This photo taken Oct. 17, 2017, in “Tested by Fire, photographs and videos of Napa and Sonoma County wildfires by Napa Valley photographer Tim Carl,” is in an online exhibition by Napa Valley Museum Yountville. Photo: Tim Carl / Napa Valley Museum Yountville 2017

The images are by now all too familiar to Bay Area residents: the ballooning clouds of smoke, the orange skies, the ash-caked grapes.

For the Napa Valley Museum in Yountville, they’re not just news or social media fodder. They’re art. And in a cruel twist, they’re also life.

On Thursday, Sept. 24, the museum opened an online exhibition of wildfire photography by Tim Carl, a native of St. Helena and a current Calistoga resident. Four days later, the photographer and the museum’s executive director, Laura Rafaty, both evacuated their homes as the Glass Fire spread. Carl and his wife, Lynn, fled to their daughter’s home in Sacramento; Rafaty, who lives in St. Helena, took shelter in the museum itself.

The office of Napa Valley Museum Yountville Executive Director Laura Rafaty. She evacuated her home amid the Glass Fire and fled to the museum with her three pets. Photo: Laura Rafaty

Rafaty, her two dogs and her cat are camping out in her office, with an air mattress next to her desk. It’s her first time back on the premises since March, when the museum shuttered because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s sort of like returning to a crime scene,” she says.

The new exhibition, “Tested by Fire, photographs and videos of Napa and Sonoma County wildfires by Napa Valley photographer Tim Carl,” was envisioned as the first project in “Real/Time: Art of the Moment,” a virtual series. The online gallery shows photos and time-lapse videos from 2017’s Tubbs Fire up to the present.

If the timing seems unfortunate — opening an exhibition on a subject that the artist, museum staff and many of their viewers are still currently suffering from — Carl points out that there was a lull in the fires the date the show opened.

Photographer Tim Carl of Napa Valley shot the images from the 2017 Tubbs Fire now on display online. Photo: Tim Carl, Tim Carl

“My hope was that we would be complete for all fires on this season when we had put this together,” he says. “Is it timed perfectly? Well, to be clear: I wish there was never any fire. I wish I never had to take these photos.

“But because they’re happening at such frequency, and now with increased ferocity, there is no good time. When could we put out that story when it wouldn’t possibly intersect with a fire?”

He views it as his duty to help show how dangerous wildfires are and how urgent action on climate change is.

“I hope this is a way to start a broader conversation, not only about the sheer tragedy of these wildfires, but also the causes and potential solutions,” Carl says.

A photo taken Aug. 18 is part of the Napa Valley Museum Yountville online exhibition, “Tested by Fire, photographs and videos of Napa and Sonoma County wildfires by Napa Valley photographer Tim Carl.” Photo: Tim Carl / Napa Valley Museum Yountville

For Rafaty, the exhibition makes a statement about the kind of museum her organization can be.

“We’ve been doing a lot of historical exhibitions here, so there’s always this looking backward,” she says. The museum’s permanent collection features artifacts such as arrowheads, rock specimens from Napa Valley’s creation, items from the birth of the local wine industry. “But there’s so many artifacts and things happening right now that I wanted to try to start grabbing,” she says. She calls it “curating in real time.”

She sees the exhibition as a community resource and as a testament to its resilience.

“When you put something on a wall that you’re experiencing, you get a little perspective from it,” she says. “It’s important that we not only look at ancient history, but we look at current events and try to see the beauty and the power and the ugliness and all of it — and try to record that in some way that is consistent with our mission.”

This photograph taken Oct. 27, 2019, is part of the Yountville museum’s online exhibition. Photo: Tim Carl / Napa Valley Museum Yountville 2019

Carl’s photos depict walls of flame and scorched earth, as well as first responders and homemade signs showing appreciation for their help. His colors are the lurid shades of neo-noir, a palette you might associate more with stylized nighttime shots of Las Vegas than of Wine Country.

A favorite subject is a sign welcoming visitors to the “world famous wine growing region,” where “the wine is bottled poetry.” In Carl’s photos, the sign’s friendly language and kitschy design contrasts with the smoke and haze and unreal hues that loom beyond.

One aerial shot, of the Nichelini Family Winery in St. Helena, was taken Sept. 12. Spared trees are bottle green. Others have foliage the color of deep-fried breading. But even those trees give way to obliterated charcoal expanses with no signs of life.

Nichelini Vineyards winemaker Aimée Sunseri tells The Chronicle that Carl’s exhibition reminded her of finding out in August, by photograph, whether her properties were OK. (So far she’s lost an old barn and a cabin, but the winery, tasting room, processing room and cellar have been spared. Some vines around the perimeter were singed; she’s waiting to find out how affected her grapes are by smoke taint.)

“I know when I saw the picture of our place, and I didn’t know if it was still standing or not, I was just relieved,” Sunseri says. “For me it’s a happy, count-your-blessings type of feeling, but I know for others, it’s not.”

“Tested by Fire, photographs and videos of Napa and Sonoma County wildfires by Napa Valley photographer Tim Carl”: On view online through March 29. Free.

  • Lily Janiak

    Lily Janiak is The San Francisco Chronicle’s theater critic. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @LilyJaniak