Liam Searson Captures the Beauty and Terror of California Wildfires

“Wildfires are equally terrifying and fascinating,” the California photographer Liam Searson tells me. “Especially at night, when the daylight fades, seeing the landscape erupt in a glowing orange is a pretty unforgettable experience. Imagine if the northern lights, the Aurora Borealis, were extremely toxic and posed a major danger to those in the vicinity. Would we still find them as beautiful as we do now? In a kind of f**ked up way, that’s the same way I view wildfires.

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For Searson, these aren’t news headlines. They’re what’s happening in his backyard. Now a landscape photographer, he spent his childhood exploring the magical terrain of Big Sur, Joshua Tree, Death Valley, the Sierras, and the Channel Islands, following in his parents’ footsteps. He continues to return to these places as an adult in search of peace and beauty. 

As California burns, Searson watches, entranced by the power of the natural world but also frightened for the place that inspired him to pick up a camera for the very first time. “The most striking thing is the smell,” the artist admits. “It’s the smell of a campfire, but it’s inescapable. Its oppressive stench cannot be avoided, even in cars or while wearing N95 masks. Sometimes, it even leaks into your house if a door or window is accidentally left open.” 

We asked him about his experiences in the landscapes he loves so much. 

The Essential Gear of Liam Searson

Searson tells us: 

“The most important thing, for sure, is a tripod. Without one, especially at night, attempting photography is useless. In addition, I love my zoom lens, a 55-200mm, to get those real close-up shots that are much more striking than what you would see with your own eyes. 

“Another fun tool I use for tripod photography is a little clicker remote that can activate the shutter without touching the camera at all. So once a frame is set up, I can just click whenever I want a new photo. 

“It was also fun to experiment with various exposure settings; a shorter exposure captures crisp and intense flames, while a longer exposure really brings out the orange glow and blends the flame with rising smoke. The camera I use is a Nikon D7500, a very capable mid-range camera which I love.” 

Phoblographer: How did you get started as a photographer, and what drew you to landscapes? Did your love of photography predate your love of the outdoors, or vice versa? 

Liam Searson: Ever since I was a kid, I was drawn to photography. Even back when all I had was my little flip phone with a crappy camera, I still wanted to take pictures and send them to friends. As smartphones came out and became more popular, I finally convinced my family to get me one around 2012. Smartphone cameras in that year were nowhere near the capability of those on modern phones, yet I was still satisfied. 

Then, upon graduating high school, my friends invited me on a road trip that would take us through some of the United States’ most famous natural landmarks and monuments, such as Bryce Canyon, the Grand Canyon, and more. Little did I know at the time how pivotal of a moment this would be. My mom offered to let me borrow her old DSLR camera for the trip, and upon using it, I instantly fell in love. It was an old Nikon–the D40, I believe–and probably ten years out of date by the time I was using it, but I was fascinated by the amount of control and precision you could get out of that camera. From there, my love for photography skyrocketed, and now I have upgraded almost every piece of that original kit, lenses and all.

I was drawn to landscapes as a subject because I had always been fascinated by nature from my youth; I loved hiking, camping, kayaking, and even studying nature in school and learning about various geological and biological processes which created the world we see today. So it felt natural to pursue this. It was cyclical, as now I strive to see more natural beauty in the world with photography as a motivation to do so. I’d say my love of nature and the outdoors comes first, but it’s hard for me to imagine where I’d be without a love for photography.

Phoblographer: When did you notice the California wildfires becoming more brutal?

Liam Searson: I think wildfires in California have always been pretty brutal. I remember many as a kid. However, what seems to have changed in recent years is simply the frequency of these large fires. From my rough memory, it used to be every two to three years that we’d get a bad fire that would keep us indoors for weeks at a time. And my family and I have had to evacuate a couple of times in my lifetime for fears of these fires; for example, in the Jesusita Fire of 2009 as well as the Thomas Fire of 2017. 

I used to love summer, and I still do to some degree, but now I associate it with fires. The whole state feels like a ticking time bomb that regularly goes off every year. I almost anticipate every August to be the “month of smoke” where you cannot do any outdoor activities without risking the terrible air quality. The smell alone is unforgettable, of ash mixed with stale air from an N95 mask. One of my close friends lost his house just a few years ago from an unexpected fire that tore very quickly through an isolated part of town. Thankfully my family and I have managed to stay safe so far.

Phoblographer: Beyond the human cost, how are the fires threatening wildlife populations? 

Liam Searson: Hearing about how wildlife is affected by wildfires is sometimes even more tragic to me; often, these creatures have nowhere to go. They can’t evacuate to their friend’s place or get a hotel in another town. There is simply nowhere for most of these creatures to go. In California especially, we’ve developed so much land in this state that there are few completely natural habitats left. 

So, when one habitat in a forest burns, many of these creatures are displaced and struggle to find a new territory if they are surrounded by highways, apartments, farmland, and industry. In my “backyard” public land of the Los Padres National Forest, the affected creatures I hear about struggling the most are the mountain lions, black bears, the critically endangered condors, and many more.

Phoblographer: Did you embark on these trips specifically to document the fires, or did you happen to be hiking or camping as you spotted them? 

Liam Searson: For the photos I have of the Thomas Fire, those were close enough to home where it didn’t take much preparation at all to go see where the burn was. Of course, that was at least a week before it exploded in size and got close to SB itself. 

For the other fire that was below the Sierra Nevadas, that was completely by chance. I was on a backpacking trip with some friends, and as we rounded the corner of the highway for the view of the mountains, we were concerned when we saw smoke. Thankfully, the rangers believed our area would be unaffected so we could continue with our backpacking trip, but we were greeted with an intense welcome that first night we camped in the valley. 

That night was the one where most of those photos came from, as I was transfixed watching the blaze grow as the night grew darker, seeing fire trucks, planes, and helicopters constantly go back and forth to attempt to stop the fire. That’s the Inyo Creek Fire I’m talking about, below Mt. Whitney.

Phoblographer: What is your most powerful memory from your time working on this project and documenting these landscapes? 

Liam Searson: I think for the fires, in particular, the most memorable time had to be that evening watching the Inyo Creek Fire. We were miles away in the valley below Mt. Whitney, but there was nothing obstructing our view straight to the fire from where we were camped out. My friends and I were just transfixed. We saw the smoke in the daylight as we arrived, and the fire looked quite small then. But as the day came to an end and darkness grew, we started seeing more and more spots of light from the bits of flame dotted around the mountainside.

Phoblographer: Have you ever been frightened during one of these fires? If so, how did you cope with the fear? What’s motivated you to keep photographing in spite of it?  

Liam Searson: I have been frightened. Whenever a fire comes within 100 miles of me, that’s all I can focus on. Basically, all summer through fall, I have the fire.gov air quality maps as well as the Cal Fire incident report maps as tabs open on my computer because these things change daily with wind forecasts, rises in temperature, or anything. 

I distinctly remember waking up almost every morning during the Thomas Fire to check new updates, watching it slowly get closer and closer to my town. It’s a form of morbid excitement. They are terrifying natural phenomena that cause much destruction and devastation; however, that routine of constantly checking conditions sends adrenaline through me. I’m sure it’ll happen again this summer. For most of the serious fires, I don’t get the chance to photograph them due to dangerous conditions, closed roads, or traffic. I have no desire to put myself in a dangerous spot while others are attempting to evacuate to save their lives. That would be extremely reckless! 

Phoblographer: What can be done to help, either on an individual level or a governmental one? What kinds of changes can we make?  

Liam Searson: As I said before, these fires aren’t going anywhere. They are (and have always been) a natural part of the California ecosystem. However, it is evident that climate change is making these fires much worse. So, any efforts to protect our global average temperature and keep the rise to a minimum would presumably help these massive wildfire outbreaks (along with drought, species extinction, and so on). 

In addition, I think these patterns of fires have taught us that not every piece of land in California is suitable for living. There are towns and homes high up in the mountains in very high fire hazard areas (especially in the summer) which simply shouldn’t be there. For example, there are some houses high up in the Santa Barbara mountains which I believe should never have been built. They are just located in too dangerous of an area for firefighters to appropriately respond. 

They often have very limited access and escape points, and can easily be overwhelmed by an approaching blaze. I think that moving forward, California should restrict building codes even more for high fire hazard areas and incentivize these people to relocate to a safer area. That is much easier said than done, though.

Phoblographer: Aside from the fires themselves, how have these landscapes transformed in recent years? 

Liam Searson: Well, having lived here in Santa Barbara for over 20 years now, I’ve seen some dramatic changes to the landscape. Each fire creates its own burn scar, and from there, it has a zone that seems to border other fires’ previous burn scars. So, almost every year, a new portion of our mountains are scorched, removing any greenery in the hillsides and leaving only barren rock and dirt. 

The Jesusita Fire mostly affected the mountains in the Mission Canyon area, and I remember how brown and dead they looked in the years after the fire. The Gap Fire burned much of Goleta, and the Tea Fire scorched much of Montecito just the year before, in 2008. Then, in 2017, when enough vegetation had regrown, the Thomas Fire came through much of Montecito again. 

Each section almost seems to have a five to ten year period before it can be burned again–just for enough vegetation to grow back. I guess the one saving grace is that they always do grow back! Some may find it ugly, but fires are a part of the ecosystem here, and many of the plants and trees such as oak trees have evolved to withstand and live with fire. I don’t think it’s anything we could ever prevent or eliminate altogether.

Phoblographer: What, if anything, gives you hope amid the destruction of the fires? What do you hold onto?

Liam Searson: I think the solidarity we see in these communities affected by fire gives me hope. Despite great tragedy and destruction, we are able to come together to support one another when it is most desperately needed.

All photographs by Liam Searson. Used with permission. For more landscapes by Searson, be sure to visit his website, or follow him along on Instagram at shotsbyliam_ and on Facebook at shotsbyliam.