Yosemite wildfires show the 'beauty in nature's destruction'


A photographer who has spent the majority of his life in and around Yosemite Park says this summer's wildfires have shown the "beauty in nature's destruction."

Darvin Atkeson has been going to the vast National Park on vacations since childhood and has lived nearby for the past 20 years, but he told AOL News that this year's wildfires surprised him.

"One tree would go up in a matter of seconds, the pine needles would be stripped and nothing would be left," he recalled, adding that flames often shot twice as high as the nearly 160-foot, centuries old conifers disappearing before his very eyes.

"It was amazing how fast a tree that old could disappear, it was shocking," Atkeson continued. "In just five to 10 seconds it was gone."

A series of wildfires has torn a path through the famed California park over the past couple of weeks as a historic drought continues to suck any moisture from the trees.

The Meadow Fire has largely left homes untouched, but the Courtney Fire has burned down a number of homes.

Atkeson recalled coming across a rancher who had to flee his property with only a half hour's notice.

"He was devastated over having to leave his livestock, horses behind...he knew his house was gone."

Atkeson said he never learned of the ultimate fate of those animals, but said authorities work hard to save the lives of horses and cattle, often even setting them free to be collected at a later time.

He also initially feared the Courtney Fire would burn down his home and drove to the front lines to investigate before firefighters had even arrived.

"The whole area was turned bright orange, there was just no natural light... the light was very surreal," said the photographer, adding that he was worried because ash kept falling all around him.

He and his son drove to the other side of Bass Lake, realized there was no danger because the fire was moving away from his home and took hundreds of pictures.

The most spectacular of them captures a shooting star, the Milky Way Galaxy and the fire all in one shot. The pair left the aperture on his Nikon D800 open for half an hour to create that stunning image.

Despite the beauty, Atkeson laments that it took many of those trees hundreds of years to grow. He is upset the conifer forest will not return for the rest of his life, but says the devastating fire does bring with it a sense of renewal.

The meadows that open to wildflowers, shrubs and bushes provide food for deer and other wild animals, he says.

Some of his favorite pictures include a wide shot of helicopters landing on top of the 3,000-some-foot-tall Half Dome.

The rock formation is so tall the helicopters are "like mosquitos on top," he chuckled.

Other favorites include shots of the flames surrounding the Half Dome fire, especially one showing flames shoot into the air as if to grab the dark storm clouds rolling in.

"It's just got his beautiful, surreal light shooting through the clouds, the dark of the clouds and just to the right of the clouds a flame... It's just a beautiful shot."

He compares the picture to any number of paintings by 19th-century artist Albert Bierstadt, whose stunning paintings of Yosemite were deemed by contemporaries back east to be exaggerated versions of reality, said Atkeson. History has proven otherwise.

This wildfire cycle is the worst in at least 20 years, said the photographer. But they are all part of the plan.

"While this looks like a disaster, it is a natural part of the cycle," he said.

Whether its hurricanes as viewed from space [or] tornadoes ripping across the beltland of America, there is a beauty in nature even though it's destructive," he added. "We have to plan for that."

Atkeson and his wife plan by constantly keeping a suitcase by the door.

Though he says firefighters do "an excellent job" of saving peoples lives and getting them evacuated, there is often only about 30 minutes notice.

Atkeson said he prefers dealing with the occasional wildfire to the earthquake danger he felt while living in San Francisco.

"We just have to be prepared."

Atkeson's other work can be viewed on his website and by following him on Twitter.

Also on AOL:

Fires Forcing Evacuations in California
Fires Forcing Evacuations in California

Related links:
Racing wildfire engulfs homes in California town
Northern California wildfire burns 100 homes
Southern California fire 20 percent contained