Editor’s note: Sasha Michelle White is an artist, ecologist, and fire practitioner working toward a PhD in Environmental Science at the University of Idaho on the homelands of the Palus, Nimiipuu and Schitsu’umsh peoples. A founding member of the art research collective Fuel Ladder and a pre-doctoral fellow with the Confluence Lab, Sasha gives credit to the many firelighters who have helped shape her thinking about fire. In this blog, Sasha describes the movement represented by the “fire humanities,” which brings art, writing, and philosophy together with fire ecology and the experience of wildfire. Stay tuned for additional upcoming blogs about the connection between artistic expression and fire. Blog cover photo credit: Greg Ronlov.
“Twenty… nineteen… eighteen… seventeen”—the countdown for a practice fire shelter deployment begins as a small group of people grab fire shelters and run toward a grassy opening. But the group running to find a clear space, shake out the aluminum bags and align their feet toward the imagined, oncoming flames, are not wildland firefighters at an annual fire-refresher training. They are a group of artists and spontaneous members of the public, and they are deploying a set of actual, defunct fire shelters in front of an unsuspecting audience in the urban center of Portland, Oregon.
This mock fire shelter deployment was part of the art research collective Fuel Ladder’s recent exhibition Holding Fire. Other elements of the exhibition included a dining table that replicates the topographical footprint of Oregon’s 2020 Holiday Farm Fire, the collective building of two beaver dam analogs, and a participatory investigation into how pulp Western novels have shaped North American western landscapes. Fuel Ladder, with its uncommon use of material and emphasis on collaborative engagements, is part of an emerging conversation from within the arts and humanities to promote and nuance the public understanding of wildfire. As an artist, ecologist, and fire practitioner, I call this emerging conversation the “fire humanities” and believe that catalyzing such work, across disciplinary and institutional boundaries of fire, is a critical element of effective fire adaptation.
FUEL LOADS, FUEL LADDERS
The humanities—art, music, literature, history, philosophy, religion—center how humans live with each other and the world. The tools of the discipline include the production and analysis of images, stories, emotions, ethics, ways of knowing, and ways of expressing. The humanities wrestle with culturally-constructed attitudes and values, and questions of context, perspective, and justice are inherent to their inquiries. Critical essays such as Mike Davis’s 1995 classic, “The Case for Letting Malibu Burn,” Stephanie LeMenager’s “Living With Fire (Hot Media),” TJ Demos’s “The Agency of Fire: Burning Aesthetics,” and Jenn Ladino’s, “How Nostalgia Drives and Derails Living with Wildland Fire in the American West,” confront how dominant narratives of wildfire, as an adversary to be fought at all costs, are reinforced through news media, political agendas, and cultural norms, and work to disguise systemic injustices.
While money has recently been designated by both the federal government and state agencies to address the “wildfire crisis,” it is likely that much of what is earmarked for “fuels work” will fund mechanical thinning. Especially as fire managers are pressed to outmaneuver the combination of unprecedented weather events with unprecedented accumulations of fuels, the “riskier” but more ecologically effective strategies of implementing prescribed fire or allowing wildfires to burn may be a difficult sell for a public that is both weary and wary of wildfire. To support the proactive burning that scientists and fire managers agree is necessary on a landscape scale, particularly in the North American West, a “pro-fire” culture must also be implemented on a landscape scale.
The curatorial statement for Fuel Loading, a digital art exhibition organized by the Confluence Lab at the University of Idaho, puts it this way: “[W]hether dry grasses, shrubs, dense stands of conifers, or logging slash, the accumulation of fuels on the landscape reflects both the ecological processes and the cultural and social imperatives that shape land management… all these ‘fuels’ load onto the landscape.” In other words, reckoning with landscape fire means reckoning with cultural fuels as well as ecological ones. Effective fire adaptation will require that the cultural “fuel loads”—the stories, values, beliefs—and “fuel ladders”—the social networks, partnerships, and trust or lack thereof—that have contributed to the current wildfire crisis be examined, and that new “loads” and “ladders,” in which fire is recast as an ally and progenitor of community strength, be created.
GETTING CLOSE TO FIRE
That fire is destructive seems self-evident—the match burns down to our fingers, the green forest becomes a patch of blackened snags, the house disappears into a heap of ash. This truism pervades news media, “survivor” stories, and dominant cultural depictions of wildfire from Smokey Bear and Bambi to Norman Maclean’s eponymous novel Young Men and Fire. When considering those “unfortunate” enough to experience landscape fire—whether humans or animals, trees or structures—these depictions prime a perception of fire that is almost exclusively loss: lost lives, lost landscapes, lost stuff and things that contained human memories and stories. While these losses are genuine and their implications serious, a more complex perception of fire would recognize that fire destroys and creates: the creative, transformative powers of fire, within hearths and across landscapes, have fostered the development of human societies and cultures around the world.
For as long as humans have been humans, artists and artisans have engaged the material transformations that fire makes possible—charcoal and carbon black ink, straight sprouts for baskets, the pyrotechnologies of pottery, metallurgy, and dyes. Today, contemporary artists and writers have begun to center those transformations and some of the most powerful examples come from those that have on-the-ground experience with fire and fire-prone landscapes. The works of sculptor Kate Lund, poet Kevin Goodan, and writer Emily Shepard, for example, reveal the emotional, physical, and day-to-day rhythms of wildland firefighting. My own work with plants who have adapted to material co-existence with fire is rooted in my experiences as a firefighter and firelighter: digging line, smelling the coniferous steam of mop-up, feeling white ash hot beneath my boots, hearing the sound of trees torching, returning to watch as herbaceous plants re-sprout and new trees germinate.
This kind of artistic engagement is an important counter to a dominant cultural fear of wildfire as an existential threat. Because while public appreciation for the ecological role of fire has grown, it is generally for fire over there, and thus far, it has largely remained to Indigenous cultures to communicate that intimacy with the transformative powers of fire also renew social landscapes. For most artists, writers and scholars getting close to fire is not easily feasible. In one attempt to remedy this, the Confluence Lab’s newly announced Artist-In-Fire residency program will support artists and writers to train as Firefighter Type 2’s and participate in prescribed fire modules. As those artists and writers return their experience of on-the-ground, “good” fire to their home communities, it will allow a greater public familiarity with landscape fire that is not catastrophic, while also demonstrating the reality that non-professionals can and do participate in prescribed fire. For fire-adapting organizations, agencies and communities, creating similar opportunities for immersive collaborations with artists, writers and humanities scholars could create a different kind of “fuels reduction”—as cultural fuels that are fire-sensitive or fire-phobic are replaced by those that are fire-adaptive, fire-dependent, fire-phillic.
CULTURAL FIRE ADAPTATION
The attentiveness of artists, writers, and scholars to the loads and ladders that are material, ecological, and social can help recast the cultural role of wildfire from that of antagonist to protagonist. Their creative and intellectual works can expand cultural standards of beauty to include fire-burned landscapes and dislodge the aesthetic privileging of landscapes from which fire has been excluded. As more people learn to love landscapes through which fire moves regularly, the design and maintenance of human communities may reflect this and better allow fire to move through them with the minimal damage.
Beyond infrastructural changes, just as Indigenous fire practices have long recognized that cultural identities and stewardship of place are developed through the application of fire to the land, catalyzing the “fire humanities” may initiate fire adaptation and resilience at a deeper level and on a broader scale–including reckoning with attempts to erase Indigenous and other cultures already highly fire-adapted. The new “loads” and “ladders” forged through the critical and creative practices of the fire humanities could build stronger alliances between Indigenous and settler cultures and foster not just the acceptance but the value of putting fire on the land. They can help imagine and build communities in which fire season is happily anticipated and participating in prescribed burns is as normal as playing in a football game. To be certain, bringing artists, writers, and humanities scholars into fire operations and research—and conversely, supporting the creative and intellectual work of fire practitioners—will take time to develop as a widespread practice. But as one of my fire mentors liked to say, and as those fumbling with the handles of a fire shelter know, “slow is steady, steady is smooth, and smooth is fast.”
“Five… four… three… two”—the fire is here—materially, emotionally, and culturally. The “fire humanities” will be essential to our living well with it.
Submissions to the third part of The Confluence Lab’s Stories of Fire online exhibitions series, Sightlines, can be made until December 1, 2023; the Artist-In-Fire residency application period is open until January 8, 2024.