Firefighters in California
Firefighters of the Alhambra Fire Department fight the CZU Lightning Complex fires near Boulder Creek, California

Photos of California’s Suffocating Smoke

A photographer rushed home to California to capture scenes from a historic fire season.

When Balazs Gardi set out to photograph California’s wildfires last month, he avoided the towering infernos and burning edifices. He went where the flames crept slowly over the land or were all but extinguished. After 9/11, Gardi spent more than a decade chronicling the war in Afghanistan, and there he came to understand that the image that most grabs the viewer’s attention does not necessarily prompt the deepest reflection. With the fires, he took the smoke and debris as his main subjects, and what few colors he captured, he later stripped away. His intent, he says, was to represent the fires as a nascent norm, a fact following inevitably from our own actions, that, in time, we will come to accept.

Gardi lives in Oakland, but he and his family were in Dallas on a road trip when, in mid-August, thousands of lightning strikes set the Bay Area ablaze. He promptly boarded a flight home. From the sky, he saw dark smoke blossoming out of the cloud cover.

Gardi spent the next week following the fires. In the redwood forests near Boulder Creek, he met a team of Southern California firefighters who’d come north to fight the CZU Lightning Complex fires. They had been on the fire line for more than a week, they told him, and they would remain there for at least one week more. Under the soot and the sweat and the strain, their faces looked like wood carvings. “This is not just a regular exhaustion that you see in the eyes of those men,” Gardi says. “It’s hard for civilians to understand.” And yet each year now, we understand a little better.

Ignited by the CZU Lightning Complex fires, manzanita shrubs burn near Boulder Creek, California.
Cal Fire firefighter Karol Markowski fights the CZU Lightning Complex fires near Boulder Creek, California.
Smoke from the SCU Lightning Complex fires rises above the cloud cover in California.
From left: Cal Fire engineer Rob Crew; a firefighter of the Alhambra Fire Department; Cal Fire captain Lawrence Ramirez of the Alhambra Fire Department. All three fought the CZU Lightning Complex fires.
A property destroyed by the Hennessey Fire in the Pleasants Valley Road neighborhood near Vacaville, California

Cars destroyed by the CZU Lightning Complex fires next to Big Basin Redwoods State Park near Boulder Creek, California
From left: Cal Fire engineer Brent Warner takes a brief break from fighting the Walbridge Fire in the Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve near Guerneville, California; the melted metal of alloy wheels from vehicles burned by the CZU Lightning Complex.
Smoke from the SCU Lightning Complex fires lingers over Silicon Valley, California. On the horizon, smoke rises from the CZU Lightning Complex fires.
Cal Fire engineer Rob Crew of the South Pasadena Fire Department