Filmmakers embed with hand crew to make “Wildland”

A television version of the film about firefighters will be on PBS October 29, with the full-length feature opening in theaters January 16, 2019.

Wildland movie film firefighters

Over the course of a fire season Alex Jablonski embedded with a Grayback Forestry Type 2 Initial Attack hand crew of firefighters out of Merlin, Oregon, getting to know them and gaining their trust. He accompanied them on wildfires carrying two video cameras, lenses, extra batteries, and a fire shelter in his fireline pack along with two gallons of water and a Yeti Rambler bottle filled with half a gallon of coffee. Most of the time while they were on a fire he worked beside them using a hand tool, but about 10 to 15 percent of the time he traded the tool for one of the video cameras, shooting footage while they were working and interviewing them on breaks.

“Sometimes we missed some good shots or some good moments but it was important to us to make sure that we were contributing and were very much a part of the crew”, Mr. Jablonski said. “As you can see in the film a lot of the story takes place off the line and at home, or in training, because we wanted to tell the personal stories of these guys on the crew.”

Mr. Jablonski and two other videographers, Kahlil Hudson and Grayson Schaffer, went through the basic firefighter training, passed the Work Capacity Test (Pack Test), and received Red Cards, qualifying them to work on the fireline with the crew.  The three of them rotated in and out; only one person from the film company was with the crew at any one time.

“We also knew the pack test would be the easiest part of the summer”, Mr. Jablonski said, “and kept in good shape before starting the film — training hikes, lifting, etc.”

Alex Jablonski filmmaker
Alex Jablonski

The filmmakers used their summer with the crew and the hours of video they shot to make a film — “Wildland”. The television version will be shown on the PBS television series Independent Lens October 29. Check your local listings — not all stations will carry it at that time; I saw it scheduled for 3 a.m. October 30 in one city. The full-length feature film version will appear in a limited number of theaters beginning January 16, 2019. That website has instructions on how you can bring it to your city. Mr. Jablonski said all screenings will help raise money for the Wildland Firefighter Foundation, helping families of firefighters.

Filmed over one fire season, “Wildland” is a sweeping yet deeply personal account of a single wildland firefighting crew as they struggle with fear, loyalty, dreams, and demons. What emerges is a rich story of working-class men — their exterior world, their interior lives and the fire that lies between. (From the film’s website)

The filmmakers obtained permission from the Oregon Department of Forestry to embed with the Grayback Forestry crew and shot only on ODF fires. They did not shoot on any U.S. Forest Service fires.

Below is an excerpt from an interview with Mr. Jablonski from a PBS article:

How did you integrate and get initiated with these other firefighters? Did you have a special bond with any of them?

“It began by just spending a lot of time at the base. We’d be there early in the morning in the winter when the guys were just going out to do what’s called ‘project work’ which is essentially thinning forests. It’s hard work on steep slopes and not exciting. We’d tag along and just hang out, then maybe shoot a bit or ask questions during a break.”

“It’s this slow process of building rapport, showing that you’re there for the right reasons and that you’re committed to spending time there.”

“Then as we got to know people we’d find guys who we thought could be pretty interesting. Tim Brewer, the crew boss in the film, was someone who stuck out right away. He’s sharp-tongued and funny and has a ton of experience. He’s also not particularly friendly at first.”

“When we’d zeroed in on his crew to follow them, I went up to him and said, ‘Hey Tim, I’m Alex — we’re doing this film and we’d be interested in talking to you about maybe following your crew,’ and he just looked at me and said, ‘You know I’m a dick, right?’ and then walked away. That was it.”

“And then he avoided me for a week. But once we were able to keep talking to him and explain what we were after he became a little more open. And after spending a lot of time out there with him we became friends and I’ve opened up to him about things I’ve gone through in the same way that he opens up [about] in the film.”

Below is the official trailer for “Wildfire”:

The film is directed and produced by Alex Jablonski and Kahlil Hudson.

Wildland movie poster firefighters

Tomorrow: How the film’s name changed from “Young Men and Fire”, to “Wildfire”.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

2 thoughts on “Filmmakers embed with hand crew to make “Wildland””

  1. From the trailer this documentary depicts what wildland fire work has been like since the early days of land management — dirty and gritty — not unlike early black & white CCC movie footage.
    The current trend is to portray wildland firefighters as “glorified heros” but I recall when I first walked into the District Office some 35 years ago I knew I wouldn’t be receiving a hero’s image but rather 35 years of itchy “black leg.”
    Looking forward to watching this!


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