What’s happening in California and Oregon in the extraordinarily early start to this extraordinary fire season deserves to be labeled apocalyptic. Supercharged by global heating, the scale has already been historic. And at this point, there is no way to predict how much more loss and trauma from these vicious infernos–smaller outbreaks merging together into larger blazes– will be suffered.
The media has been full of images of these events. Still, it’s a special challenge for photographers and news organizations to capture images that reflect the unique or the otherworldly nature of the impact in a larger sense. While words can describe the unprecedented nature of events on the west coast, fire photos that striking come at a premium, especially after the fires in California in 2018, and the fires that engulfed Australia last winter.
This photo by Karl Mondon for the San Jose Mercury News rises to that level. It was taken last Wednesday near Lake Oroville in Northern California. The effect he captured is called a “fire whirl.” At its most straightforward, it’s just another emergency vehicle traversing a road as fire consumes a hill. At the same time, the way it evokes a sun flare, a Zeus-like lightning bolt, a tornado, even a missile all speak to the new unfathomable.