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‘Firestorm’ fizzles out, and that’s for the best

It appears the “Firestorm” sculpture that ignited angry reactions from survivors of the 2020 Almeda fire will not be installed in Medford after all, or anywhere else. Despite the good intentions of those behind the project, from the artist to the Downtown Medford Association to the Medford City Council, that outcome is for the best.

The work was conceived by Big Rapids, Michigan, sculptor Robert Barnum, who grew up in Jackson County, after the Sept. 8, 2020, Almeda fire destroyed thousands of homes. The 20-foot sculpture, resembling artwork from the Burning Man festival in Nevada, was to consist of four stylized, stainless steel figures of men and women against a structure appearing to be on fire, lighted at night to resemble flames behind the figures.

Private donations were to fund most of the $75,000 project, but the Medford City Council voted to contribute $33,750 before rescinding its approval in the wake of public criticism.

The whole idea, while sincerely intended as a tribute to the sacrifices and resilience of fire victims, was simply tone deaf on almost every level.

Public art of any kind is always controversial, because its appreciation is so subjective. Witness the months of debate over a sculpture intended to reflect Ashland, completely unrelated to a historic tragedy. This project, depicting human figures next to flames, was guaranteed to trigger a strong emotional reaction among fire survivors still dealing with the trauma of that experience.

In this case, the usual process for approving and funding public art was not followed, because the artist offered the work, private donors jumped on board and the city pledged funds without asking the public what they thought of the concept.

In addition, Medford was untouched by the Almeda fire, which devastated Talent and Phoenix but stopped short of the Medford city limits. Medford’s assumption that the project would be appreciated by those who lost homes and businesses came off as arrogant to say the least.

Finally, it didn’t help that the artist’s brother is Medford’s building safety director. Regardless of whether that had anything to do with the city’s support — Medford officials say it did not — it just adds to the list of reasons for public opposition.

After the backlash against the project, the city pulled its funding, but encouraged supporters to reconsider the location and the design. The project now has been withdrawn, and that’s good.