The incredible and destructive power of California’s periodic wildfires, which last year plagued the state with the most destructive wildfire season on record, are the subject of a striking new work of art by Jeff Frost, on view during Desert X, the Coachella Valley art biennial.
The short film, titled California on Fire, is part of a group of”parallel projects” timed to Desert X by 15 artists and nonprofits (Palm Springs Life has a comprehensive guide to the events).
After Frost heard that the biennial would have a strong focus on climate change, he wanted to add his voice to the conversation. “Climate change has a body count,” he tells artnet News. “We’re already in the crisis. It’s not in the future.” In 2018 alone, there were over 100 wildfire fatalities in California.
To make the film, Frost spent five years behind fire lines fearlessly documenting the deadly blazes and the unimaginable devastation they leave behind. These fires aren’t the healthy kind that are part of a forest’s natural life cycle, he explained. They are so hot that they burn everything in their path, including young seedlings, and it can be years before plant life regenerates. And it’s only getting worse, with most of the state’s biggest and deadliest fires occurring since the year 2000.
“My hope is that my film is able to give people a window into the violence we are facing at the hands of the environment we have shaped for ourselves,” Forst says. He describes California on Fire as “the contemplation of extinction,” which we’ve inflicted on other species and are now bringing upon ourselves.
The film is winnowed down to a 25-minute meditation on grief and loss, fueled by mind-blowing shots of flames roaring across the screen with lightning speed, chewing up the landscape and spitting out charred rubble where there were once homes, trees, and families. The magnitude and violence of the destruction is immediately apparent.
Frost says audiences of his film have never seen anything like it. That may be because he shoots time-lapse videos, which he calls “an extremely absurd way to shoot a fire, because you’re in an extremely fast-moving and dangerous situation and you’re basically planting yourself somewhere while everyone else is running around.”
The resulting footage compresses time to show how a fire progresses. “It also prolongs the amount of attention that people can give to something,” Frost says. “I think a lot of these fire events are really kind of flash in the pan news stories. What people don’t realize is that the effects of the fire on the forest and the people go on for quite a long time.”
The scariest moment of Frost’s years of fire-chasing came during the Rocky Fire in 2015, when the fast-moving blaze trapped him in a valley along with emergency vehicles and a news crew. “When I got there, it was far, far away, there was blue skies and just a big pyroculumus [cloud],” he recalls. He had only set up one camera before the fire captain warned everyone they couldn’t leave.
“When the fire came, you could feel the heat pressing in through the car windows,” he says. “I was sitting there and I was like, ‘it’s going to melt the coating off of the lenses.’ And then I was like, ‘that’s the least of my problems!’ It shook the whole truck.”
To share his harrowing footage, Frost created a makeshift theater, complete with a 30-foot-screen, by converting a former camel stable on an otherwise nondescript residential street in Thousand Palms, California. Frost plans to host two nightly screenings on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, at 6 p.m. and 7 p.m., for the next 10 weekends. (The first day will be today, Friday, February 15.)
Unlike the artists participating in Desert X, who each received a budget of $25,000 to realize their visions, Frost’s project is completely self-funded. “The reality is, I’ve got a few hundred dollars left, and I’ll probably have to sell some of my cameras to keep this thing running,” he says.
But after 70 fires, 350,000 photographs, and something close to 30 terabytes of data, it was important for Frost to finally get the work out into the world. Other than the official premiere at the Napa Valley Opera House on December 9, this is the first time the film will be shown to the public.
“It just feels good to release it,” Frost says, admitting that he struggled mentally to finish the monumental project. His therapist told him he had compassion fatigue, a mild form of post traumatic stress disorder, after such prolonged exposure to fires and their deadly effects.
The 2017 wine country fires were particularly brutal to witness. “You had entire neighborhoods with mansions that all burned to the ground,” Frost recalls. That harsh reality is underscored in his film, which ends with a chilling overhead shot of a neighborhood reduced to ash, burned out cars parked neatly on the streets next to the remains of homes that stretch far beyond the shot.
The image is terrifying—which is exactly what Frost wants. “It is entirely appropriate to hit the panic button at this point,” he says. “The most frustrating aspect of this is that we know what’s wrong. We know how to fix it. We’re just not doing it.”
See more images from California on Fire below.
Jeff Frost’s California on Fire is screening during Desert X at 33.821849, -116.381433, 31275 Desert Palm Drive, Thousand Palms, California, 92276, weekends February 15–April 21, 2019.
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