Coast to Cactus: Bringing Fire into Focus

As any local can attest, fires are a part of life here in San Diego. This year, the wildfires came four months earlier than usual and scorched more than 27,000 acres of land. Chaparral, one of the most common habitats of the region and also one of the most misunderstood, is fuel for that fire.

A key exhibition component within Coast to Cactus in Southern California will serve as an immersive experience that invites people to step inside the life cycle of this ubiquitous California plant community that covers much of San Diego’s hillsides, and describes how it is affected by wildfire.

“Chaparral is one of our primary ecosystems, and fire has shaped that ecosystem, which is why we are including it in the exhibition,” explained Exhibit Developer Erica Kelly. “The chaparral experience invites visitors to learn about how chaparral plants are actually adapted for—and even require—periodic fires, and how animals return as the plant community regenerates.”

A visitor entering the chaparral experience steps inside a virtual storybook in-the-round, encountering the story of the chaparral’s growth, burn, and regeneration in four chapters. The visual narrative starts with a long, dry summer where, after years without a fire, the shrubs have grown tall. Then, smoke hangs in the air and flames lick the darkening sky. Birds take flight, and some animals flee while others find safety in rock crevices and in underground burrows. Above ground, plants burn. But below ground, they survive to regrow.

After the burn, the blackened ground lies exposed to sun and scavengers, and animals emerge from hiding to look for food. With no tall shrubs to block the sun, the ground is open for new plants to grow. Fire Poppies bloom, some of the first plants to flower after a fire.

The following spring, rain has fallen and life is renewed in the chaparral. Wildflowers carpet the hillsides after winter’s rains, and manzanita and chamise regrow from underground parts called burls that survive a fire. Birds forage for seeds and feast on insects while newly hatched spiders parachute in on threads of silk.

Together, in just a few square feet, the chapters tell a story that spans hundreds of thousands of acres and takes decades to unfold.

“There is a ‘land of the giants’ aspect to this experience,” explained Brian Gibson, exhibit artist for Coast to Cactus. “Due to the scale of the sculptures and painting, visitors will feel they have shrunk down in size—this will give them the chance to explore chaparral plants and animals up close and even pretend to seek refuge as a fire ‘burns’ overhead.”

The chaparral experience is just one component of Coast to Cactus that takes big-picture concepts and drills into them on a micro level, allowing visitors to learn more about these habitats they see every day and often overlook. It’s also a prime example of how the research done by our scientists—in this case, numerous pre-and post-wildfire studies—informs and shapes an exhibition that is developed for the public.

The Museum’s scientists and researchers, along with the Exhibits team, hope Coast to Cactus in Southern California helps create enthusiasm for exploring our local habitats and inspires people to go out and learn firsthand about our region.

This new 8,000-square-foot core exhibition will open to the public on Saturday, January 17, 2015! More information can be found on our website here


Posted by The Nat.

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