Fires, burning logs, and lone firefighters with a single hose among ash and rubble. 

These are the scenes depicted at “Out of the Ashes,” a new exhibition on the CZU Lighting Complex Fires at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History (MAH). Shmuel Thaler, a photojournalist with the Santa Cruz Sentinel, teamed up with Nikki Silva, a radio producer at NPR, to tell the stories of the survivors and highlight the effects of climate change. 

“There’s this sense of how a catastrophe can affect your life and your community’s life in an instant, and change everything,” said Thaler, who also provided the photography for the exhibition.

Displayed at the exhibition are collections of burned items contrasted with ghost towns made of ash and bright orange flames that engulf vast landscapes. These visuals portray the frightening and destructive power that nature holds over California, especially wildfires fueled by climate change. 

It’s a topic that Thaler has covered extensively in the past, noting his coverage of the Martin, Summit, and Trabing Fires, which all burned through Santa Cruz Country within three weeks of each other during the summer of 2008. At the time, these were seen as devastating fires but, according to Thaler, the CZU Lightning Complex Fire dwarfs them entirely in terms of ferocity.

Burning Santa Cruz Redwoods. CZU Fire Exhibition, MAH Santa Cruz. Photo by Hayley Sanchez.
Burning Santa Cruz Redwoods. CZU Fire Exhibition, MAH Santa Cruz. Photo by Hayley Sanchez.

This exhibition highlights that ferocity using a unique lens. Rather than using technical terms and numbers, the exhibition humanizes the fires. Burnt objects are scattered around the room, inviting the audience to get closer to the victims. The purpose of “Out of the Ashes” is to bring people’s life memories, both before and during the fire, to the forefront. 

Putting together this exhibition required collaborative effort. Along with help from the MAH to find survivors, Silva and Thaler split the work to tie the exhibition together. Silva interviewed the survivors and got to know their experiences, while Thaler provided images to capture the emotion of their stories.

“Somehow the people bringing an artifact in that they found was this wonderful jumping off point, to begin to talk about their lives, what was important to them, their history and their house, their feelings about the fire,” Silva said.

Household Items, CZU Fire Exhibition, MAH Santa Cruz, Photo by Hayley Sanchez
Household items that were burned in the fire. CZU Fire Exhibition, MAH Santa Cruz. Photo by Hayley Sanchez.

There were all sorts of items in the exhibition, ranging from an old recipe box to a flute in a glass case to an ashen toy truck.

The truck belonged to Rolo, who was five at the time of the fire. Jennifer Cordery, Rolo’s grandmother, gave the truck — one of the few things that survived the fire — to the museum after her house burned. After Cordery explained to her grandson what had happened, his response, displayed at the exhibition, perfectly explained what “Out of the Ashes” is seeking to do. 

Rolo said to his grandmother, “You know what can’t burn? The stories that you told me.”

Another item stood out to a young student named Amalie who was at the exhibition, an old can of butter.

“It didn’t look like butter anymore,” Amalie (who did not provide a last name) explained.

So many of the objects look like this, making it easy to forget that these artifacts are only from last year.

When asked what she took away from the exhibition, Amalie’s response was, again, simple. 

“How much a fire can destroy.”