Wildfires inspire awe and fear. They are a metaphor for our existential experience of our world in which natural processes are often perceived as evidence of our fearful belief that the world we live in has become a dangerous place, and that we are responsible for the peril we are in.
Wildfire also offers us the inspiration of rebirth, transformation, and renewal as symbols and antidotes in a psychological as well as a physical sense.
In Canada wildfires rage across the landscape every summer burning hectares of forest. This is a natural and sometimes a man made occurrence. Fires are started by lightening, human carelessness, arson, and deliberate fire management strategies such as the proscribed burns in the National Parks and the traditional Native American practice of starting fires to clear land for animal grazing. For the most part these fires occur well away from populated areas and people are aware of them only if they are reported on the news when they threaten communities or homes or when the smoke from these fires arrives on the wind and as mysteriously departs.
Global warming, the reduction in logging, the practice of suppressing wildfires near populated areas, the increase in off road travel, and forest plagues such as the pine beetle epidemic are but a few factors which have led to an increase in danger from wildfires on one hand and an increasingly complex relationship between wildfires and man as we attempt to manage nature.
In 2003 wildfires threatened cities and towns in Alberta and BC for much of the summer. An interesting esoteric co-incidence was that Mars was the closest it had been to Earth in an estimated 59,619 years in August 2003. Fires threatened first Kamloops and then Kelowna in BC as well as smaller communities such as Falkland, BC, Okanagan Falls BC, Blairmore and Coleman, Alberta, Glacier National Park in the USA, Waterton and Kootenay National Parks, and other villages and towns in the south of both provinces. Fire was on the news all the time. Although experts attested that 2003 wasn't a remarkable year for either the number or severity of wildfires, their proximity to populated areas really caught people's attention and roused their fear. Added to this was the knowledge that several fires had been the result of both carelessness and malicious intent by humans.
My husband and I stumbled upon the Crowsnest Pass fire by accident when we were discouraged from a hiking trip in Waterton by smoke from a huge wildfire burning in Glacier National Park in late July. For the rest of the summer we joined the fire tourists, as we became known, who travelled from fire to fire. As I photographed and observed, never the fire itself which was closed to the public, but the results of fire, I became aware that wildfire personified crisis for many people and evoked deep fear of nature on the one hand, and human culture on the other. The threat of fire, wild and out of our control. inspired great anxiety. People were also brought together by their shared sense of apprehension and their desire to help those most effected by the fire. This season of fire was seen and discussed as evidence of global warming adding a flavour of guilt and apprehension to the situation.
The fire element has been revered and respected in all cultures with a great deal of cross-cultural agreement about the qualities of fire: hot and dry, occurring between heaven and earth, associated with summer, masculine in nature, creative, upward moving, spreading in motion, associated with the colour red, inspiration, the planets Mars, Aries, and Leo, renewal and passion.
One of the more seductive representations of fire is the Indian Vedic God, Agni, who has three forms: fire, lightning, and the sun, who is the god of fire, acceptor of sacrifices, a messenger of the Gods, ever young, and immortal.
Perhaps Agni earns his immortal youth through the extraordinary ability of fire to trigger healing, regeneration, and transformation. A walk through a burned area even one year later reveals a carpet of green as plants and tiny tree seedlings stoutly begin the job of rebuilding the world.
The photographs in Passing Through Fire were taken during August 2003,the following winter, and subsequent summers of 2004-2006.