Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Fire Power

by Drew Martin

Today is the 148th anniversary of Cinco de Mayo, the holiday commemorating the unlikely victory of the outnumbered Mexican army in Puebla against the better equipped, invading French soldiers in 1862; a time when America was also at war, with itself. The fifth of May also marks the one year anniversary of another threatening display of fire power, the beginning of the Jesusita Fire in Santa Barbara, California, a place very dear to me because it is where I studied and especially because it is where my aunt, uncle and cousins live.

Fire is one of the most devastating products of war, so there is something very war ridden about any fire. Aside from a nuclear bomb, there is no weapon that could destroy every inch of land for miles around, as does a forest fire. In the dry mountains of California, it only takes a spark from a power tool, one bolt of lightning or a match to set off a blaze that travels as fast as the winds. The charred mountains last year reminded me of pictures I had seen of World War I battlefields and the crumbled houses had an eerie resemblance to bombed out European cities of World War II. Those are purely mediated references and certainly influenced my own framing of Jesusita's aftermath. I visited my aunt and uncle a week after the fire was contained. I had not intended on documenting the destruction but one morning I brought an inexpensive digital camera with me on a run up to one of my favorite places, Inspiration Point, which was still closed off by the parks services.

Devastation and destruction are interesting subject matter in the arts and are not uncommon. Gericault and Goya are two artists who championed such themes. The initial impulse is to capture its totality and permanence but what you are really doing is saving an extreme moment before there is the natural rebuilding actions of humans and regrowth of nature. That was the only motivation for taking pictures last year...not to capture the loss of possessions and nature but to record a temporary state that would soon be lost as well.

One of the pictures I took was of the trail sign, which shows where the name of the fire came from. Fires are usually named for their locations, as opposed to hurricanes. Originally the big storms were named after saint's days and then assumed latitude-longitude positions but it was found that distinctive names were quicker and less subject to error. Hurricanes started receiving female names in World War II when one was used in the 1941 novel Storm by George R. Stewart. In 1979, male names were introduced to alternate with the female names. Currently, six lists of names are used in rotation. If a storm is extremely devastating, the name is replaced for reasons of sensitivity.

An online book of all the photos I took can be viewed on, with a search for the title Hot Tub.

The book jacket includes the following explanation:

The 2009 Jesusita Fire of Santa Barbara began on May 5 before 2pm, burned 8,733 acres, destroyed 80 homes and caused over $17 million of damage before being declared 100% contained on May 18 at 6pm.

The photographs in this book were taken on Tunnel Road in the mountains of Santa Barbara in the afternoon of May 28 and on the Jesusita Trail at dawn on May 30, 2009.

This book is dedicated to the residents of Santa Barbara who were affected by Jesusita. The two weeks of destruction left months of clean-up and years of rebuilding. The stress of the fire's threat and damage was only compounded by the labor and details of recovery: negotiating with insurance companies, dealing with contractors and landscapers, restoration cleaning furniture, dry cleaning everything, ozone cleaning the inside of houses and living with the constant smell of burned homes, vehicles and nature.