It’s Never Over


Documentary film, 1 hour 42 minutes
Independent production

The best hotshot movies in the past few years are those shot by the crews themselves, bundled into visual yearbooks at the end of each fire season and posted on YouTube. Basically, they’re fire candy to keep a wildland firefighter’s mental engine running through the off-season.

Hollywood has taken a few whacks at capturing the wildland fire experience. They’re visually excellent, but consistently unauthentic — a complaint I have heard and read countless times — and those movies have ranged from okay to terrible. Now, out of the blue — or the black — comes Hotshot, a genuinely fine documentary about what it’s like to work on a hotshot crew and fight some truly nasty fires. Be glad you can’t feel the heat. This movie rewrites the definition of getting a little too close to the action.

Justine Gude
Justine Gude, screenshot from the Hotshot movie by Gabriel Kirkpatrick Mann

The person you see most in the film is Justine Gude, who was a squad boss on the Texas Canyon IHC. The crew is one of five hotshot crews on southern California’s Angeles National Forest. She goes the extra mile in all aspects to ensure she’s up to snuff to fight wildfires, and to make sure everyone survives each shift. Based on the footage in the film, no one gives Justine any more or any less crap than anyone else gets.

The narrator is Gabriel Kirkpatrick Mann, who also wrote, directed, and shot the film. The project took six years to complete. He finished shooting in 2020 and completed editing in 2022; the film has only recently been released for streaming.

“If I had only two years [to complete the film] it may have been more like Top Gun, more like rah rah stuff,” said Mann. As the movie turned out, it is haunting, intimate, wrenching, and absolutely gorgeous.

The film is unusual in that it is a documentary without interviews. A big part of that was because, when working with hotshots when you’re not a hotshot, it can be difficult to get them to open up. “They don’t want to be on camera. I was the fly on the wall shooting candid video.”

Screenshot from the movie Hotshot
Screenshot from the movie Hotshot

“There were things they didn’t want to say on camera, so I was saying it for them. I was saying what they told me.” And it works well. Watching Hotshot is like an illustrated story: the visuals dovetail perfectly with what Mann is saying. The narration has a conversational tone and an easy pace.

Mann obviously did his homework too, which is evident in the segment on wildfire history. He shows and tells how wildfire has been shaping the natural world for many thousands of years and how Native Americans learned to follow nature’s example. But the balance went awry once immigrants started putting out every fire concurrent with spreading slash everywhere. And then, in more recent years, encouraging unnatural growth in the forests while the planet warmed. Hence our current Large Fire problem.

There is also a lovely segment about the increasing use of prescribed fire and large-scale burnouts. Mann calls it “painting with fire.”

The footage is excellent throughout, and is awash in fire whorls, ember showers, gigantic smoke columns, and waves of fire washing over roads, firelines — and occasionally firefighters. For lovers of stunning fire imagery, this film is unbeatable. But be aware that there are some scenes you may wish you could unsee. Mann’s treks through burned-over suburbs and rural communities tell a tale not seen on the evening news, but which firefighters see all too frequently. Animal lovers may want to fast-forward through these parts.

The shots are taken from the fireline, from the boots of those staring down the throat of Mother Nature in a rage. Then there are up-close-and-personal shots of airtankers flooding roads with retardant, helicopters carving through the smoke spilling water from buckets and belly tanks, dozers clanking through brushfields while carving line, and firefighters with hoses fighting a losing battle against a relentless fire front.

For those who’ve been southern California hotshots, watching Hotshots from the comfort of your lazboy may spawn a variety of neural responses. You get to enjoy seeing present-day hotshots doing the same stupid shit you did when you were on a crew — making bets on who could drink a carton of spoiled milk, snorting snuff before starting a line dig, watching a rookie puke after a hell-week highballing hike up a long, hot ridge. This is also, perhaps, a good movie for hotshot candidates to watch. Or not, particularly when they get to the part about the rotten pay federal firefighters (ahem, Forestry Technicians) receive, compared with firefighters from, say, Cal Fire or L.A. County.

For non-fire viewers, or rookies, there is some basic information delivered that is artfully delivered. What is fuel? Trees, fields of brush, houses, cars, washing machines. This is clearly summarized by the narrator and backed up in the visuals: Everything that can burn will burn.

And, oh yeah, pay attention to the wind, says the narrator, showing some rather alarming horizontal flammage, such as when the fire activity near to where they are cutting line starts getting dangerously frisky: “They take a bite, pull back, then take another bite, all day, all night,” says the narrator, while viewers see a crew digging hot line, then stepping back while helicopters spill water along the hot flank, enabling the crew to resume the dig.

Hotshot screenshot
Screenshot from the Hotshot movie by Gabriel Kirkpatrick Mann

Thank god there are hotshot crews to handle these debacles. As the narrator aptly puts it, a hotshot crew is “like a Swiss Army knife with beards.” They have everything that they need and nothing that they don’t.

Mann tried to get approval from the Forest Service to get embedded with Texas Canyon and was turned down. But he decided to do it anyway. He got his own PPE, got a press pass, and outfitted a Jeep for line duty. Then he participated with the crew in their pre-season readiness training. “I went through it all with them, the PT hikes, the safety training.” The experience helped him understand, on a personal level, the depth of dedication hotshots have, and he found it humbling. “I felt I was intruding on something sacred.”

Hotshot by Gabriel Kirkpatrick Mann
Hotshot by Gabriel Kirkpatrick Mann

Even after he had finished shooting and editing the movie, he couldn’t stop running toward the smoke whenever he saw a column rising from the hills. “I was addicted, and I kept going back even after I was done with the movie.”

Watching the film can be somewhat addicting, too.  To see Hotshot, go to where you have the option to pay $4.99 to watch the movie all you want for 48 hours, or $13 to stream it anytime you want for the rest of your life.


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12 thoughts on “It’s Never Over”

  1. This is the best article article published on Wildfire Today since Bill Gabbert died. Bill would be proud. Hopefully Wildfire Today has reversed its sad decline.

  2. I’ve got to watch it again (paid for whenever), to see if some of the following was a first impression or if he did say some things I thought he said.
    Found a lot of good with it. I found the climate disruption denial, the “it’s always been like this” rhetoric, annoying and dangerous. Yes “Unprecedented” repeated ad nauseum is annoying, but that doesn’t mean what we’re up against isn’t unprecedented.
    In particular I need to look back on his schtick as to 100 year fire frequency, he made it sound (to me) like that was pretty homogenous to Cali, when it certainly isn’t even near that in the Angeles forest, alone.
    Not recogonising radically different FRI’s to specific biomes is pretty ridiculous.
    When it comes to the science, it really needs to be done well.
    The guy, seemingly, tends to lean a little hard into Baker, Williams, Hansen & Delasalla, filtered through Ingalsbee, for my tastes, guys that tend to reflect the philosophy parts of “PHD”, rather than the science.

    A big whine, on my end, otherwise there certainly was a great deal of amazing footage.

    To know how rough it’s become is really a story that needs to be told, Mann acquits himself quite well on that score.

  3. I hope my reaction to the trailer proves wrong, but it seems, that this is another glorification of the job that might distract us from the tragedy we are in. It does look better than the Hollywood stuff and I hope it celebrates the comradery, struggles, successes and failures in the dirt we dig. I hope it motivated and lifts spirits. But it raises questions. I guess I have been on too many, too serious fires, with tragic outcomes in life, property and environment over the past decade to want to glorify our current approach.

    It is not the fault of the crews that we are losing the battle, but the mindset I have seen from so many crews is concerning- and amp’ing them up might not lead to improved outcomes. Again- not seen the actual film-yet. I have, in the past few years, watched too many hotshot crews fuck things up with inappropriate timed backfires, too many taking the easy way and lighting from the bottom with the “fuck the wilderness” cry as they go. To many starting fires in severe weather or time of day that assures maximum fire intensity over desired outcomes. Seen too many really underwhelming IMT’s giving really bad direction to crews. I have seen the crews embrace bad direction because they are just doing the incredible effort that they love without understanding the consequences.

    Hotshots do good work, but many don’t actually understand the role they play in the massive stand conversions we are seeing. Overhyping them is not going to lead to the deep discussions we need to have about how to manage these forests. Again, I have not seen the film, only the trailer. I hope it has as much late fall PB time and pushing for changes in our fire strategy as it has big summer flames. I am not dissing the shots just the mentality of the day and the failure to comprehend the impacts as we continue to lose the battles. And yes, I have been there, done that, and all the other positions (except smokejumper). I am still on the ground after 45 years of it (obviously not as a regular these days).

    Still love working with the younger firefighters, love the smell of the smoke mixed with the dirt, the cry of the saw, the sound of the tool scrapping the ground, the radio banter and the deep fatigue at the end of each day (I am old). I get why we are here and how what we do is not well understood by many people. I get that we want to celebrate who we are, but in that we have to ask what we are doing to make who we are better and to change the trajectory of fire. I will gladly post after I see the film with, I hope, a whole lot of praise and thanks.

  4. You are welcome to apply for a part-time writing job here, Allen. Got any clips? Sorry you’re unhappy, but I pay freelancers if you want to submit a story that you think is of high quality. It would take at least six of us to replace Gabbert, and even then it wouldn’t be the same…

  5. Mark,

    Thank you for your insight. We desperately need a better interdisciplinary approach.

  6. Liked the doc, um did he compare hotshots to navy seals? Gotta stop with that. Shots are way more similar to delta

  7. Kelly isn’t it against the law to film as a federal wildland firefighter on duty and then use the footage for personal gain or monetary gain? I know an old, retired AK smokejumper who used his camera so much he got in big trouble. Management had to take his camera away due to him not doing much work. This was annoying while the jumpers worked, he would “ghost out” and take photos- we had to grid to find him to get him to help with the work. Not a big fan of those types. He is also a photojournalist, maybe these types should be a photographer.

  8. I have never heard that it’s illegal, Brandyn, and I can’t imagine a law to that effect. Forest Service has tried for years to tell fire employees that they can’t use cameras, and if they do use cameras, then the government owns the copyright to those photos. Which is a crock of shit. If you shoot photos you own the copyright. The exception to that is a staff photographer or a PAO whose job description includes photographer duty. If the government hires you to take photos, then yes, government can own the rights (or some rights) to those photos. If you think there’s a law that makes photography illegal, and you actually find it, please get back in touch.

    And Mann was not an employee.

  9. Thanks, Kelly. Trailer looks over dramatic as fuck but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I also don’t think it’s a bad thing to portray Hotshots as bad asses .. even tho we are just underpaid nature loving hippie redneck dirtbags .and 2 weeks of CT every April ain’t the same as 24 weeks of BUD/S. But this portrayal may actually lead to recruitment ., which from what I hear from The homies is way down . Used to be a few seasonal spots and a hundred plus applications, not so much any more I hear. I liked Mark L comments .. we are living in the pyrocene, the paradigm shift needs to come from the public thru the ranks down to boots on the ground . Our forests are getting fuckin smoked and it feels really helpless right now. It can’t be logged or masticated or thinned into submission, seems like we just gotta get lucky not to have catastrophic wildfire on the land these days .. I guess the public should understand If you build your house in the fucking woods be prepared to watch it burn . It’s a old tired saying but I still tell the young bucks the same shit . The only thing that matters out there is you ..
    I digress, I did my 20 years, now I’m just a contract faller , dropping and walking trying not to make too big of a mess for the crews to clean up. Thanks Kelly, Gabbert would be proud

  10. This is one of the most incredibly cinematic documentaries I’ve had the pleasure of watching, along with capturing what I assume is one of the truest records of hotshots committed to tape. However, this piece almost immediately breaks the first rule of documentary film-making: don’t make yourself the story.

    Gabriel goes out of his way, right at the beginning of the film, to inject both himself and his partner into it in arguably the worst and most compromising way possible. He lets the viewer know early that, despite the incredibly cinematic intro, he will consistently be talking about how exceptional he and her are: her for being a girl in this job (even though he snarkily mentions this isn’t a “gender studies class”) and him for ~being the only documentarian with the balls to train with hotshots to film them~.

    The bias introduced so early in the film made whenever it popped up again a struggle to get through and forced my eyes to roll. There wasn’t a single moment of “It’s incredible that a girl is doing this, right?” or “Look how much better I am than other media members” that shouldn’t have been cut to make this a stronger piece.

    This becomes the most apparent when Gabriel gets into the more controversial topics of climate, hotshot pay and “fire pornographers.” Because he established himself and his partner as the subject of the film early, rather than hotshots as a whole, it comes off to the audience as an impassioned rant rather than a piece of valid and factual criticism.

    The high notes in this are high when the audience is shown moments that they do rarely get to see and made to critically think about topics they’ve never considered. Realizing that without congratulating yourself for all the hard work you did making the piece is what makes great documentarians great; Gabriel, a “fire pornographer” in his own right, is very obviously not there yet, hundreds of the most beautiful cinematic shots ever put to film be damned.

  11. I hope I get some time to watch it. I spent six seasons being a hotshot. I worked my way up from a grunt midline in the dig, on pulaski, to lead saw and then into management. Great experience. I would never trade a single season. The firsthand experiences I gained, the punishment I put my body through, the friends I made, the determination I learned out way what I would have learned on an engine during that time. Leaving the Type 1 world was tough. Spending time on a district with folks who have never attempted anything similar is tougher.

What do you think?