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.