“Fire Stories” explores ecology and history

Renny Acheson , A&E Editor

The jagged remains of a ponderosa pine marked by centuries of fire stand feet away from a flourishing specimen of the same species. Entitled “Enduring Witness,” this photograph depicts two adjacent trees on a hillside, illustrative of the impacts of wildfire in Oregon’s Wallowa-Whitman National Forest.

This work hangs among numerous others in the Sheehan Gallery, in a show entitled “FIRE STORIES: The Photography of John F. Marshall and the Osborne Panoramas.” In a collaboration between wildlife biologist and photographer John F. Marshall and Dr. Paul F. Hessburg, a fire ecology research scientist with the U.S. Forest Service and professor at Oregon State University, “FIRE STORIES” seeks to redefine the relationship between wildfire and both historical and contemporary landscapes. 

Hessburg elaborated upon this relationship in a Jan. 31 panel discussion between Marshall, himself and Miles C. Moore Professor of Politics Phil Brick in Olin Hall.

“The idea I think we’d like to leave you with in this exhibit is that these forests can provide an incredible array of functions with wildfire in them as a good idea going forward,” Hessburg said during the discussion.  

Originally taken in the 1930s, the Osborne Panoramas are a series of photographs taken by the U.S. Forest Service from every fire lookout tower in Washington and Oregon. In the beginning of the project, Marshall located the original photos at the National Archive in Seattle. 

After scanning the images, Marshall embarked on a project to locate the original sites and re-photograph the landscapes. After running into the problem of the lack of fire towers after they’d been torn down, he purchased a 16-foot orchard ladder to attempt to photograph from the same vantage points. 

“I started to think, ‘okay, how do you present these? I came up with this sort of top-down sandwich way of looking at them,”’ Marshall said during the discussion. 

The exhibit features side-by-side images of the historical and contemporary landscapes. Additionally, displayed is one out of two of the still-remaining cameras used to capture the original photographs.  

“The installation for me is really set up well for the viewers to understand what happens over time,” Senior Adjunct Assistant Professor of Art Charly Bloomquist said. 

“FIRE STORIES” commands audiences’ continued engagement with the images, challenging notions that wildfires can be categorized as either “good” or “bad.” The panelists discussed how decades of fire-suppression efforts have left forested landscapes more susceptible to damaging fires instead of productive ones.  

Hessburg spoke to the need for communication.

“The wicked problem is we not only have wildfires that are a problem on the landscape, but we don’t agree on almost anything today in society,” he said. “So how can we come together as an organization of partners and stakeholders and develop trust, rebuild relationships and develop a vision for managing landscapes going forward?” 

“FIRE STORIES” represents a convergence of academic disciplines, calling for conversation and collaboration. The exhibition bridges history and modernity to ask what must be done in the future. 

“It’s a matter of figuring out what are the right kinds of and degrees of adaptation to the present and the future that human beings can have a role in,” Senior Lecturer of Environmental Humanities and General Studies Don Snow said.   

In telling the stories of fire on the landscape, Marshall and Hessburg acknowledge that a complete restoration of the land is impossible. What they hope for is a rigorous evaluation of where we go from here.