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Flagstaff Scientists, Artists Team Up to Illuminate The 'Fires of Change'

A still shot from Kathleen Brennan’s video exhibit, “The Matter of Life and Death.”
(Photo courtesy of Flagstaff Arts Council/Kathleen Brennan)
A still shot from Kathleen Brennan’s video exhibit, “The Matter of Life and Death.”

Visitors come to the Flagstaff Festival of Science from all over the world to experience the latest research on everything from Pluto to prehistoric plants.

This year, the festival — which begins today — features  an art exhibit called Fires of Change. It’s the result of more than year of collaboration between scientists and artists who want to open up a new perspective about wildfire.

Piles of charred logs lay scattered among ponderosa pines just outside the Coconino Center for the Arts in Flagstaff, the venue for the exhibit. Andi Thode, principal investigator of the Southwest Fire Science Consortium, points them out.

“There’s some burn pile scars and some small tree stumps that have been cut, so this is a much more fire-resistant and resilient forest,” she says.

Thode gives tour of where the “Fire Science Boot Camp” kicked off last year: three days of intense science training for 11 artists chosen to contribute to "Fires of Change." 

“So the whole point of the project was to translate science through the artists’ eyes to the public, which is something new for all of us that were involved," Thode said.

"Fires of Change" was the brainchild of ecologists at the Southwest Fire Science Consortium and the Landscape Conservation Initiative. They wanted to invite artists to give their unique interpretations of what it means to live in fire-affected landscapes.

Wildfires have become more catastrophic in recent decades. Climate change and unnaturally dense forests have led to larger, more frequent fires. Yet some wildfire is healthy for forests. An artist can show the beauty of a burn — and the role it plays in nature.      

Julie Comnick of Prescott is one of the artists. She drew scenes from 14 wildfires using charcoal collected from burned trees at each of the sites.

“Each charcoal piece from each fire is so unique,” she said. “Some of it is soft and dark and makes these beautiful marks that instantly seems to blow off the page. Others are full of this debris and mineral deposits so they scratch into the page.”

The exhibit room for "Fires of Change" is filled with projects made from ink, paint, cloth, yarn, ceramics — but also materials found in the forest, like chunks of ponderosa pine, piles of cinders and even a live aspen tree. A video loops in the background, showing images of prescribed burns.

For Helen Padilla, the most striking moment of the Fire Science Boot Camp was watching a team of hotshots unfold an emergency fire shelter — flimsy, foil-like material.

“It just seemed like: this is it? That’s all you have?” she said. “It’s not much of a shelter. It kind of reminded me how when I look at the science, I think the science is going to protect me, like a shelter.” 

Padilla folded more than 900 origami fortune-tellers out of the metallic fire shelter material. She arranged them into the shape of a comic book “bang.”

“I wanted to talk about how in an instant it could all change," Padilla said.

Collin Haffey, a fire ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, helped organize the project. He was impressed by what the artists came up with.

Haffey said scientists have solid information on how manage forests to improve their health.

“What we need is new, creative ways to communicate that with the public,” he said. “And that’s what art gives us, is that emotional connection to these scientific ideas, that not all fire is bad. Forests actually need fire.”

Haffey said most people learn about wildfire through the media. Reports tend to focus on the frightening aspects. The "Fires of Change" exhibit captures a much more complex perspective — one that shows beauty as well as danger. Haffey hopes that will open up a broader conversation about how fire can benefit forests and the communities nearby. 

“And eventually maybe they’ll be a 10 o’clock news story where the helicopters flying around a nice managed fire, and they’ll say: Look at these fire managers creating a resilient landscape for the people,” Haffey said. 

"Fire of Change" is open now through the end of October. Next the exhibit travels to Tucson to be displayed at University of Arizona’s Museum of Art.

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Melissa grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert. She has a B.S. in Environmental Science from the University of Arizona and an M.FA. in Creative Writing and Environment from Iowa State University.