Director reflects on ‘Elemental’ film as it moves to streaming

The day before the documentary film Elemental: Reimagine Wildfire was set to begin streaming on Apple TV, Google Play and Amazon, the director Trip Jennings received a text: a jury found the power company PacifiCorp liable for the Oregon Labor Day fires that serve as examples in the film of why we need to rethink our relationships and responses to wildland fire.

We were talking with Jennings about the making of the film when the text arrived. He shared the news, and remembered, as a filmmaker and resident of Portland, Oregon, those days of wind, smoke and firestorms, of so many lost homes, and of when the film’s team first saw the footage of sparking power lines that ignited the destructive fires.

The news settled and we turned back to the other topics that he’s been focusing on: the vital dialogues of science, the challenging transitions of policy and funding, and the role of insurance as a potential pivot point to help us face wildfire’s risks to homes.

At the moment we were talking about the film itself, and the continuing conversations that the film prompts.

“Elemental: Reimagine Wildfire” is streaming on Apple TV, Google Play, and Amazon beginning June 13. Select your platform at elementalfilm.com/streaming-pre-sale.

From initial screenings of the film. Jennings learned that the film sells out in communities where there are effective partnerships working to face wildfire issues. In these communities, Jennings said, the audience may have “a little bit of experience with fire, and they’re curious what to do. They want ideas on how to move forward, they’re feeling vulnerable and concerned. And fire folks are excited about the film too and want to share it. Yet it’s hard for firefighters to say, there’s a limit to what we can do.”

Which is one component of the theme in Elemental. That what we’ve been doing isn’t solving the problems. “We point out the limits to suppression,” though Jennings added that “There’s not a world where we’re not going to fund fire suppression.” And the role that fire professionals play in an ongoing paradigm shift is key. In making the film and during screenings, Jennings observed the “incredible and rare social capital of firefighters” and how their observations of the fire challenge is helping communities change. He was also pleased that the film caught enough of the nuances of fire management and fire science so that it resonated with firefighters (as well as fire survivors and politicians).

The role and voices of firefighters, cultural burners (firelighters), fire scientists, community members and policy makers will all be required in reimagining fire (and all are represented in the film). “We need to change the way we’re thinking about the cultural narrative. When we say the problem is in the forest, it’s not a sufficient answer. The forest is a value at risk, not a solution [to be implemented by logging]. If we can separate fire safety conversations from forest product industry conversations. … if we can separate the conversations more, to let fire safety be its own topic and goal, then the film will be a huge win. And then we can have a more nuanced conversation that takes in the science.”

While suppression will always be a component, Jennings observed that what we fund when it comes to fire and fuels management needs to be focused on the values at risk, often the homes, which may not benefit from a distant forest treatment (and he notes that brush and grass fires, and home-to-home burning, can be as destructive as “forest” fires). Or, for that matter, a logging project packaged as fire safety.

Jennings pointed out that federal fuels management funding is often limited to federal lands, when the dollars would be more effective if they went directly to fire-hardening houses. “In California, the best numbers we can find show that only two of every hundred dollars is spent on the the home. The rest is spent on vegetation management. That’s part of what we help communicate in the film” … including the benefit of focusing on the home ignition zone, building on the work of Jack Cohen, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and the Insurance Institute. of Business and Home Safety (IBHS). And to remember “that in one year we lost more homes in Paradise to fire than were built in California.”

Rebuilding homes is very expensive and fraught with legal and practical issues. “We’ve found ourselves in the insurance space,” Jennings said when the film first began to screen, in part because of ongoing work that Jennings and film producer/editor Sara Quinn are doing for the PBS Terra show “Weathered.”

Director Trip Jennings and producer/editor Sara Quinn filming at the El Dorado Fire for 'Elemental.' Photo: Ryan Walsh.
Director Trip Jennings and producer/editor Sara Quinn filming at the El Dorado Fire for ‘Elemental.’ Photo: Ryan Walsh.

“It’s the story of what’s going on for so many people rebuilding after fires. A lot of people who got dropped from insurance after a fire, for instance, if their house didn’t burn all the way down. A lot of recovery efforts seem to help those who have time and financial resources.”

And the rates rise. “We talked to someone who paid $1000 total, now their insurance totals $4500. I might spend that money to improve my home, not on insurance.” When it comes to fuels treatment, he said “I think we need to see that where the money goes. Even if it goes to private homes, that is a huge private benefit but everyone is safer if we spend money preparing homes for wildfires. If we cant get out the loop that we can only spend [fuel treatment and preparedness funds] on public lands.”

With some insurers leaving home insurance markets, Jennings wondered if the challenge of identifying the specific cost of wildfire risk, and charging for that through the home insurance process, may be a watershed moment. Again he echoed the ability of the film to reach targeted audiences. With showings to insurance professionals and risk managers he anticipates they may see the value to more clearly identify homes and home clusters that are ready to coexist with fire, and to offer price adjustments for those prepared homes. “We began with FireWise and now the key may be more granular initiatives. Homes are beginning to be counted with the “Wildfire Prepared Home” program being rolled out by IBHS [in a California pilot program], but whether the neighbors are prepared isn’t counted yet. There’s no idea how to model and price the individual risk within a neighborhood.” Though the IBHS program is a key step that may allow homeowners and insurers to rate a home’s wildfire preparedness, which may also mesh with a wildfire risk-rating process by the First Street Foundation along with NFPA’s “Outthink Wildfire” strategy.

Of course, this week’s news and next week’s developments aren’t in the film, but Jennings believes the film is evergreen, in part because of the conversations it prompts (such as those we’ve had with Jennings over the past two months).

There is this and more in the film, of course, including an examination of the role of cultural burning in re-working our relationship with fire. And if our relationship with fire is complex, it is also, as the title reminds us, elemental. As elemental as the reminder that Jennings shared: the key to coexisting with fire begins within the five-foot zone adjacent to the house. “Since the 2008 WUI code, the science around the first five feet has developed a lot. Maybe it’s more important than any single thing.”

To learn why, and more, watch the film, now streaming.

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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.

7 thoughts on “Director reflects on ‘Elemental’ film as it moves to streaming”

  1. Todds comment is right on the money. Also,subtract the utility caused fires (Paradise is one of them) in CA and OR and the narrative changes quite a bit. This also isn’t even mentioned in the film. 25 years of flying fire, I have seen thousands of homes saved by suppression, but very few from preventive measures (not that it shouldn’t be done, but pitting it against suppression is nonsense).

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    1. No one’s seriously suggesting we “subtract utility-caused fires” Jay — I know you’re not either. And no one’s dissing your job or questioning its value. Fearing that shouldn’t block people from considering an alternative view of solutions, though. Every tool in the box, right?

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  2. This is a extremely skewed documentary. It is very disheartening to see this on wildfire today with no mention of the skewed nature. Yes let’s do lots of home hardening, but I watch commercial buildings with no wood burn down all the time. Yes let’s fund lots of rx and cultural fire. Everything else is skewed bs. For example the holiday farm fire, 360,000 ac of prime spotted owl habitat burned at the same time in different locations. All in untreated FS lands. You can get the same views from a plane of nuked out Fs lands for any of the neighboring fires. You would literally have to turn a blind eye in a plane to avoid them. It is nearly impossible to do rx fire with out thinning, you can do it but it is really hard to control and you won’t like how it looks when it is done. Burned forests release a ton of carbon wile burning and a ton more while decaying those logs will not be there when we die they will decay releasing all the carbon. Fire scars do not necessarily stop wildfires, the Dixie burned through a bunch of previous fires. The fire behavior will change good or bad and if good firefighters can take advantage of it. Just like a fuels reduction can help. I am really disappointed in the new management of WLF today publishing this with out any push back.

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    1. I was not a math major, Todd, but total acreage on the Holiday Farm Fire was 173,000. Even if 100 percent of that was owl habitat, it’s a bit less than your numbers.

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  3. Yes indeed, very well done, I thought the science discussion was the most interesting, I believe that most fire professional realize that trying to address the problem by implementing fuel treatments is not the total answer. Hardening and defensible space may be the answer. When a home is rebuilt, it should be rebuilt to a higher standard, most often they are not. Construction materials are too expensive…..My home insurance gone up a good bit because the replacement cost has gone up so much…..Good old corporate greed….

    All fire managers would benefit from taking the time to watch this……

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  4. I will certainly spend the 2.99 to watch this film. I as a private citizen and retired fed FF could never support using fed tax money to directly harden someone’s home, I believe that the fed’s need to concentrate on forest management, in particular where fed boundaries meet private land boundaries, however reality is such that there are not enough resources to do the work.

    I would encourage at risk communities to develop CWPP’s and apply for grants……https://www.fs.usda.gov/managing-land/fire/grants
    https://www.usfa.fema.gov/wui/communities/assess-risk.html
    We have to start somewhere, and this is a good start.

    Fire prone communities have to be proactive in protecting themselves, I am not trying to be insensitive, there’s just not enough money or fed employees to do it all, it will require, private, state and local funding to see this through, and if you start now, it will still take decades to really make a difference. There are a great many examples of viable Community Protection Plans out there to look at, it’s not necessary to start from scratch.

    If I lived in a wooded area, I would likely remove nearly all the vegetation within 150 from my home and them thin out another 300. There is no easy answer to this problem, but I know there are some very smart people out there at all levels of society (Private, Local State and Fed gov) that can figure this out…..Or just maybe it’s to far gone to fix, way to many folks living in the woods……

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