(2021) Documentary (CBS News) Marily Woodhouse, Brad Weldon, Lucy Walker, Derek Rickmers, Lauren Gill, Norma Weldon, Maeve Juarez, Char Mullen, Marshall Mullen, Mike Zucolili, Malcolm North, Steve Pyne, Zeke Lunder, Dave Jones, Kristen Shive, Chad Hanson, Mark Emerson, Mike Davis, Greg Bolin, Chris Brandini, Rick Halsey, Jim Broshears, Jody Jones. Directed by Lucy Walker
As I write this, the Dixie fire is burning out of control in California. Another hot summer, another spate of wildfires are scorching the West. This has beome the new normal. But does it need to be?
Oscar-winning documentarian Lucy Walker, a British transplant now living in the United States, asks that very question. She opens this two hour long documentary with footage of wildfires from around the world, including heartbreaking footage of a baby koala in Australia burning alive until saved by human hands. The animal’s piteous screams of pain are not likely to be forgotten to anyone who sees this movie anytime soon.
Then we see the human side. Walker had been in Paradise doing research on the 2017 Thomas fire that had nearly leveled the town when the Camp fire broke out, as did the Woolsey fire in Malibu. Walker had crews in both locations and was there when 88 lives were lost and thousands of structures consumed. The Camp fire remains the deadliest forest fire in the history of California.
Hearing the 911 calls of panicked people in cars and in homes, knowing that they’re about to burn alive, is absolutely devastating. While some of the folks you hear did actually manage to escape, not all of them did. It is much like hearing the 911 call of Melissa Doi from the 83rd floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. The footage of burning cars and fire all around the vehicles, taken with cell phones by the survivors of the fire, would put Dante to shame.
But while Walker early on says that the movie is about hope, and it might be hard to find at the beginning. However, she examines the issues of the underlying causes of these fires and while climate change is certainly a culprit, it is by no means the only one. Logging companies planting new new trees too close together cause fires to spread further and faster; the refusal to use controlled burns to help cut down the flammable material in forests, and infrastructure (power lines that are poorly maintained, and in the case of the Camp fire, were directly responsible for the fire) maintenance inadequate to what is needed as well as homeowners failing to clean their rain gutters, leaving dry tinder in proximity to their roofs.
Perhaps the most heart-wrenching thing about the documentary is what happened in Paradise afterwards. While Ron Howard’s Rebuilding Paradise showed a heroic side of the community (and Walker dutifully trots out Barry Weldon, a resident caring for his blind mother whose house was spared and who then put up homeless neighbors in his home), we see here firefighting professionals making a number of recommendations to help avoid the mass destruction that occurred in 2018. The city council, spurred on by angry citizens of Paradise, voted every one of them down. Every. One.
Then again, many of the folks in Paradise, given only minutes to gather belongings and flee, went immediately for their guns. Eyewitnesses report the ammo left behind going off like a war zone during the fire. One can draw parallels between the refusal to accept sensible precautions in the guise of asserting personal freedom by the citizens of Paradise to the current stance of those refusing to get vaccinated against a deadly pandemic. It turns out that we, as a species, are pretty much a bunch of morons.
The film is currently playing in select theaters around the country. Subscribers to CBSN and Paramount Plus will be able to see the movie on those services beginning August 20th.
REASONS TO SEE: Human denial is both fascinating and horrifying. Spectacular footage of the Camp fire.
REASONS TO AVOID A little bit too anecdotal.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity as well as some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT The Camp Fire remains the deadliest wildfire in the history of California to this date.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/7/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews; Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Inhabitants: An Indigenous Perspective
FINAL RATING: 7/10