Morning smoke from the Empire fire settings among forest trees in morning light
In today’s post I’m likely to repeat some things that I have shared before, but I think they might provide some context for this photograph of a wildfire that was still burning through forest in the Yosemite National Park Sierra Nevada high country. I have gone through several phases regarding wildfires as a subject. Many years ago, having had my first backcountry experiences in less enlightened part of the Smokey The Bear era, I simply regarded all wildfires as unmitigated disasters. Later I came to understand the obvious: wildfires have always been a part of the natural ecology of forests, and they are necessary for forest health. But I still didn’t like them. After that I began to make an effort to see wildfires and their aftermath as possible subjects for photographs, and even as potential subjects for photographs of something beautiful. For a long time I failed at that, even though I tried. More recently, perhaps because I have been lucky to be in the right places at the right time, I think I have finally begun to understand how to photograph the subject and make it work. (A longer post on that broad subject may be coming before long!)
There have been quite a few wildfires in California this year. (And while I recognize their importance in the natural order of things, I am concerned that the number and extent of the fires is far enough out of the normal range to have some long-term negative effects.) I have had plenty of opportunities to photograph their effects. On this late October morning I was in Yosemite and heading out towards Glacier Point, thinking it might be my final opportunity to photograph there before winter snows close the road for the season. I was stopped in my tracks as I came around a large bend in the road and to a high, open overlook with views toward the Sierra crest. The smoke from the slow-burning late stages of this fire had settled into hollows and among the trees in the still air overnight, and it was just beginning to drift and rise in the early morning light, both softening the scene and emphasizing the varied contours of ridges and forest.
Morning wildfire smoke settles among forest trees below a burned ridge
Yes, another photograph of wildfire smoke, made on a late October morning along the Glacier Point road, where a fire had been smoldering for weeks just to the east and south of the road.I arrived well after dawn, but still at a reasonably early hour when the winds had not yet stirred the fog that had settled into valleys and among the forest trees. The fog stretched a good distance across the low valley east of my vantage point, and the combination of the foreground trees and the thinner trees running up the ridge caught my attention.
This photographic subject is a bit magical. At this early hour, when the smoke is backlit, everything seems to glow. Although the still air permitted the smoke to pool in low places and among the trees overnight, by this time of the morning the air begins to move and the smoke drifts among the forest trees. And this ephemeral landscape of smoke is in constant motion, changing as a bit of wind passes through, as the angle of the sun changes throughout the day, and as it drifts among these trees. I made a small number of exposures of this precise composition, and when I look at them know I can see that each differs from the others in important ways.
Early morning wildfire smoke settles into a Sierra Nevada valley
I arrived at this point in the early morning while the sun was still very low in the sky and before the day’s breezes had begun to pick up. A wildfire had burned across this section of the Yosemite high country starting quite a few weeks ago, and by now it had transformed from a raging inferno that was rapidly chewing up the landscape into a slow-burning fire that continued to do the beneficial work of eliminating years of build-up of undergrowth. The latter, while smoky and disruptive, is a natural part of the normal forest ecology.
From this overlook I could take in the few back toward the valley where the fire was burning. At this early hour the smoke was mostly settled in from the previous night, layered in among the trees at the bottom of valleys. Like a river only much slower and less tangible, the smoke drifted down the bottom of the valley and followed the natural contours of the land. As I photographed and the sun rose higher, the air began to move a bit more. The smoke started to diffuse and rise, and before long it had come up to my position and it was time to go.
Early morning light on wildfire smoke drifting among forest trees
For a day that I began with only a vague plan (photograph Glacier Point at dawn) that I managed to miss (distracted by dogwood trees), I ended up with quite a photographic haul before it was over. I have a very early morning photograph of a lovely forest scene with autumn colors, a series of photographs of beautiful and mysterious drifting smoke along Glacier Point Road, several photographs of the autumn scene in Yosemite Valley, and finally a small set of photographs of sunset light on snow-dusted granite along Tioga Pass Road. All told, it turned out to be a rather remarkable day!
The least expected subject also turned out to be the one that produced the largest number of photographs — the early morning wildfire smoke that had settled down in valleys and among the trees overnight. If I had arrived at Glacier Point when I originally planned I might have missed this in darkness. Yet again, I got lucky, and after a delay brought about by my inability to resist stopping to photograph another forest scene I arrived here at just the right moment. The air was still and the smoke was barely moving among the trees in this large valley below my location. I had a good long time to stand and take it in and then work the scene carefully, with photographs ranging from those including the full scene to others, like this one, that zeroed in on small elements of it. Several things attracted me about this particular scene: the beams of lighting the smoke drifting through the trees at the bottom of the frame, the zigzag pattern produced by forest and smoke, the tall and thin trees on the far ridge, and the bits of Yosemite granite domes barely visible in the distance through the smoke.