Exhibit: Our Future with Fire

'Pyro Futures' Looks at Reality of Fire-Integrated Landscapes

Man and woman at exhibit featuring maps, photos and video of fire
Brett Milligan and Emily Schlickman, professors of landscape architecture and environmental design, at the Manetti Shrem Museum at UC Davis where their exhibit "Pyro Futures" is on display. (Jael Mackendorf/UC Davis)

Wildfires in California have increased fivefold since 1971. In 2020, nearly 10,000 wildfires burned 3.5 million acres of California. Now, an exhibit at UC Davis makes manifest the impending impact of California’s fiery future. 

“These larger, more severe, more intense fires are something that we’re going to have to deal with,” said Brett Miligan, UC Davis professor of landscape architecture and environmental design. 

Pyro Futures, a current exhibit at the Manetti Shrem Museum of Art in the collections classroom, explores the reality of a fire-integrated landscape through interactive displays and mixed media. The installation, designed by Milligan and Emily Schlickman, also a professor in landscape architecture and environmental design, is on view until June 16. Note that the exhibition cannot be viewed when a class is in session, but a visitor can browse the rest of the museum until class is finished. Check with a museum representative for more information.

Man in kitchen

A post-fire landscape  (Courtesy)

The professors said they were inspired to start working together after the 2020 fire season, and wrote Design by Fire: Resistance, Co-Creation, and Retreat in the Pyrocene (Routledge, 2023). The book delves into different approaches toward wildfire and urban interactions, showcasing design case studies around the world. 

“I think it just hit a little close to home, as it was burning by Lake Berryessa,” Schlickman said. 

The exhibit, based on the book and built through the collaboration of artists and ecologists, aims to show the nuances in the spectrum of how wildfires will shape our environment, and to prompt discussions around the influence of high intensity fires in approaching seasons. “As community members, we have agency in deciding what our future might look like with fire,” Milligan said. Schlickman and Miligan also have firsthand experience and involvement in fire management. Under the guidance of indigenous-led fire groups and UC reserve management, the professors do controlled burns as practicing fire stewards.

The exhibit is interactive —  and visitors can pin their location on a map of California and select from a few of the 36 fire-themed postcards to take home. Next to the map, a large glass display builds out three possible scenarios in our fire future with photos and burnt objects, meant to help people envision alternate future realities in California’s landscape. 

Man in kitchen

Burnie the Bobcat is one proposed mascot for fire advocacy. (Jael Mackendorf/UC Davis)

“We just want to trigger everyone’s imagination. It could be very positive or it might be apocalyptic if we don’t really do anything,” Milligan said. There are also journals for visitors to sit down, read, and answer questions about fire. A video of prescribed burnings plays projected across from the glass display, providing an immersive, fire-inspired ambiance to the exhibit.  

The professors also maintain a website for Pyro Futures, which features an interactive online journal for public entries, as well as a poll for creating a new good fire mascot. “Burnie the Bobcat is definitely pulling a lot of votes, but Cinder the Coyote is close behind,” Miligan said. 

The professors also have fire-advocate mascot Burnie up on a billboard on the I-80 highway. It reads: “Only you can decide our fiery future.”



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