August 4, 2014 4:00 AM EDT

Over the last two fire seasons, I’ve photographed wildfires in Southern California at night. On location, there is absolute calm and stillness in the burn area of a wildfire. In May I stood atop a mountain overlooking San Marcos and Escondido in San Diego County, alone and under the moonlight, with the distant roar of flame and fire engine siren lights in the valley below. Smoke hung low over the valley, enveloping the cities in an ashy cocoon as the Cocos Fire smoldered. I setup my tripod and made images as the fire danced vertically into the air, inexorably marching forward, towards more homes.

This is, for me, a typical evening photographing fire.

Deciding which fires to roll out on, accessing them, scouting the right spot, and hiking around steep hills and mountains at night in smouldering and unfamiliar terrain can be a challenge. Often there is falling rock and debris to watch out for, in addition to “snags” — wildland fire parlance for trees or limbs that are still burning at the stump or damaged and about to fall.

Children as young as 7 years old are suffering serious health problem from toiling long hours in tobacco fields to harvest pesticide-laced leaves for major cigarette brands, according to a report released Wednesday. New York City–based advocacy group Human Rights Watch (HRW) interviewed more than 140 youngsters working on tobacco farms in North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia, where most American tobacco is sourced. They reported nausea, vomiting, headaches and other health problems associated with nicotine poisoning, known colloquially as green tobacco sickness, which is common among agricultural workers who absorb the toxic substance through their skin. "The U.S. has failed America's families by not meaningfully protecting child farmworkers from dangers to their health and safety, including on tobacco farms," said Margaret Wurth, HRW children's-rights researcher and co-author of the report. "Farming is hard work anyway, but children working on tobacco farms get so sick that they throw up, get covered by pesticides and have no real protective gear." Much of what HRW documented remains legal. While strict provisions govern child labor in industrial environments, U.S. agriculture labor laws are much looser, allowing 12-year-olds to labor for unlimited hours outside of school on any size of farm. On small farms, there is no minimum age set for child workers. HRW called on tobacco giants to ensure safe working practices and source responsibly. The global tobacco industry generates annual revenues of around $500 billion, but some 6 million people die each year from smoking-related diseases. Not everyone favors stricter controls. Republican Kentucky state senator Paul Hornback says he worked in tobacco fields from when he was 10 years old and doesn’t think further legislation is necessary. "It's hard manual labor, but there's nothing wrong with hard manual labor," he told the Associated Press.
Stuart Palley—Orange County Register

When I photographed the Brand Fire on June 22, multiple firefighters were injured from falling rock. I constantly remind myself to keep up my situational awareness as I focus on making pictures. I’ve trained physically as well to stay sharp after long hikes and hot days.

From a safety standpoint, the Introduction to Wildland Fire Behavior class I audited with the U.S. Forestry Service has proven invaluable. Of the 10 Standard Firefighting Orders I learned, #2 and #3 say “know what your fire is doing at all times” and “base all actions on current and expected behavior of the fire.” Because of the severe drought gripping California, erratic fire behavior is normal on many fires I have covered. Santa Ana Winds or dry thunderstorms exacerbate the danger and fuels in July are already burning like it’s late August.


Stuart Palley is a Los Angeles based photographer documenting wildfires, backroads and night skies.


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