Landscape painter Ann Ruttan’s memories — and imagination — stream through her paintbrush, documenting some of the most potent points in her life.
The scent of oil paint wafts through her studio, a roomy and bright corner of her home in Portland’s Forest Park. There, works depicting wide fields, mysterious forests and grand waterfalls sit on shelves or propped against walls. Two-dimensional sweeping skies and towering trunks mimic nature’s triumphant qualities, sturdy and constant.
Yet something in the studio feels awry. A breeze whispering through the open window gives Ruttan pause. The early summer air suffocates, slightly.
“If we have a crown fire,” she said, glancing at the woods lining her home, “I’ll be gone in five minutes.”
A closer look at the collection reveals why. Plumes of smoke rise above tree tops. Orange streaks reflect on a lake’s still surface. Flying embers and homes in the path of fire speak to the region’s growing relationship with wildfires, as well as Ruttan’s experience.
Typically, Washington’s wildfire season begins in May and ends in October, though this is expected to extend due to climate change, according to the Western Fire Chiefs Association.
For those who live in the Pacific Northwest, experiencing a wildfire or knowing someone who has is becoming more common. Moreover, the thought of experiencing another similar event generates pillars of anxiety in some, while grief wells in others at the sight of a lost natural area.
Creating art is a vehicle used by some to cope, including three artists whose work will be displayed in June at downtown Vancouver’s Art in the CAVE. The exhibit, appropriately titled “Wildfire! & Ghost Forest,” will reflect on the experiences of Ruttan, writer Apricot Irving and photographer Sarah Grew, who have all been touched by wildfire.
‘It just kept getting worse’
When Ruttan packed her belongings to travel east to Sisters, Ore., for the Labor Day holiday in 2020, she didn’t expect to cross paths with the Santiam Fire, a conflagration of three wildfires that burned for months in northwest Oregon. Altogether, the blazes burned 400,000 acres through Marion, Jefferson, Linn and Clackamas counties, destroying more than 1,500 homes.
That day, as Ruttan made her way through the Santiam Pass, gusts carrying embers from the Beachie Creek Fire, which had begun three weeks earlier, surged through French and Tumble Creek canyons.
Almost in an instant, Ruttan’s midday excursion switched to night. She was immersed in blackness, her nose plugged with smoke. Wind howled and violently shook trees, almost as if the air currents were trying to peel roots from the ground.
“I didn’t get that the fire was behind me,” Ruttan said. “It just kept getting worse and worse, bigger and bigger, scarier and scarier.”
Finally, after emerging through a tree break, the sky — baby blue — abruptly appeared above. Though the worst of the drive lasted about 30 minutes, the encounter felt longer and was enough to leave a lasting effect, something she said evolved into post traumatic stress disorder.
Weeks later, when Ruttan was finally able to return to Portland, she saw the damage the fire had caused. Small towns were reduced to ash and smoldering rubble. Storefronts were unrecognizable. Homes were destroyed.
For a long time, Ruttan couldn’t speak about what she felt on that drive or saw in the fire’s aftermath without getting shaky. Her dreams became nightmarish, many involving burning forest.
Ruttan’s daughter suggested she process her trauma through painting, a career she had retired from years prior. Turning to her brushes and canvas proved to be a natural means of feeling regulated, Ruttan said. She was able to reflect on fire’s duality of being both beautiful and terrifying.
On Sept. 5, 2017, as the Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia River Gorge streamed beyond a ridge nearby, author Apricot Irving and her family evacuated their Corbett home. The woods ignited after a boy lit fireworks during a burn ban. No one died or lost their home in the fire, though it burned more than 50,000 acres over the course of three months.
Scorched remnants are still observable in many parts of the Gorge and Mount Hood National Forest.
“It felt like we hadn’t, as humans, taken good care of this place that sustains us,” she said. “A place that we can’t live without.”
Following the fire, Irving recognized grief from the ecological loss was surfacing all around her. In the days, weeks and years following the devastation, she spoke to people caught in its commotion — U.S. Forest Service workers, tribal members and hikers.
Disaster narratives shared by media tend to focus on the loss caused by wildfire but Irving chooses to write about another byproduct: the courage and resiliency generated as a result of it.
Irving’s published works to date related to the fire include her essays “The Fire at Eagle Creek,” published on Topic, and “Love and Fire,” published on On Being.
Sarah Grew, based in Eugene, Ore., was moved to collect remnants of giant trees that were reduced to ash and, using techniques from the mid-19th century, printed photographs of charred landscapes, broad oak trunks, and tall, naked fir and pine trees using their powdered remains. It’s a setting she became familiar with in her backyard following the Holiday Farm Fire in 2020, one of the state’s largest wildfires, burning 173,393 acres in the McKenzie River valley.
“I felt like there was so much loss, it was as if my brother was dying or something,” she added.
Still, Grew said a forest’s life far surpasses a human’s, even in ash.
Each print begins with a chemical process, where a slide is coated with a solution and, when dry, placed with a negative and exposed to light. Carbon found in the tree ash hardens, which is then transferred to a wetted paper support where the unexposed pigment binds, leaving behind an image.
Further experimentation revealed that each tree type yielded a different type of consistency or pigmentation, she said. Redwoods appear light gray whereas hardwood like maple or oak produce a rich black.
So, in addition to turning to art for healing, the artists point to it as a means to advocate for greater respect for the natural world and conservation, as well as an awareness of fire safety.
“One of the ways that I deal with difficult things is to try and make something out of them,” Grew said. “I have to make something beautiful out of this destruction because otherwise the destruction will dominate us.”
A larger issue
Climatologists say wildfire seasons will become more severe because of longer, drier and hotter summers.
A forest has natural fuels — found in pine needles, twigs, grass, shrubs and trees — that are combustible. These materials are always present on a forest floor, but the amount of moisture a fuel holds dictates the likelihood of it igniting.
Fire burned 178,900 acres across Washington in 2022, more than half of which were forested areas on the western side of the state, according to the Washington State Department of Natural Resources.
“It’s a wake-up call that fire is a part of these environments in Western Washington,” said Garrett Meigs, Department of Natural Resources forest health scientist. “We really need to think ahead in terms of how we’re going to adapt and live with more fire on the landscape.”
Nationwide, nearly 70,000 wildfires were reported across the United States, burning more than 7.5 million acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
In Portland, Ruttan continues to expand her advocacy work, now painting oil tanks impeding upon natural spaces in light of Zenith Energy’s proposed expansion at its transloading facility. She urges that the project’s increased railcar traffic will cause more pollution and inevitably result in a derailment, spilling oil into wetlands.
“I sort of feel like Chicken Little saying ‘The sky is falling, the sky is falling!’ ” Ruttan said, her chuckle slowly fading, her face solemn. “And the sky is falling.”
The growing frequency of wildfires, matched with multiple stressors, has prompted multiple national directives and climate-action strategies.
An executive order signed by President Joe Biden in April 2022 ordered the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and the Interior to lead forest conservation efforts, which are currently being implemented across the country, including in Southwest Washington.
Meanwhile, as they continue to heal, Ruttan, Irving and Grew will continue converting their encounters with wildfires into paintings, essays and photographs. More importantly, though, they say they will keep creating to spread awareness about people’s connection with nature, not as something separate but singular, and why it’s worth protecting.
“Grief wakes us up, reminds us that we are connected,” Irving wrote in “Love and Fire.” “And the story isn’t over yet. We still have time to write a different ending.”
This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.