Case Study


Flagstaff, AZ: Fires of Change Art Exhibition



Bang Mirror by Helen Padilla, a meditation on opening and unfolding a fire shelter for carrying in a fireman’s pack.

Credit: Flagstaff Arts Council

Art and wildfire science come together to educate southwest communities on the complexities of wildfire.

Flagstaff, Arizona

High altitude city at 7,000 feet elevation in the world's largest contiguous ponderosa pine forest. Four seasons and a moderate climate. Average rainfall of about 23 inches and an average of 77 inches snowfall.


64.4% White, 18.4% Hispanic or Latino, 11.7% Native American, 1.9% African American, 3.6% Other

Urban areas and people in the urban-wildland interface are increasingly vulnerable to wildfire. However, understanding wildfire, its role in the natural world, and its impact on communities is complex. The worlds of art and fire science came together to address these complexities in Fires of Change, an art exhibit created in 2014. The exhibit originated at the Coconino Center for the Arts in Flagstaff and included mixed media pieces by eleven artists to explore the increase in severity, size, and number of wildfires in the Southwest and their impacts.

To prepare for the exhibition, the artists spent a week in 2014 in fire science “boot camp” with the Southwest Fire Science Consortium and the Landscape Conservation Initiative to learn about the impact of wildfire in Northern Arizona. They then spent the year creating original works in reaction to their experience, capturing both the raw destruction of wildfire as well as communicating that fire is a natural part of forest ecosystems.

The show’s curator, Flagstaff conceptual artist Shawn Skabelund, understands wildfire firsthand, as he served as a wildfire hotshot. As a curator and artist he encouraged work that evokes startling questions and emotions surrounding an issue; evoking responses that science alone does not.  He stated, “I want the public to know fire is just as viable as air, water and earth. Those are the four ingredients to making a healthy forest. And I want, as an artist, people to think outside the box with fire, but I also want them to think outside the box about what art is.”

Artists chose different mediums to express their visions, including materials brought in directly form fire sites. For example, a wall installation included drawings of wildfires created with charcoal gathered from an Arizona fire site, and another artist created abstract works including wood, beeswax and carbon from burned petroleum. Other works include film, ceramics, quilting, poetry sculptural installation and a monumental mixed media. The work both highlighted the destructive reality and the hope of renewal that wildfire provides. Through art, the show imparted a sense of the true impact of wildfire on landscapes and communities, and an understanding that wildfire is part of the natural forest cycles in the southwest.

Fires of Change IBang Mirror by Helen Padilla, a meditation on opening and unfolding a fire shelter for carrying in a fireman’s pack. Credit: Flagstaff Arts Council

  • National Endowment for the Arts
  • Joint Fire Science Program
  • Flagstaff Arts Council
  • Coconino Center for the Arts in Flagstaff
  • Southwest Fire Science Consortium
  • Landscape Conservation Initiative
  • Joint Fire Science Program
Lessons Learned
  • Complex natural systems that effect communities – such as wildfire – can be communicated to the public through vehicles other than science, such as art.
  • Non-traditional partnerships between science-based and art-based groups provide innovative opportunities for community education.
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