Film brings awareness to living with wildfire
Last updated 9/6/2022 at Noon
The last five to 10 years of wildfire seasons have been some of the most devastating and destructive seasons in our nation’s history in the American West. The documentary film “Elemental” asks why that has been the case, and how we can learn to effectively live with wildfire.
“Elemental” takes viewers on a journey with the top experts in the nation to better understand fire. The film screens in Sisters on Wednesday, September 14 (see sidebar).
Director Trip Jennings is the founder of Balance Media and has worked as a filmmaker for National Geographic and PBS. He found his passion for filmmaking at a young age and began shooting mini-documentaries in college, including a student film about the Biscuit Fire in Southern Oregon in 2002, which burned 500,000 acres.
“That was my first investigative documentary film about an issue, following the aftermath and impact of that fire,” said Jennings.
In Eugene that year, during a screening of the film, Jennings met Ralph Bloemers, who helped Jennings put together a curated, edited version of the film. They have been working together to tell the story of wildfire ever since.
In 2017, Jennings set out to film the aftermath of the Eagle Creek Fire in his home area of the Columbia River Gorge.
“We really dove deep into fire and said to ourselves, there is a story here,” said Jennings.
Bloemer has been working in forests for over 22 years with some of the top scientists in the world, learning how the forests interact and respond to fire.
“I used to be in the mindset that there isn’t much left after a burn in the forest, and fire can destroy things, but the forest itself actually thrives with fire and it’s sort of like a young person full of life and potential and regrowth,” said Bloemers.
Bloemers and Jennings both have a passion for presenting a story that respects its viewer and presents the information in a way the audience can understand, and apply it to their own communities. The challenge with a film such as “Elemental,” is the various subjects and nuances that live within any discussion about interacting with wildfire.
“There is such a depth of the subjects with fire, it is not black and white, one way or another, and so we grappled with figuring out a way to show that depth of the subject. And seeing that process unfold was rewarding and allowed us to create relationships with those experts and communities that were impacted by fire,” said Bloemers.
The 2017 Eagle Creek Fire was the beginning of a project that would take over five years to complete. Jennings set out to tell the story of how fire is impacting the land, and why these fires have become so much more devastating to communities. Jennings recruited Bloemers to be the executive producer on the film and the two worked closely to bring it together. Jennings also worked with Sara Quinn, the producer/editor of the film. With her background in cultural anthropology, Quinn brought the slow, intentional approach of ethnography into her storytelling. She has been making award-winning films and shorts with Balance Media for eight years.
By 2020, the film was pretty much completed, with footage from the 2018 Camp Fire that devastated Paradise, California, and other fires in Oregon that year, telling the story of the impact of hotter, drier seasons.
But the pandemic hit, and it wasn’t the best time to premiere the film. A few months later, the 2020 fires that devastated western Oregon and the rest of the state occurred.
“We knew people that lost everything in those fires in 2020, and we knew that had to be a part of the story in the film,” said Bloemers.
The 2020 fire season was one of the most devastating in Oregon’s history, with over one million acres burned and thousands of homes destroyed. The impact of the fires that year was significant to the bigger-picture story Jennings was trying to portray.
“I set out to string together a narrative film that people can watch and understand where we are at with fire and kind of go, okay, I get it, let’s do something, but it really evolved as we went through it,” said Jennings.
Originally the film was going to be focused on the use of prescribed burning.
“You go into a project with one idea and realize, OK I was totally wrong, and then take a different direction. That direction became focused on researching the idea of starting from the impact on the home, outward to the forest and vegetation where fire occurs, and looking at the homes first,” he said.
During the research and filming phases of the project, Jennings and Bloemers met many scientists and fire experts; they also met members of the Yurok Tribe located on the Klamath River in California about their approach to fire, and using it to work with the landscape.
“I talked to one member, and he said to me, ‘I don’t fight fire, I light fire,’ and I knew that he was going to be a part of this documentary to show how the natives worked with fire in the land to help treat it,” said Jennings.
The Native Americans would often use fire in their home areas to create a forest that was dense with berry plants, food sources for other animals, which in turn would provide food for them. In that landscape, fire allowed for prosperity.
“Elemental” highlights the importance of the use of fire on the forests, but also highlights some of the historical practices that have allowed for the types of ideals and thoughts we hold about fire today.
“Historically, the wetter climate in the 1940s and 50s, the way they treated forests then, it was conducive to that, but now, we are in a hotter, drier environment and fire is inevitable, so now it’s up to us to figure out how to change our narrative towards it,” said Jennings.
The film interviews various fire experts and home safety experts about how the public can better prepare their homes and communities for when fire does reach their neighborhoods. In the film, they visit fire labs, where researchers torch entire houses to learn why some homes burn and others survive.
“We often get thank-yous from the public for making a film that highlights what they can do to prepare as well as understanding the impact on the first responders and agencies in telling them that they can’t battle with fires of this magnitude,” said Bloemers.
The impact of the 2020 fires, for example, showed the pressure the fire departments were under.
“They don’t have the machinery or personnel to save all the homes or fight the fire, so it’s important for the public and policy makers to look at the bigger picture of where we can spend the money to have the most impact on keeping communities safe,” said Bloemers.
“Most people can look around them and see that weather is changing in our world, and we just have to look at the hand we are dealt and play that hand, because that’s what we’ve got and it’s up to us to figure out how to live with it,” said Jennings.
He emphasized the idea that we can’t fight every single wildfire, but we can help raise awareness to the public of how to adapt to changes.
“We need policies and resources to support that adaptation for people, especially in low-income housing where fire would be devastating, so we see success as making sure there is knowledge and resources and policies that support people adapting their homes and communities, and having strategies to survive the coming years,” said Jennings.