California is off to an early, ominously busy fire season this summer, making “Bring Your Own Brigade,” a standout documentary about the state’s complex and increasingly dire wildfire problem opening on Aug. 6, especially timely.
And starting Aug. 20, “Bring Your Own Brigade” also will stream during a fire season experts predict could be worse than last year, when a record 4.1 million acres burned and smoke from blazes blanketed the Bay Area with an eerie orange darkness.
Even before 2020, California’s fires caught the attention of award-winning British documentarian Lucy Walker, who lives in Los Angeles.
“We were having these bad, terrifying fires, and I asked, ‘Which wonderful filmmaker is going to make a film about this?’ because I wanted to understand what’s happening,” says Walker. “Then I thought, ‘I guess I’m the environmental filmmaker around here, I’m fascinated, and no one else seems to have taken up this challenge,’ so I decided to make a film about the Thomas Fire.”
In summer 2018, production focused on the Thomas Fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, California’s largest wildfire to date. Later, when more deadly and destructive blazes scorched other parts of the state, attention shifted to the Woolsey Fire in Malibu and Camp Fire in Paradise.
“I was a few months into the making of the film, when there was another, even bigger one,” Walker says, recalling her astonishment, adding, “…. I didn’t really want to be so topical, but I felt like I was already standing in a field with a bottle and lightning came along.”
The ferocity and speed of the fires that ravaged Paradise and Malibu were common to other big blazes, including the record-breaking 2018 Mendocino Complex Fire, the 2020 August Complex Fire and the deadly 1991 Tunnel Fire in the Oakland hills.
“Who would have thought that fire would have moved as rapidly as did in some of those places, and most of those people living there probably had no idea,” says California State University, Chico geography and planning Professor Don Hankins, who appears in the film. “Having grown up in San Bruno, I see that same risk there as I drive along 280 and look to the west. All of that can burn, even in San Francisco, under the right conditions.”
While intense wildfires have caught people by surprise in recent years, the film points out they always have been a part of California’s landscape and that Native Americans managed the environment using prescribed burns. When Europeans arrived, they supplanted them with fire suppression, resulting in denser vegetation that’s fuel for fires.
“All these places had indigenous villages for thousands of years, all of California was a wildland-urban interface when Spaniards and Euro-Americans arrived, and we built in all these places,” says Hankins, an expert in pyro-geography and indigenous stewardship. “Under the wrong conditions, it’s all at risk, but the tools are there: prescribed fires and building smart with non-traditional materials in these places.”
“Bring Your Own Brigade” describes how the Camp Fire was ignited by Pacific Gas & Electric Co. power lines in land managed by the U.S. Forest Service, quickly spreading into a Sierra Pacific tree plantation in the highlands above Paradise.
The Forest Service’s policy of fire suppression in forests it manages and Sierra Pacific’s property of closely planted, shorter trees provided ideal conditions for the Camp Fire, but PG&E bore the brunt of criticism and liability.
“During the Camp Fire we blamed PG&E because their lines started the blaze, but PG&E didn’t advance the policy of fire suppression and didn’t clear-cut their land and replant it with flammable plantations,” says Zeke Lunder, founder of the wildfire analysis and mapping firm Deer Creek Resources. “PG&E is getting stuck with the bill for the fire, but they’re not the ones that created the problem and made the landscape so ripe for fire.”
Drier, hotter conditions brought about by climate change have contributed to more frequent and worse wildfires, which, Lunder believes, may have contributed to Sierra Pacific’s decision to stop replanting on its property incinerated in the Camp Fire.
“They’re businesspeople and see the writing on the wall that on this land they’ll never keep fire off it long enough to grow a big enough tree to turn into a two-by-four,” Lunder says. “So I see that as a perfect example of retreating as a climate-change adaptation.”
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and U.S. Forest Service have not adapted similarly, adds Lunder. He says the agencies have indicated they will expand burn programs, but upper management hasn’t made them a priority.
All factors in California’s pyro-friendly environment have made the work of firefighters even more difficult and risky.
“I hope this film will help people understand what they are going through,” Walker says. “They really are the heroes.”
IF YOU GO
Bring Your Own Brigade
Starring: Lucy Walker, Don Hankins, Zeke Lunder,Brad Weldon, Trina Cunningham,
Written, produced and directed by: Lucy Walker
Running time: 1 hours, 59 minutes