Art is often associated with ethereal subjects, not with grim reality—and certainly not with the grimy drudgery firefighters often face on the fireline. But not for Patrick Michael Karnahan.
For more than 20 years, Karnahan has used his unique artistic talents to commemorate the heroic efforts and sacrifices made by wildland firefighters and to dramatize the ongoing need for sound wild land fire management.
Karnahan knows a lot about wild land fire. For 15 years, he worked for the USDA Forest Service as a seasonal firefighter and later as a graphic artist and public affairs specialist.
He remains under contract to prepare paintings for Forest Service posters and publications.
His paintings, based on years of personal experience on the firelines, are full of highly accurate detail. They also reflect his emotional commitment to wild land firefighting and to conserving our public wild land treasures.
Karnahan spent most of his Forest Service career in the Sierra Nevada,s CA. He worked as a firefighter and in fuels management on the Eldorado, Plumas, and Sequoia National Forests; and in recreation on the San Bernardino National Forest. In addition, he designed posters for public education on the National Forest System and implemented visual interpretation programs for the Stanislaus National Forest.
He has also done design and interpretive work for California’s Department of State Parks and Recreation.
Karnahan has been oil painting since he was 8 years old. In addition to painting wildlands, Karnahan has been capturing the history of the American railroads on canvas for more than 20 years.
He has completed a calendar on American railroads, and his artwork has been featured on numerous book and magazine covers. He also promotes art education for children in local schools. “It’s satisfying,” he says. “Usually, I’ll sell my paintings and won’t see them again. What I’m doing becomes part of the community.”
But that’s not all. Karnahan also plays and writes music for the Black Irish band, which he founded in 1989 in his home town of Sonora, CA.
The band plays old and new music in many styles, including Celtic, Sicilian, Spanish, railroad, Gold Rush, and maritime. “I write songs about people and places and events that influence my life,” says Karnahan, “and I’m fascinated by history.” That history, of course, includes wildland firefighting.
One of Karnahan’s songs is about the Mann Gulch Fire, in which 13 smokejumpers lost their lives in a 1949 blowup on a Montana hillside.
After the disaster, which Karnahan calls a modern tragedy, the Forest Service revised its standards for wild land firefighting. Karnahan felt compelled to write a song about what happened. ~People are crying out, ‘Remember us, remember our time,”’ he says. “To me, we all connect together. That’s what makes us who we are.”
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