trying to compose a shot that would give the scene some kind of context, settling for a nearby pine tree to fill the negative space of the hazy, left edge of the frame. I did not include the top of the cloud because I felt that the dynamic edge told the story. And to this day, I think of that sight every time I catch a whiff of fire smoke, and I contemplate the paradox of the simultaneous beauty and destructive nature of the awesome forces of our world.

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