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Museum Exhibit That Explores the Future of Fire

"Professors Create Exhibit That Explores California's Fiery Future"

Author: Tiffany Dobbyn

Published: January 16, 2024

"Charred land may not look like much at first glance, but a controlled burn can benefit a landscape by rejuvenating the soil, maintaining healthy ecosystems and reducing the impact of future wildfires.

Pyro Futures is a new exhibit at the Manetti Shrem Museum at UC Davis that explores the ways fire and fire stewardship can change California's landscapes. The collection was curated by Brett Milligan and Emily Schlickman, professors of landscape architecture and environmental design, who hope to share information they've learned about fire to better inform the public about its benefits.

“It's a more diverse message about fire,” Milligan said. “Fire isn't bad, there are so many good and beneficial fires, it's how those fires happen that make a difference.'"

"The exhibit is open now and runs through Jun. 16. Earlier this year, Milligan and Schlickman released their book, Design by Fire, which focuses on what people from various communities around the world have been doing to better live with wildfire. They spent years on the project, learning about the history of wildfire in the western United States. The exhibit features images and objects to tell that story and also presents possible scenarios for the future.

“In the final chapter of the book, we speculate about potential future scenarios we might experience here in California, and this is what really inspired the exhibit,” Schlickman said. “In writing that chapter, we realized that our future with fire is not pre-determined and that we, as residents, have so much agency in guiding what the future of California might look and feel like.”

The exhibit also has interactive elements, including journals where visitors (in-person or online) are asked to share their experiences with wildfire and their hopes and fears for the future.

It also includes a large map of California, which highlights the high fire risk zones. Visitors are encouraged to place a pin on the map of where they live to learn more about the nearby landscape."

Flame ambassadors

"Smokey Bear has been a prominent mascot for decades, helping to raise awareness about fire prevention. But Milligan and Schlickman believe Smokey could use a companion, one who could help promote “good” fires."

"They've developed a few ideas, including “Grazie the Goat” and “Cinder the Coyote.” A new billboard along Interstate-80 between Davis and Sacramento features “Burnie the Bobcat” and her slogan: “Only you can decide our fiery future.” Milligan and Schlickman said perhaps Burnie can help send a new message to the public that many landscapes across the state are fire-prone and fire-adapted and actually need fire to thrive.

“The idea of preventing fire has its place, we're not trying to get rid of that, but there's also a broader range of messaging that we would like to get out there; that fire is something that many species need, and it can foster better ecosystems,” Milligan said. “Trying to stop fires all around in landscapes designed for fire, just doesn't work.”

Both Milligan and Schlickman have participated in controlled burns with local fire agencies as well as cultural burns with local tribes, including the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, in recent months. Schlickman is also trained as a certified prescribed fire crew member. They hope that this project will lead to creating a national good fire campaign. Schlickman said they're in the process of exploring funding opportunities and are interested in working with fire-prone communities and prescribed burn associations in the greater Sacramento region to refine their mascots and messaging.

“We're also both interested in doing more on-the-ground fire work – learning how to approach fire lighting in ecologically- and culturally-sensitive ways, and how cooperative burning groups emerge and develop over time,” Schlickman said.

There will be a free opening event at the museum on Sunday, Jan. 28 from 3 to 5:30 p.m. Learn more about the exhibit on the Pyro Futures website."

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