When Los Angeles Times photographer Wally Skalij photographed a tiny owl sitting on the beach in Malibu as the flames of the Woolsey Fire burned in the background, he had no idea how many people would connect with the image.
Since the Times published the photo, it’s been shared thousands of times on social media. The owl and other photos Skalij made — three llamas tied to a lifeguard stand, a father and daughter sifting through the ashes of their home, a firefighter peering over a concrete wall as a torrent of flames rises in front of him — are eerie and otherworldly, capturing the surreal nature of a world consumed by fire.
At least 82 people have died throughout California since the Woolsey Fire and the Camp Fire in northern California broke out earlier this month, destroying at least 250,000 acres of land. As of Tuesday, more than 600 people are still missing.
Skalij has worked for the Los Angeles Times for 26 years and has photographed many wildfires. But he says there was something different about the Woolsey Fire.
“This one feels different for the sheer size of it,” Skalij says. “I’ve covered previous fires in Malibu, and they are usually around 20,000 acres, 25,000 acres. But this one grew to 100,000 acres. And it just felt massive, it just felt more devastating.”
Skalij, who headed to the Woolsey Fire immediately after covering the mass shooting at the Borderline Bar & Grill in Thousand Oaks, discusses what it’s like to document tragedy and how to find the most powerful image.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
When covering something as big as the Woolsey Fire, how do you end up [homing] in on a specific image such as the owl on the Malibu beach?
When I cover a fire, I have to get ahead of the fire and have it come towards me, because that’s usually where all the urgency is. 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 little bit closer and it turned out to be an owl, just lying there on the sand.
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”?
Not really, but when I first saw the owl, the owl just looked at me and I looked at the owl, and it was almost like we had a moment. It was really strange, but I didn’t know it would go viral like this. My mind is racing 100 miles an hour because this house is burning up in the hills, and I know I have to get pictures of the firefighters battling that. I’m glad I pulled back a little bit to get a little more sense of what was going on away from the flames.
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?
It changes a lot. 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 [on the beach] 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.
Why would you have wanted to change it? It really captures how otherworldly that moment was.
You don’t. But it just felt too orange, which was eerie in a way. … And an hour later, the skies went completely black. 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.
You’ve also covered conflicts in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. How do those experiences compare to covering something like a mass shooting or a horrible wildfire in your own country?
I think it made me stronger. When I first got into the business, I went to a funeral — it was Linda Sobek’s funeral [a model and former Los Angeles Raiders cheerleader who was sexually assaulted and murdered], and I actually started crying. I realized I can’t do that. I need to block this out and work. At the Thousand Oaks shooting — I don’t want to make this sound insensitive, but I didn’t feel anything. I knew I had to work and block everything out. I did that for the past week with the fires and all the devastation and seeing people crying. Once I sit down for a couple days, and if I hear a [sad song], it probably will just hit me.