New exhibit captures devastation, intensity of California wildland fires

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“Controlled Burn” is by Kevin Cooley. Valley News/Courtesy photo

The devastation, behavior and intensity of California wildfires are captured in a series of vivid images that are on display in Riverside, starting Feb. 22, as part of the California Museum of Photography’s “Facing Fire: Art, Wildfire and the End of Nature in the New West” exhibit.

“In California, fire is omnipresent,” curator Douglas McCulloh said. “We live in an ecosystem built to burn and burn explosively. But beyond that, fire carries layers of meaning. It’s mankind’s central metaphor. Fire is passion and punishment. It’s the spark of inspiration and the blaze of anger, the cooking hearth and the apocalypse. Humanity is linked to fire, and we are deeply fascinated by it.”

“Burned Joshua Tree, Erskine Fire” is by Stuart Palley. Valley News/Courtesy photo

The museum, operated by University of California Riverside, will display photographs capturing some of the deadliest blazes in state history, six of which occurred over the 18 months ending in August, resulting in 137 deaths, 26,634 structures destroyed and 3.65 million acres scorched.

“Just being around that intensity of flame, where nature has gone wild and is combusting all around you, is pretty phenomenal to be part of,” news photographer Noah Berger, whose photos are featured in the exhibit, said. “All around you is fire, and you’re witnessing these beautiful scenes that are devastating, obviously, but that people don’t really get to see. It’s kind of like work pared down to its basic elements of you, a camera, a car and fire.”

Photos show vehicles that have been left burned-out, ash-caked husks, household goods that have been melted to half their previous size, massive smoke columns shadowing miles of terrain, night skies with flames illuminating remote timberlands and interpretative illustrations, including a mountain lion running with all but his head saturated in fire.

“In the disaster paintings, I seek to depict the sublime, the notion that a great and destructive force can also be transcendentally beautiful,” artist Samantha Fields, whose works are part of the exhibit, said. “It’s hard not to contemplate your own mortality in the face of a funnel cloud or an advancing wall of flame. As a child, I thought God would destroy the world. As an adult, I realized we didn’t need a deity to destroy the world; we were doing it ourselves.”

Norma Quintana, a professional photographer from Northern California, lost her home and production studio in the Atlas Peak Fire near Napa three years ago. Her contributions to the exhibit are rooted in personal experience.

“When we were evacuated, we didn’t actually see a fire in front of us or anything, and then our home was destroyed four hours later,” she said. “We never heard any fire alarms, any helicopters – that’s how fast it was.”

News photographer Josh Edelson said he cannot deny the adrenaline rush of shooting uncontrolled blazes, but he also respects their power.

“I feel like it forces us to renew our sense of humbleness as humans,” he said. “We feel like we’ve mastered our environment, but when a natural disaster happens – something like a wildfire, or an earthquake, or hurricane – it kind of puts things into perspective. It makes us feel small, and we have no choice but to be humbled by its power, and that is exciting for me to be able to witness and capture.”

The exhibit will be on display until Aug. 9, at The California Museum of Photography, 3824 Main St., in Riverside. More information is available https://ucrarts.ucr.edu.