"Behind the Lines: Fighting a Wildland Fire"

“I love to walk the gray line. It’s all interpretation. You do what’s right and not necessarily someone’s interpretation or impression of what the rules are. I’m kind of a renegade. I always have been.”

Rocky Oplinger, Incident Commander, Zaca Fire, 2007, being interviewed in “Behind the Lines: Fighting a Wildland Fire”.

Today I watched the documentary, “Behind the Lines: Fighting a Wildland Fire” that Wildfire Today first told you about on March 12. This 48-minute film covers not so much the flames, smoke, and air tankers that you see in news reports, but instead zooms in on the human side… the background players… the people that are largely ignored by the media.

Jennifer A. Reinish

The film was produced and directed by Jennifer A. Reinish whose previous work includes co-directing “Aphordite Project” (2004), a documentary about eight patients who collaborate with Santa Barbara artists to illuminate their cancer experiences. She has also made other documentaries, music videos, and commercials.

In “Behind the Lines”, Reinish illuminates the work that Incident Base, or “fire camp”, personnel do, out of the range of most cameras, that makes it possible for the Operations section, the actual on-the-ground firefighters, to suppress a fire.

This is done through dozens of interviews with members of the Incident Management Team and contractors, with each one describing their job at the incident base and usually what their “real job” is when they are not assigned to a fire. Many of the subjects give examples of similar work they have done on “all hazard” incidents, such as Hurricane Katrina, 9/11, and other non-fire assignments.

Several members of Hot Shot crews are interviewed as well.  Quite a few firefighters contributed still photographs and video footage which was used in the film.

The documentary was made at the 2007 Zaca fire on the Los Padres National Forest. This huge fire which burned 240,000 acres started on July 4 and was contained on September 2. It was divided into two zones, the Live Oak and Richardson zones, with each having their own Incident Management Team. Quite a few different Type 1 Teams rotated in and out, but the film includes an interview with Incident Commander Rocky Oplinger of California Team 4.

Bill Molumby, also the IC of a California Type 1 Team which spent a lot of time on the Zaca fire, can be briefly seen in a couple of shots. In fact in one scene, Molumby and Oplinger are talking to each other while standing in front of map displays, while the person being interviewed describes them as being “like two 4-star Generals”.

After watching the first few minutes of the film, realizing it mostly consisted of fire camp workers explaining their jobs, I thought I was going to be bored, having spent a lot of my life in fire camps. But it soon sucked me in. Everybody had a slightly different story, bringing the human side of fire camp to the light of day…. probably for the first time.

If I was going to nit pick, I could point out that some of the sound editing was a little distracting. In many of the scenes, the ambient noise in the background was virtually the same, sounding like a lot of people talking at the same time, even when it appeared that the person being interviewed was in a remote location with no one else visible in the shot.

For emergency management personnel, the film could be useful in training courses where the students are not very familiar with the roles and responsibilites of all incident personnel, or to introduce them to what it would be like to work at a large incident.

As we mentioned in our earlier post about the film, we learned this in an email from Reinish:

The film has been submitted to three film festivals to start with – the LA Film Festival, Mountainfilm in Telluride, and SilverDocs. I am waiting to hear on those, and will be submitting to a few more.

I am planning to do a local premiere in Santa Barbara sometime in the next few months. Proceeds of the event will be donated to a charity that Santa Barbara firefighters will choose for me.

If you want your own copy of the film, her web site has more information.

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