Encased in a Timberbox: Wildfire Perimeters is a photography project that began in 2019 during a two-month artist residency in Willits, California. Willits is about an hour’s drive from the site of the Mendocino Complex Fire, which in 2018 destroyed 459,123 acres of land and, at the time, was the largest fire in California history. Daily news, community forums, and data from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) informed me about the general devastation of the Mendocino fire and various other surrounding fires, but what moved me the most was hearing residents’ stories about how the fires affected them and the trauma they experienced. During an open house at the artist residency, visiting locals responded to early versions of these images, telling me about their firsthand experiences, how the smell of smoke still triggers fear, and how the sound of overhead planes alarms them.
One of the stories I heard was about a ten-year-old boy whose family had to evacuate their home at 1 a.m., when a fire engulfed a nearby ridge. For six months afterward, the boy regularly woke up frightened in the middle of the night, and he still gets scared when the phone rings after dark. I also heard from a family who, despite being signed up for fire alerts, didn’t receive any notice. Firefighters who were going door-to-door to alert the neighborhood never made it to their house, and no one else alerted them. The family woke only because of the intense smoke smell, and they had very little time to evacuate. Their house later burned to the ground.
According to Cal Fire, eighteen of the largest wildfires in California history have happened since 2003, with nine of those occurring since 2020. Lightning storms, falling power lines, and sparks from campfires or cars are common causes, and increasingly higher temperatures and drought are contributing to the increased size and frequency of the fires.
Fear of rapidly spreading fire is exacerbated in two ways: concern about escape routes and concern about communication. In some parts of California, houses are built up in the hills and along meandering roads. Some neighborhoods have only one way in and out, and if that way is blocked by fire or backed up with traffic, it can lead to devastating consequences.
Perimeter maps change regularly as each fire burns, and they can be found in the news or at particular websites. They show where the fire is located, where it is contained, and where it is growing. For nearby residents, the maps help them know whether they need to be ready to evacuate. However, locals told me about a time that the power, cell phones, internet, and landlines were all down, and only the radio was working. In addition, the larger radio station was behind on its information, and it was only the very small local station that had up-to-date information about where the fire was and where it might be heading. Because of this uncertainty, some people do not rely on expected sources of information. For example, I met someone who carried a paper map with her just in case she needed to evacuate, even though no fires were burning at the time.
During my time in California, I was moved by hearing the stories of how the wildfires affected California residents, and I wanted to amplify their concerns. Often, the news of disaster is short-lived or known only to those who are directly affected. Encased in a Timberbox: Wildfire Perimeters is a response to destructive and increasingly common wildfires and the subsequent post-traumatic stress they cause. This series of images focuses on California incidents, but they are a microcosm of a larger challenge experienced globally. My goal is to spread awareness beyond the directly affected areas and to foster empathy by sharing personal stories.
In Encased in a Timberbox: Wildfire Perimeters, I combine California landscape photographs with images of smoke to suggest wildfire scenes. I then place the composites inside the perimeter shapes of some of the largest wildfires in California’s history. Each composite references the topography, fire origin, resulting tragedy, or ecological aftermath of the map it is placed within.