“Fire! Colorado Under Siege” exhibition

A forest fire burns in Rocky Mountains National Park. Copyright Malcolm Raggett

A forest fire burns in Rocky Mountains National Park, 2012. Copyright Malcolm Raggett

Fire can be a terrible thing. People, including the fire fighters, lose their lives, their health, their property and their livelihood when a fire sweeps though a populated area. This exhibition of photographs by 4 photographers at Photo Art Center, 833 Santa Fe Drive, Denver, USA, documents such fires and their aftermath.

John Wark’s images are more distant shots many of which many are aerial pictures taken from a plane he flies himself,

Richard Saxon and Aaron Ontiveroz concentrate more on people and the impact of the fire resulting from the confusion and numbness of having your world turned upside-down by property loss,

Steve “Smitty” Smith gets in the closest, concentrating on fire fighters and fire fighting operations, which is not surprising considering he  is a fireman himself.

The photos are good, though it’s not an exhibition I would recommend travelling a great distance to see unless you combine it with something else. What did impress me though (in a negative way) was the bias exhibited in the joint show: from the title all the way through the photos what I saw was essentially a northern European view of forest fire. In northern Europe forest fires are rare and not an essential part of woodland regeneration. The damp cool northern forests rely more on microbial action to compost the leaf litter and break down the dead wood.  But it is different in warm dry woods; here, fire is essential to the life cycle of the forest. As destructive as it may appear at the time, fire is a life force of nature. It also ranks alongside the weather in man’s inability to control it. Perhaps this is what fascinates and terrifies us about fire, but to adopt the siege mentality suggested in the exhibition’s title seems to me to be fundamentally wrong. Man cannot take a cool-damp-forest attitude and expect it to work in a warm-dry-forest region. It is man that has to change, not nature. Fire will happen, it’s not a question of if but when. Judging by this exhibition, America still has much to learn. Luckily I know from seeing the National Parks system and native American culture that parts of America have learned this lesson, but how to make it widespread is the challenge.

This is a valuable message to take from the photographs, though perhaps not the one the exhibitors were intending.

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