Editor’s note: Ellen McGehee is a Fire Operations Specialist for the Watershed Research and Training Center (also known as the Watershed Center) in Trinity County, CA.  Ellen is also a violinist, and co-founder and host of the Trinity Alps Chamber Music Festival. In this blog, Ellen transports us to a powerful day of burning with artists from the Watershed Center’s Fire and Music Project. The project is funded in part by the California Arts Council and the Regional Forest and Fire Capacity (RFFC) Program. Early funding for the Fire and Music project was provided through the California Klamath-Siskiyou Fire Learning Network and the Watershed Center.

It is 0800 on an October morning in Pomo territory in Northern California. It’s still overcast but we can see breaks in the cloud cover that promise the drop in humidity needed for the thatch to carry fire in the mixed invasive and native grasses of today’s burn unit.  We humans are gathered in a circle, some in green and yellow Nomex, some in jeans and flannels, others in CAL FIRE or Search and Rescue uniforms. We start with a round of introductions. Everyone keeps it brief, but with about sixty of us it still takes a while. There are representatives from two government agencies, three NGOs, three tribes, neighborhood residents, and employees of the local water district. “James Jaffe, cellist, the Fire and Music Project” raises a couple eyebrows, as does “Julie Zhu, composer, the Fire and Music Project”, but by the time we get to “Silvi Alcivar, poet, the Fire and Music Project” only a couple folks look twice. The burn boss trainee welcomes everyone and moves into a concise operational briefing, assigning everyone their roles for the burn. “Are there any questions?” A band of silence.  Then one of the Cal FIRE captains lifts a hand. “Yeah, I have a question. What is the Fire and Music Project??”

I step forward, balanced on the edge of what to say. How deep do I go? How much time do I take up? What is important to say in this here and now? Do I admit that I don’t know the answer? Do I represent myself as an artist? A fire practitioner? A scientist? An ecologist? Do I tell them learning bird language is central to the project? How non-sequitur do I get? How edgy? The compact stack of questions, cemented together with mild panic, occupies a fraction of a second as I launch into today’s attempt to encapsulate something complex and evolving into a footnote appropriate for an operational briefing.

“The Fire and Music Project is a group of artists immersing ourselves in the fire world and transforming ourselves into fire practitioners. By sharing our own learning journey in a concert experience that includes music, poetry, and video art, we’ll invite audiences to examine and shift their own relationship with fire.  So first and foremost we’re here to help today, and to learn, so thank you for having us – it’s a privilege to be here and help tend the land together.”  

Seven people in work gear and some firefighting gear stand in a line in front of an old oak tree. They are looking at each other or at the camera and smiling.
Big smiles after a successful burn day. Photo credit: The Watershed Research and Training Center.

It feels like I’ve looked sideways at a toothpick that might someday consider scratching the surface of what we’re attempting to do, of who we are and who we are becoming. 

After my introduction, expressions around the circle range from intrigue to excitement to perplexity, but I don’t see ridicule or laughter. The CAL FIRE captain appears to be nodding introspectively as we all scatter to our assigned tasks. As I grab a flapper and fill my bladder bag I am still thinking about everything I didn’t explain.

Bringing Artists into the World of Fire

With funding from the Upstate Creative Corps through the California Arts Council, we are investing in the artists themselves – instead of their product. By supporting them for their time away from a freelance performance schedule, we are able to come together over six months for several artist “learning immersions.” On this day by some miracle five performing artists’ and a videographer’s schedules have aligned with a burn window for one of the Watershed Center’s partners in California’s statewide network of community-led burning. Today, we work for the Tribal Eco Restoration Alliance (TERA), with fire herself as instructor, but participating in burns is just one aspect of our learning approach. We began our work together with an Indigenous allyship training by the Native Wellness Institute, and continued with study of Indigenous land management practices in California, the history of settlement and fire suppression, fire ecology, and a Basic 32 course (the introductory training required to participate in many fire operations). Along the way we’ve found ourselves dabbling in weather, fire behavior, firing patterns, fuels, and post-fire effects. 

We’ve leaned heavily on our mentors in these educational efforts, many of whom are Watershed Center Fire Program staff, each one a unique wealth of knowledge. We’ve visited ecological reserves, attended a TREX, attended eco-therapy sessions with the wildfire-impacted, burned with tribes and Prescribed Burn Associations (PBAs), piled brush, pulled weeds, scattered seeds. We’ve learned about our own lineages, how to make friction fire, and had discussions about moving from work that is trauma-informed to healing-centered. We have done research projects on the history of the Forest Service, native language diversity in California, and timber industry policies on prescribed fire. 

A person in firefighting gear uses a backpack pump on some low-intensity flames from a prescribed fire. The area is smoky and some trees stand in the background.
Poet Silvi Alcivar uses a backpack pump on some low-intensity flames during a prescribed fire. Photo credit: The Watershed Research and Training Center.

Wherever we find ourselves, we continue to center our practice around building capacity for awareness. By beginning to study practices like tracking and bird language, we not only become more aware of who lives with us in our surroundings, but also our own ripple of impact as we move through the landscape – who we are in our communities. As a species humans are hard-wired for this type of awareness participation – it has been a fact of survival for most of our history, and continues to manifest in Indigenous cultural values around the world, but in many dominant modern societies we are conditioned from birth to NOT pay attention in this way. While we all have the inherent ability, awareness is a skill set that must be practiced to be gained, not unlike music, poetry, or fire. On our learning path we are discovering that the core of our curriculum is to create this relational ecosystem awareness. This encompasses the situational awareness we must have on the fireline and carries it beyond to include ecological, cultural, and political awareness as we walk an artist’s path of change.  

Art Can Help Us Live Our Imagined Future in the Present

In a world where becoming fire adapted is more and more urgent, we often hear the need for culture change, a shift in the perspective of “the general public” about fire. But in order to become truly fire adapted in a rapidly changing ecology, we need the capacity to imagine and participate in a reality that does not yet exist. We have no lived experience that the ecosystem and cultural state we know we must achieve is possible – but just as fire is an important disturbance for biodiversity and resilience, art is a disturbance that can shift culture. Art creates a liminal space that audiences enter in a state of openness and receiving – a space where challenging things can be said in a way they are truly heard and received.  

Four people sit in a circle playing stringed instruments with music stands in front of them. A person plays a piano behind them. They're in a wood paneled room with bookshelves.
Participants in the Fire and Music Project playing music together. Photo credit: The Watershed Research and Training Center.

The mistake is to sequester artists in galleries, in museums, in concert halls, in the box named “entertainment”; akin to restricting the use of fire as a tool to “qualified experts” at large agencies. Anyone can become an artist, just as anyone can become a fire practitioner. To empower an artist in community, for longer than an evening, beyond a finite transaction into true reciprocity, invests in the creation of a cultural situational awareness that will lead to the future we need to imagine. A mentor of ours, a long-time hotshot, asked us: “Is the work you’re doing at 0800 going to get you where you need to be at 1400?” Artists are translators, ambassadors, bridge builders, listeners, mirrors, amplifiers, conduits, synthesizers, and models for creative engagement to become part of the work. Fueling artists fuels culture shift – so why not bring art into community-led burning?

The Synthesis of Art and Fire

Back in Middletown and Big Valley Pomo country, the atmosphere is quiet, reverent, as the two fire fronts flank together to close the circle of the burn. Grass bundles were used in place of drip torches to ignite the native sedge patch in the center of the unit, as weavers will hold the harvested material in their mouths. An offering is made to a charred gopher snake in honor of the sacrifices made for healing today. Snacks are shared at the after-action review (AAR) under a spreading black oak tree at the edge of the unit. The CAL FIRE captain shares how important it is to him be out here, to not just wear the uniform, but to help the community – which lost 1200 homes in the Valley Fire eight years ago – to see not a wall of fire raging towards them, but many neighbors calmly shepherding foot-high flames along with hand tools, unused fire engines staged behind. To rewrite the narrative. 

Nicole, a traditional weaver, speaks about how meaningful it is for everyone to have come together to care for the land, and the sedges. Daniel from TERA stands and sings a traditional Pomo song. He nods at James, who pulls his cello out from under the snack table and, perched on a water cooler in sooty Nomex and a hard hat, offers some Bach as thanks for the day. As Silvi stands to give her poem, James whispers aside to me, “oof – that is a different experience playing that at the end of a long day in the sun hauling a backpack pump, rather than after a rest and a warm up at a concert hall.” 

A person in firefighting gear (yellow shirt, green pants, and blue hardhat) sits on a water cooler in front of a big oak tree outside. He holds a cello and bow.
Artist James Jaffe plays a song for the group on his cello after burn operations have completed. Photo credit: The Watershed Research and Training Center.

There are times when organizing the project feels like nothing fits – getting performing artists, who are often booked a year out, out on burns that the weather dictates a day or two in advance. In awareness, the most challenging part of the work is often the integration – how to nurture the skills you’ve seeded amidst the daily reality of push and pull, apply them to your commute, your computer. Wind lifts the oak leaves as Silvi reads:

here we stand 
in a circle again 
like the sedge grasses
whispering tribal names
ancestral earth and spirit 
affecting the way we move here 
making sure no drip torches 
touch the history rooted in these beds
as every place you step 
is not just land 
but a piece of cultural heritage 
covered in story 
which we keep writing with 
ignition and communication 
resilience and renewal 
interconnection and stepping in 
good behavior of fire and squads
approaching with minimal disturbance 
building confidence and capacity, 
working calmly with purpose,
expecting the intensity of heat 
because we know well fire 
is an essential process for restoration 
and ecosystem health, 
that healing the land is how 
we heal ourselves and 
our communities heart affected 
by unexpected house high flames 
so different from the controlled heights moving through today. 
we know well fire gives and fire takes. 
so we kneel in the ash, 
noticing the green shoots and leaves, 
while we bury the gopher snake 
with an offering of jerky, 
we cover the gopher it would have eaten with the ash of today’s burn, 
we watch the lady bugs by the hundreds taking flight with our winged hopes that tomorrow the cycle of life continues 
as it’s meant to and all things—
life and death and life again— 
grow in safety and 
in natural cycle 
the way they’re meant to grow
to be woven together 
in the basket of aliveness 
and the reeds of gratitude 
that hold today’s 
for tomorrow’s hands.

– Silvi Alcivar, 11.2.23

“Now THAT is a land acknowledgement I would like to hear more often. Can I get a copy of that?” asks Nicole, the traditional weaver.

 “Of course,” Silvi tells Nicole. 

Finding A Path Forward Together

The Fire and Music Project demonstrates a model for bringing communities together in ways that engage them fully and gives the fire world a wider voice. In order to shift our beliefs, we must do more than simply learn new ways to think. If we do not pair thought with action that results in desired outcomes, our hearts and beliefs will never follow. We must dream of the future while our actions make a difference in the present. In that, the fire practitioner is just as much an artist as a violinist or a painter – no matter our reasons for starting, the work is in the doing, and the doing is the ceremony. We will never actually master this, but living our vocations is generative, self-sustaining, as we realize we are part of a community – that we act to benefit a whole beyond ourselves. It is not about changing minds, but about building relationships.  It is about so much more than how many acres we have burned.

More ways to follow along with the Fire and Music Project:


Instagram: @fireandmusicproject

Artist websites:






This activity is funded in part by the California Arts Council, a state agency, through the Upstate California Creative Corps program. In addition, the work upon which this publication is based was funded in part through a Regional Forest and Fire Capacity grant awarded by the California Department of Conservation.


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