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'Los Angeles Times' Photographer On Documenting California's Wildfires

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Red skies, blankets of ash - the California fires have transformed landscapes and created images that look like something out of science fiction. Los Angeles Times photographer Wally Skalij snapped a tiny owl sitting on the Malibu beach in front of a fluorescent sky. In another image of his, three llamas are tied to a lifeguard stand straight out of "Baywatch." The entire scene is in deep shades of red. Skalij headed to the Woolsey Fire immediately after he covered the Thousand Oaks mass shooting at a country-western bar. And he joins us now from LA. Welcome.

WALLY SKALIJ: Thank you very much.

SHAPIRO: I know you've photographed so many wildfires over the years. How does this one feel different?

SKALIJ: This one feels different for the sheer size of it. I've covered previous fires in Malibu, and, you know, they're usually around 20,000 acres, 25,000 acres. But this one grew to a hundred thousand acres. And it just felt massive. It felt just more devastating.

SHAPIRO: And when you're covering something that big, how do you end up honing in on, say, that specific image of the owl on the Malibu beach?

SKALIJ: You know, usually when I cover a fire I have to get ahead of the fire and have it come towards me 'cause that's usually where all the urgency is. And I knew it was going to run towards the beach. And as I was coming down, I saw horses on the beach, which we don't really usually see in California. So I went in that direction. And I noticed behind me - it looked like driftwood. But I looked a bit closer, and turned out to be an owl just laying there on the sand.

SHAPIRO: When you took the photo, did you know it was going to be shared so widely? Was there something in your experience as a photographer that said, oh, yeah, this is really going to connect with people?

SKALIJ: Not really. But when I first saw the owl, we - the owl just looked at me, and I looked at the owl. It was just - it was almost like we had a moment. It was really strange. But I didn't know it would go viral like this. I mean, my mind is racing a hundred miles an hour 'cause, you know, there's houses burning up in the hills, and I know I have to get pictures of the firefighters battling that. And I'm glad I pulled back a little bit to get a little more sense of what was going on away from the flames.

SHAPIRO: Well, tell us about the llamas. What were they doing tied up on - at that lifeguard stand?

SKALIJ: From what I hear, they were rescued, and they were tied up to the lifeguard stand. And it was probably the most safest area they could be in. You know, obviously the flames won't burn towards - on the beach.

SHAPIRO: You're an artist working in a medium of color and light, and fires change the color and change the light so much. How does that change how you do your work?

SKALIJ: It changes a lot. I mean, it's - it was interesting how much the light changed. When I first came down the hill, it had a thin layer of smoke, which is when I photographed the owl. And then an hour later, the llamas, they had this orange cast. The smoke started getting thicker. And with my cameras, I could not correct that orange cast. It was just there, and that was it.

SHAPIRO: Well, why would you have wanted to? I mean, it really captures how otherworldly that moment was.

SKALIJ: You don't. But, I mean, it just felt too orange, which was eerie in a way. But...

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

SKALIJ: ...I guess it worked out that way. And, you know, an hour later, the skies went completely black to a point - I think it was around 1 or 2 o'clock in the afternoon where you had to turn on your headlights it was so dark.

SHAPIRO: You've also covered conflicts and wars in Kosovo and Afghanistan and Iraq. How do those experiences compare to covering something like a mass shooting or a horrible wildfire in your own country?

SKALIJ: I think it made me stronger. You know, when I first got in the business, I would go to a funeral. It was actually Linda's Sobek's funeral, a former Raiders cheerleader that got murdered. And I actually started crying. And, you know, I realized I can't do that. I need to block this out and work. So, you know, at the shooting, this isn't - I don't want to make this sound insensitive, but I didn't feel anything. I knew I had to work and just - and not - and block everything out. And I kind of did that for the past week with the fires and all the devastation and, you know, seeing people crying. And once I sit down for a couple days and, you know, if I hear a song, then it just might - it'll probably just hit me.

SHAPIRO: Well, Wally Skalij, thank you for the images and for your time today. I appreciate it.

SKALIJ: Thank you so much - really appreciate it.

SHAPIRO: He's a photographer for the LA Times who's been photographing the wildfires in California. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.