Immersive ‘Walk Into Wildfire’ Exhibit Opens Saturday

New Art Installation Coincides with California’s Ever-Expanding High Fire Season

Credit: Ethan Turpin/Burn Cycle Project

May 1 marks the start of the high fire season in California, which CAL FIRE says is beginning earlier and ending later each year, and Santa Barbara area artist Ethan Turpin is raising awareness to this fact with his new multimedia work. 

Walk Into Wildfire is a free, family-friendly art installation which takes viewers into an immersive experience created by real footage from inside a wildfire, as well as time-lapse videos of post-fire growth. 

The exhibit, designed by Turpin as part of the Burn Cycle Project, is set to premier at the Buellton Recreation Center on April 24 and run through May 1. It will be open daily from 2 to 6 p.m. with a special opening reception on April 24 from 1 to 4 p.m.

Turpin, whose late father, William Turpin, was a Santa Barbara firefighter, has coordinated with fire crews during prescribed burns and incidents over many years, placing fireproof camera boxes within wildfire sites to capture what happens inside a conflagration. 

“When participants walk into the exhibit, they will see a forest floor as an island in the middle of the space that will be illuminated with what appears to be embers on the ground, but are actually video projections mapped to burnt wood,” said Turpin, who collaborated with artist Jonathan PJ Smith and The Environment Makers on the project. 

As participants move further into the space, set in a dark gymnasium, they walk along a path into a three-sided box space made of 8-by-15-foot rear-projection screens where burning fire and regrowth footage plays around them.

The Walk Into Wildfire idea sparked from Turpin’s past projects, such as working with honeybees, where he intended to “confront an intense phenomenon in nature through a simulation” and explore human’s relationships with the environment.

After last year’s record-breaking California fire season ― with nearly 10,000 fires burning over 4.2 million acres ― the exhibit aims to start conversations about how community members can live in a place where fires are routine and how they can enter the next season more prepared. 

“By confronting fire in this way, it helps us to appreciate what we are asking firefighters to do and can inform our decisions about how we live in this landscape,” said Turpin, who also hopes to show how prescribed fires can be a healthy and important management tool for forest growth. 

The opening reception will include a ribbon cutting, live music, fire awareness resources and presentations, an artist Q&A, and the debut of the educational video “Defensible Space” by Nic Elmquist and Rob Hazard with the Santa Barbara County Fire Safe Council.

Walk Into Wildfire is presented by the City of Buellton Arts and Culture Committee with support from the Santa Barbara County Fire Safe Council, and UCSB Bren School — SERI Fire, Sean and Jaime Montgomery, U.S. Forest Service Fire Behavior Assessment Team, and National Science Foundation.

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