Fires of Change

art in action

Artists Steven Yazzie and Saskia Jorda hard at work.

What happens when you bring artists, land managers, and scientists together and ask them to camp on the North Rim and talk about fire? That’s what we wanted to find out. Turns out, really good things emerge. All photos in this blog  post are courtesy of the talented and gracious mixed media artist, Jennifer Gunlock

Fires of Change is a collaborative project with the Southwest Fire Science Consortium, the Flagstaff Arts Council, and the Landscape Conservation Initiative (LCI) funded by the Joint Fires Sciences Program and the National Endowment for the Arts. It aims to translate the complex social and ecological (new term: ecopyrosocioeconomological) issues surrounding wildfire into art. Our hope is that art will educate and invigorate people about the beauty and ecological necessity of wild fire. As climate change shifts the historic fire, vegetation, and hydrological dynamics of the Southwest, we are trying to create a fire culture that is acutely

Workshop participants exploring burn sites.

Workshop participants exploring burn sites.

aware of the impact that human activity has on the ecological checks and balances that have evolved within this region.

The Flagstaff Arts Council, through a competitive process, selected 11 talented artists who work with a variety of media. In September, we ventured with this group of 11 to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon where numerous fire managers, ecologists, and fighters, spoke with us about the past, present, and potential futures of fire on the Colorado Plateau. We heard from Chris Marks, a fire manager at Grand Canyon National Park about the unconventional way that GCNP is increasingly allowing fires to burn whenever possible.

FAC's Elizabeth Hellstern marveling at the N.Rim

FAC’s Elizabeth Hellstern marveling at the N.Rim

Perhaps more than anything, the participating artists were asked to engage with the complexity surrounding fire. They’ve grappled with conundrums about smoke impacts on visibility and respiratory health, the challenges associated with managing fire in the wildland urban interface, how to cope with the effects of decades of fire suppression, and how to manage fire in the context of changing climate and the potential for dramatic shifts in forest type. Our understanding of fire has come a long way since Smokey Bear’s “only you can prevent forest fires” trope was first rolled out, yet few westerners fully understand the nuance of fire and how pivotal it is to ecosystem health. Indeed, the effects of fire are seen everywhere on these landscapes; without fire the stunning ponderosa pine forests we treasure wouldn’t exist. As Collin Haffey, former LCIer and current USGS Jemez Mountains Field Station fire ecologist points out, it’s time for us to not just tolerate fire as a necessary evil, but to celebrate it as the crucible that has made Western landscapes and people ruggedly beautiful and unique.

The artists get it and they are invested in the idea of communicating about fire science and conservation issues in innovative ways. After spending three days drinking from a firehose of information about fire history, different vegetation types, ecology, and the social implications of different fire management decisions, they began distilling what they’d heard into eye-opening nuggets of insight. Back at the Coconino Center for the Arts in Flagstaff, we sat with the artists and FAC staff in a circle in folding chairs, each of them describing their initial responses to the week and discussing what they’d begun envisioning for the art they’ll be creating over the coming months. I can’t go into detail about the very amazing ideas that they are incubating, but I will say that my

Wildland fire fighters speak with artists about the nuts and bolts of fire management.

Wildland fire fighters speak with artists about the nuts and bolts of fire management.

mind was blown open. The lenses through which they see the world are so different from mine and from Collin’s, which is precisely why we believe this exercise in interdisciplinary understanding and communication is so valuable. Their perspective on these issues is fresh and creative and not bogged down in the day-to-day bureaucratic headaches that have clouded our vision of the future of conservation. This serves as a reminder to challenge our assumptions about what is possible for the future of managing our public lands and resources.

The Fires of Change art and science exhibit at Coconino Center for the arts will open to the public on September 4, 2015 running in conjunction with the Flagstaff Festival of Science and closing on October 31, 2015. Between now and the exhibit opening, we will have periodic blog updates here at L-C-Ideas to highlight the progress of each of the individual artists who are taking part, so please check back for more!

Additional information about the project can be found at

We also encourage you to check out the Arizona Daily Sun articles by Diandra Markgaf; they can be found at the following links:

One thought on “Fires of Change

  1. I’ve enjoyed reading this blog very much. It’s good to see that you are all enjoying yourselves and making a real difference to peoples lives. Looking forward to further contributions, thanks again.

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