New Woolsey Fire Project Finds Beauty in Disaster

The publication, an extension of Baur’s CTLIST magazine, is a hybrid between art book and magazine, and is being crowdfunded. Once the initial printing costs are covered, funds raised by the sale of the book will support the Samo Fund, TCEP, RCDSMM and TFI—organizations working to restore the damage caused by the fire and prevent future wildfire disasters. Image courtesy Urs Baur

Topanga artist and designer Urs Baur provides a different perspective on the fire. His crowd-funded publishing project chronicles the experiences of eight survivors and seeks to raise funds for restoration and wildfire awareness. Artist and designer Urs Baur had an opportunity to fly over the Woolsey Fire burn area just days after the emergency ended. The experience inspired Baur to begin a major project in collaboration with the Messenger Mountain News to bring a new perspective and a sense of urgency to the disaster.

“It was a catalyst,” Baur told the Messenger Mountain News. “It showed me the bigger picture, short term and long term. The Santa Monica Mountains are something that exist nowhere else in the world. It’s the world’s largest urban national park. We can’t take it for granted.”

Baur explained that his view from the helicopter brought several things into focus for him. It offered an unparalleled perspective on the magnitude of a disaster. He was able to see how the fire consumed massive oak trees so completely that all that was left was their shadow in ash, and the apparent randomness of how the fire traveled, burning some canyons from mountain ridge to the sea but sometimes leaving a house on an island of untouched habitat.

The flight also put the human stories connected to the fire into perspective, bringing together the different threads of experience Baur encountered during the disaster into a single map that told the story of the fire.

“I was frustrated by the lack of coverage during the disaster,” Baur said. “I initially stayed behind during the evacuation of Topanga, but I couldn’t get any information.”

Baur eventually opted to evacuate but continued to seek information. “I was trying to keep up,” he said. “I turned to social media. There was conflicting news, but people I relied on gave first-hand reports. I started networking, pulling people together.”

A series of stories emerged from that contact. Morgan Runyon, who stayed behind and saved the Old Place, his family’s historic general-store-turned-steakhouse; Marsha Maus, who evacuated from her Seminole Springs home in the early hours of the morning with her dog and cats, but lost her house, as did more than a hundred of her neighbors; and Randy Nauert, the former bass player for the surf rock group the Challengers and a longtime Malibu resident who lost his ranch and many of his beloved animals in the fire.

All of the eight survivors Baur interviewed and filmed for the project had powerful, tragic, hopeful experiences to share, but Baur said his interview with Nauert was the most poignant because the meeting came just days before his death in the aftermath of the fire.

The video Bauer shot of Nauert working to clear the fire debris from his ranch unexpectedly captured the end of a life, instead of the start of a new chapter.

“I am aware that my experience is one slice of the Woolsey Fire,” Baur said. “It’s personal. Each story represents one of us, whether we left or stayed. Every experience was extraordinary. From the stories I heard I got a picture of the whole story. Each of these portraits become a documentary.”

Those stories crystalized into Baur’s project. The focus is on mountain and canyon survivors of the Woolsey fire, instead of on the coast where much of the media attention has been focused. Baur said he sees the parallels between each location he visited and Topanga, which was spared this time, but may not escape next time.

“I want to create community around the issue of fire, disaster, to inspire people to take action,” he said.

Each story is told through photographs and the survivors’ words and linked together by Baur’s aerial photos. He is seeking the community’s help to make his project a reality. He envisions a magazine-style art book of the images he took together with the stories he gathered during the disaster. The sale of the book would help fund restoration in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area and encourage community fire preparedness.

Urs Baur at work on the Woolsey Chronicles. The project combines aerial images of
the burn zone he shot days after the disaster ended, with eyewitness accounts by eight
survivors. Photo by Suzanne Guldimann

“It’s a way to raise awareness of fire danger and our situation in the mountains and how it is fragile,” he explained. “As lucky as we were in Topanga—it missed us, but not our neighbors and friends—we can’t take anything for granted. Yes, we live here, it’s beautiful, but we are part of an ecosystem. We have to be prepared. This is why I care to do this.”

Baur is starting a crowdfunding campaign to get the project off the ground. He told the Messenger Mountain News that he needs to raise $17,500 to cover the printing cost, and that the book can be pre-ordered for $25. Once the production cost is covered, proceeds will be donated to local emergency preparedness and conservation organizations :  the Santa Monica Mountains Foundation, Topanga Coalition for Emergency Preparedness (TCEP), Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains (RCD) and Topanga Film Institute (TFI)..

Baur plans a launch party and art installation showcasing the images and video he shot for the project on March 23, 6 – 9 p.m. The crowdfunding campaign went live on March 4.

“It’s completely grassroots, homegrown,” Baur explained.” What I saw from the helicopter needs to be shared; these stories need to be shared. That’s why I am putting so much into it. It’s doing something worthwhile.”

Rosewood is sponsoring the Woolsey Chronicles Launch & Fundraiser bringing awareness to habitat restoration, March 23, 6 – 9 p.m. For more information or to pre-order visit www.topangafilminstitute.org

 

Suzanne Guldimann
Suzanne Guldimann

Suzanne Guldimann is an author, artist, and musician who lives in Malibu and loves the Santa Monica Mountains. She has worked as a journalist reporting on local news and issues for more than a decade, and is the author of nine books of music for the harp. Suzanne's newest book, "Life in Malibu", explores local history and nature. She can be reached at suzanne@messengermountainnews.com

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