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Above the Soberanes: Aerial Photos from a California Wildfire

On the ground it moved like a wild animal, racing down canyons and up hillsides. It consumed drought-stricken brush and homes in its path with fervor. An esurient predator. Ravenous. Hissing. Roaring.

But from the air, it danced.


July 27, 2016

I was 9,100 feet in the air, the wind pulling strands of hair out of my braid and tying them into unruly knots that whipped at my face and neck. For four days I had watched as the Soberanes fire crept toward our family home in Carmel, California–not the home that still shelters three decades of irreplaceable memories, thankfully, but a home that I love nonetheless. What began as a serious 70-acre concern had exploded into an uncontained, 23,568-acre nightmare. An evacuation warning was in effect for our area and, elsewhere, the fire had already destroyed 20 homes as thousands of firefighters in extremely rugged terrain struggled to contain something they often could not reach. For four days I had watched from a computer screen in the Bay Area and from the ground in Carmel. On the fourth day, I watched from the air.

I leaned out of the helicopter spotting a DC-10 circling beneath, sinking lower and lower as it prepared to drop a load of bright orange fire retardant on the mountains below. Ahead a sea of smoke stretched north and east, an ocherous plume rising and catching the late afternoon light.

“This is worse than Mount St. Helens,” the pilot’s voice rang in my headset, cutting crisply through the howl of rotors and wind. It wasn’t worse, of course, but his point was well taken. The fire was immense, spewing smoke and ash up and down the coast. On one side, the smoke moved gracefully, glowing in the sunlight as it mingled with the fog rolling in from the ocean, flames pirouetting in and out of sight from underneath the haze. On the other, a jarring plume of black pierced the beige expanse–another home lost. A million moments forever interlaced with ash. Elegance and destruction. Astonishing beauty and horrifying devastation.

The Great Contradiction of Nature.

Aerial Photos of the Soberanes Fire

Click on any photo to view the full gallery

"This is worse than Mount St. Helens." The view that prompted the statement.

“This is worse than Mount St. Helens.” The view that prompted the statement.

Smoke and mountains. ©2016 Sivani Babu

Smoke and mountains. ©2016 Sivani Babu

 

An air tanker releases fire retardant over the mountains. ©2016 Sivani Babu

An air tanker releases fire retardant over the mountains. ©2016 Sivani Babu

 

An air tanker circles, preparing to drop fire retardant on the mountains below. ©2016 Sivani Babu

David and Goliath. A DC-10 aircraft circles, preparing to lay down a line of fire retardant on the mountains below. ©2016 Sivani Babu

 

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Sivani Babu

Sivani Babu

Federal public defender turned ethical traveler and lifelong lover of all things outdoors.

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