The Camp Fire ripped through 153,336 acres of Northern California over 17 days in November, demolishing more than 13,000 single-family homes and killing 88 people as of Monday. The figures alone are staggering, but newly-released photography and drone footage brings the devastation of what’s now known as the deadliest and most damaging wildfire in California’s history into sharp, visceral focus.
Drone engineer Greg Crutsinger, alongside 16 teams of Northern California law and fire departments and task forces of public safety drone operators, captured the destruction in aerial shots and 360-degree panoramas of what’s left of Paradise, California—a town that is now all but burned to the ground.
The teams performed 518 drone flights in smoky conditions, capturing more than 70,000 images, including 160 panoramas. The data totaled around 477 gigabytes across two hard drives. Most of the town was mapped down to a one- or two-inch resolution. To get the information to fire control authorities as quickly as possible, runners brought the hard drives from agency to agency to help with recovery efforts, and were able to process the images within 24 hours of capturing.
Map created by Casey Miller at Mapbox
Contra Costa County Deputy Sheriff Casey Tholborn was among the teams working to document the aftermath of the fire, and compiled dozens of high-resolution photographs on the ground.
They show haunting images of burned-out churches and restaurants, footprints of rubble where homes used to be, as well as some of the personnel working on the drone photography—including Crutsinger.
“Basically we pulled off the impossible... and I'm really tired,” Crutsinger told me in an email.
Crutsinger provided volunteer drone photography work with fire prevention authorities in the Carr Fire earlier this year, and the wildfire that ripped through the Coffey Park neighborhood of Northern California in 2017. As in those cases, his images and data collected from the Camp Fire will be used to better understand how fires behave and spread, and how to better contain and recover from them in the future.
"Interactive disaster mapping is the future,” Crutsinger told me in a phone call. “It could be beautiful, but it’s useful data rather than just disaster porn."