Four field trips were organized giving artists a behind-the-scenes look at what happens when a fire occurs, how scientific information is used in management decisions, and the many facets behind long-term ecological disturbance studies. The field trip element was structured for two-way exchange, allowing all participants to become immersed in the environment.
Wildfire Simulation Training
Artists joined fire management personnel at Chena Lakes to observe a wildfire simulation training exercise. This annual event provides firefighters an opportunity to safely practice techniques that will be used during the fire season. Though this exercise is not open to the general public, artists received a special invitation to see some of the many moving parts behind fire suppression activities including, smokejumpers, paracargo drops, helicopter cargo loads, hotshot crews, engines, and water drops from air tankers.
BLM - Alaska Fire Service Tour
BLM-Alaska Fire Service coordinated a tour of its facilities on Fort Wainwright. Artists sat in on a fire weather briefing, visited the Alaska Interagency Joint Information Center and received a tour of the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center. A visit to the Fire Management Zone Offices explained how fires are located, and the process for contacting the appropriate agency. The day also included interaction with equipment at the warehouse and individuals involved in everything from monitoring weather to smoke jumping.
“It was really interesting to see the multitude of government agencies working together to solve the problems associated with fire,” fiber artist Ree Nancarrow said. “We learned a lot about what goes into trying to control a fire, what goes into deciding appropriate action.”
Denali National Park and Preserve
Artists spent a day with fire ecologists in Denali National Park and Preserve. Alongside wildland fire and interpretive staff, artists explored, studied and interpreted the 2002 Horseshoe Lake Fire, learning how to analyze plant succession after a fire by measuring soil temperature depths, tree density and vegetation species.
Denali Assistant Fire Management Officer Charlie Reynar discussed the complexities of wildfire in Alaska, including vegetation and burn mosaics, climate change and its effects on fire, and park management strategies. Artists also had the chance to do field sketches based on their conversations and experiences at the park.
Franzen noted the power of experiencing nature with a scientist who is engaged with the surroundings and has spent time studying and understanding the ecosystem. “Scientists truly love their subjects and you can’t help but be affected by that,” she said. “When I accompany a scientist out into the forest, my imagination becomes engaged. I look at the same forest that I looked at the day before, but in the company of someone who has studied every detail of that forest and can describe its intricacies, whole new worlds open up to me.”
One of the more inspiring moments for fiber artist Nancarrow came while viewing a film of fire behavior. “We watched the fire just consume everything. I know fire is fast but to see it like that really impressed me. To see it in action is overwhelming. What you can imagine has very little bearing on reality,” she said. “The speed with which fire moves was the most surprising thing to me.”
Jennifer Barnes, fire ecologist with the National Park Service (NPS), discussed the NPS Ecology Program. She explained the difference between intensity and severity, and the varied ecosystem responses to different fire severities. “Learning about the different types of fire, and how different intensities control the result was very eye opening for me,” Nancarrow said. “I had no concept of that at all, how diverse that can be.” (Image above by Sean Proctor, NPS.)
Bonanza Creek LTER - Rosie Creek Fire Study Area
In August 2011 artists accompanied scientists working with the BNZ LTER and UAF to the LTER station.
“These experiences are valuable for scientists too because artists sometimes ask questions scientists hadn't really thought of, challenging them to articulate their findings and helping them remember to make the connection to the big picture,” Mary Beth Leigh said.
Artists learned about various ecological studies in progress, including the Rosie Creek fire study area where ecologists have studied 28 years of succession. They saw the difference between a burn area dominated by birch and one dominated by black spruce, and learned about fire history from a core sample of permafrost.
“The field trip element is always a really powerful part of the experience. It is structured for two-way exchange, allowing people to become immersed in the environment,” Leigh said. “We wanted to offer information on the proactive fire management side and pair that with fire science, how fire effects vegetation, and allow that to be fodder for creative output.”