I have been involved in fire management for 22 years, and I am endlessly fascinated with the concept of fire on the landscape. Working at Grand Canyon National Park and on the Bitterroot National Forest, modeling fire behavior, studying fire effects, and teaching fire ecology all led to my pursuit of the Long Term Fire Analyst (LTAN) qualification so that I can model and try to predict fire spread and behavior.
Since my expertise is in long-term fire prediction, I tend to get assignments on fires being managed for multiple objectives over a long duration. When I go on a fire assignment as an LTAN, my job is to figure out all the components that will go into the fire modeling. This includes the leader’s intent for managing the fire, the current and predicted weather, and the landscape of fuels and topography. I run predictions on spread and behavior, make maps, give briefings, and get out to the fire to assess fuels, fire behavior, and values at risk.
I am ultimately inspired to work in the predictive fire behavior realm to see more “good” fire on the landscape and fewer fire tragedies. And when I get out to see how fire ebbs and flows across a large area over time, it makes me want to tell the story and help people see that although fire can certainly be destructive, it can also be beautiful or at least non-threatening. It belongs. I had been painting since high school, but not focused on the advice to “paint what you love.” In 2012, I decided to become more disciplined in my approach to making art. I did this despite the fact that non-fire people tend to react to my art with a polite, “Hmmmm….fires?” Sometimes I can use this as an opportunity to launch into some interesting fact about fire ecology.
I worked on the Bitterroot National Forest in Montana for 10 years, where many fires are managed for multiple objectives over long time frames, so much of my inspiration and reference material comes from there, along with Yellowstone National Park, New Zealand project burns, and fires near the Gallatin National Forest, Montana where I live now.
Painting with a field observer’s eye
Forest Fire #1 is a watercolor that was inspired by the view across the canyon when I was a FOBS (Field Observer) on the Bitterroot NF. A small, white smoke was brewing deep in the canyon all morning while crews worked above it. Within an hour, the whole hillside was on fire. I had radioed the crews working over there well beforehand and they had pulled back to the roads, but I sat at my post and watched how the fire burned for a long time. I have a photo of several tall trees that were glowing from behind, so I chose one and made it the centerpiece of the painting.
A Welcome Rain in Fire Camp is a watercolor depicting the scene from my tent when I woke up in camp one morning on the West Fork Ranger District of the Bitterroot NF. Late that night a new crew must have arrived and they had set up all their pop-up tents in the field near me. In the morning, everything was soaking wet and there was a mist hanging over the mountains with waterdogs everywhere. It was one of those mornings when your boots are soaking wet before you even get to the breakfast line.
Connecting fire science and fire art
I have dedicated much of my career to the science of fire, and the same is now true of my art. I am always trying to figure out how it all works — what type of pigments, papers, or tools will help me express what I’m trying to convey. I don’t draw out the design elements in great detail before I paint, and I am not one to lean over a painting with a small brush to add minutia. Once I have a concept in my mind, I figure out the basic composition in a series of 2” x 2” thumbnail pencil sketches, choose a color palette, and do my best to manage the effects of water and pigment on the paper. The painting often develops in unexpected ways. This unpredictable and mysterious process is what keeps me coming back to my studio.
More recently, I’ve tried some new techniques, experimenting using acrylics thinned out more like watercolor rather than thickly applied like oil paint. I apply acrylic paint, spray with water, wait until just the right time, and then lift the pigment off with a towel or a brush. I do this in layers and I never really know what I’m going to get. I have a lot of failed paintings and an inability to recreate the successful ones with this technique, but it keeps things interesting. Forest Glow #2 was painted this way, inspired by a Yellowstone National Park fire where I was working as an LTAN. This piece won an award at a show and when the juror presented the ribbon to me, she said, “I love the deer!” But, I was confused because I never painted a deer. That’s when I realized some people see a deer’s head in the background of this painting — like I said, paintings develop in unexpected ways!
I really don’t know why I make art except that it’s just something I want to do. I enjoy the solitude, finding inspiration, the challenge of making the materials work, watching colors spread over the surface of fresh white paper. I get up at 0500 most mornings and spend an hour in my studio. It’s the only reliably uninterrupted time of the day that I have. I try to have a plan ready from the day before so, while drinking my first cup of coffee, I can manage to get something started during that single hour. I strive to create art that represents ecology, renewal, the power of nature, and the beauty of smoke, flames and burned trees. It is natural and native and should be part of nearly every landscape in which we live.
I never planned to become a watermedia painter or a firefighter. The fact that I spend most of my time either studying fires or painting them is a happy accident. These two pursuits are different and yet the same. Fire science can be very detailed, data-driven, exacting, and linear. My art is on the verge of abstraction, design-driven, open-ended, anything but linear from start to finish. When predicting fire behavior it’s all about controlling the inputs and accurately briefing on the outputs, it’s about following the planning cycle, and having all my gear ready to go at a moment’s notice. When painting, I have to let go and avoid trying to control the movement of the paint so that I can let it surprise me. On a fire assignment, I usually try to avoid surprises. But these pursuits are the same too. For me, they are both about telling the story about how and where and when fire can be good and necessary and beautiful. It doesn’t always work out, but I really enjoy when it does.
Tonja Opperman works for the USFS Wildland Fire Management RD&A and resides in Gardiner, MT. You can see more of her work at tonja-opperman.artistwebsites.com or follow her on Facebook at tonja.opperman.watermedia.artist