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

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.

Canadian smoke update

Residents of eastern Canada and the United States shared unhealthy air quality as hundreds of northern wildfires burn. On June 7, unhealthy to hazardous air advisories were issued for the capital cities of Ottawa, Ontario, and Washington, D.C., and for populations along the smoke paths.

The Fire and Smoke Map from AirNow offers an interactive map-based tool with local precautions. For Ottawa on June 7, AirNow sensors identified a hazardous air quality index (AQI) in the 400s for PM 2.5 (particulate matter that is 2.5 micrometers or smaller; the average human hair is 30 times larger than the largest of PM 2.5 particulates). Due to the hazard of such a PM 2.5 loading, an advisory was issued to avoid all outdoor physical activity.

AirNow sensors with unhealthy air quality from Ottawa, Ontario to Washington, D.C.
AirNow sensors with unhealthy air quality from Ottawa, Ontario to Washington, D.C. Current map at

In Washington, the AQI was unhealthy on June 7, with advisories to keep outdoor activities short and light, and to go indoors if you have symptoms. Sensitive groups should consider moving all activities indoors.

By the evening of June 8, the plume of unhealthiest air had shifted predominantly to the Northeast coast. In New York City, producers cited the effects of smoke when cancelling two Broadway shows and a Shakespeare in the Park performance. On June 6, New York City Mayor Eric Adams cancelled outdoor school activities. “We are taking precautions out of an abundance of caution to protect New Yorkers’ health until we are able to get a better sense of future air quality reports,” he said. “We recommend all New Yorkers limit outdoor activity to the greatest extent possible. Those with preexisting respiratory problems, like heart or breathing problems, as well as children and older adults may be especially sensitive and should stay indoors at this time.”

AirNow map for evening of June 8, 2023.
AirNow map for evening of June 8, 2023. Source:

To track smoke risk, the IQAir Earth Map and the associated World AQI Ranking offer another set of monitoring tools, based on their IQAir network. As of June 7, their World AQI Ranking listed New York City as #2 and Detroit, Michigan as #5 as global cities with the worst air, with Toronto as #15. By the evening of June 8, New York City had dropped to #6, Toronto to #10, and Detroit to #24.

IQAir Earth map for June 7, 2023. Current map at
IQAir Earth map for June 7, 2023. Current map at

in an article for The Conversation, Christopher T. Migliaccio, a research associate professor in toxicology at the University of Montana, wrote on smoke toxicity and precautions to consider when exposed to smoke:

If there is smoke in the air, you want to decrease your exposure.

Can you completely avoid the smoke? Not unless you’re in a hermetically sealed home. The PM levels aren’t much different indoors and out unless you have a really good HVAC system, such as those with MERV 15 or better filters. But going inside decreases your activity, so your breathing rate is slower and the amount of smoke you’re inhaling is likely lower.

We also tend to advise people that if you’re in a susceptible group, such as those with asthma, create a safe space at home and in the office with a high-level stand-alone air filtration system to create a space with cleaner air.

Some masks can help. It doesn’t hurt to have a high-quality N95 mask. Just wearing a cloth mask won’t do much, though.

The BlueSky Canada smoke forecast for June 8 through June 10 offers a specific two-day outlook that doesn’t promise an end to smoke, but indicates that the thickest production may alternate with lighter periods of smoke. By June 10, something like clear skies may appear over Detroit, and the thickest fingers of smoke, from the Quebec fires through Ottawa to New York City, will become more intermittent. A look at the timing of the heaviest smoke may help to plan outside activities during the hours of clearer air.

The BlueSky Canada forecast also shows continued fire and smoke in western Canada and Alberta.

The BlueSky Canada smoke forecast from June 8-10, 2023.
The BlueSky Canada smoke forecast from June 8-10, 2023. For current forecast:

A student of fire helps launch the Gabbert Fellowship

The IAWF establishment of the Bill Gabbert Fellowship in Wildfire Reporting was initiated by a generous donation from  Mark C. Sedenquist, a long-time supporter of WildfireToday, good friend of Bill Gabbert, and a 50-year student of fire.

Sedenquist worked on the Angeles National Forest in 1973-1974 on Engine 314, and on the Coronado National Forest in 1976 as Silver Peak Lookout.

“Over the last five decades, I’ve become a student of wildland fire,” he told us. “I have many friends in the community — some still serving on incident management teams, others retired.  And just to provide perspective, my home and business burned in the 1993 Altadena Fire in southern California.”

Bill Gabbert, Canada Icefields Parkway
Bill Gabbert on a road trip,
Canada Icefields Parkway

Sedenquist had a long series of email conversations with Bill, and he still serves as a fire reference and resource to others. “Even though I now live in Las Vegas, Nevada, friends and family in California still call me first when they spot smoke in the local hills and want to know what they are looking at. And thanks to the wonder of digital scanners and optical devices, I can usually provide real-time information faster than the local media are providing about their local fires.”

When the Gabbert Fellowship launches its first reporting projects, we’ll be the first to thank Mark Sedenquist, who demonstrates the value of being a student of fire — a concept Bill Gabbert often revisited.

We ask you to join with Mark Sedenquist and others to add your support to the Fellowship fund.

As we solicit donations to help fund the Fellowship, we will also ask for your ideas for what the Fellowship will become — and we’re interested in our readers’ and advertisers’ ideas about its management.

For more on Bill Gabbert’s work, check out these reflections by Chuck Bushey and  Wade Ward.

Rain forecast for western Canada

Western Canadian communities and firefighters may catch a welcome break next week with a forecast for precipitation — perhaps a good amount. Over the next week, areas along the Canadian Rockies may receive more than 100 mm (3.9 inches) while the Alberta-Saskatchewan border area may receive 20 mm (less than an inch), with soil moisture predicted to rise throughout the fire-impacted areas. This will likely slow fire spread and smoke volume, though fires at such scale will continue to produce smoke. An overall increase in humidity should lower fire danger.

The western provinces have experienced weeks of active fire behavior and growth, with an intensity comparable to that seen in the 2016 fires that burned Fort McMurray, Alberta and the heat domes and fires of 2021, when fires burned Lytton, British Columbia.

Precipitation forecasts from the National Center for Environmental Prediction reported that some 2,500 firefighters from across Canada backed by 400 military personnel have been deployed across Alberta and that more foreign help has been requested — with crews and incident management teams from the United States, Mexico, Australia, and New Zealand.

At one point nearly 30,000 Alberta residents were evacuated from their homes. Hazardous air quality and low visibility due to smoke were reported from British Columbia to Saskatchewan and as far south as Colorado and northern Texas.

PM2.5 average05/21 map
PM2.5 average
05/21 map

Situation Reports – National

The home page of the Canadian Wildland Fire Information System features maps of weather, fire behavior, and hot spots.

The Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Center Situation Report for May 20 indicated area burned to-date of 2.1 million hectares (nearly 5.2 million acres), with 15 new fires for a total of 226 currently active fires. Of those fires, 90 are identified as out of control. Canada is in its tenth day at its highest preparedness level of 5.

Situation Reports – Provinces with highest fire activity

Climate Change and Fire

In the Climate Atlas of Canada, an article on “Forest Fires and Climate Change” examines the impacts of climate change on Canadian fires and summarizes studies by Mike Flannigan and other scientists who predict that by 2100, western Canada will see a 50 percent increase in the number of dry, windy days that let fires start and spread, whereas eastern Canada will see an even more dramatic 200 percent to 300 percent increase in this kind of fire weather.  And by 2040, fire management costs are expected to double.

Flannigan, a professor of wildland fire at the University of Alberta, explores the impact in more detail on his website. “Fire is the major stand-renewing agent for much of the Canadian forest,” he says, “greatly influencing forest structure and function.”

The research he summarized indicates that the observed increases in area burned in Canada during the last four decades is the result of human-induced climate change. Additionally, he says it appears that temperature is the most important predictor of area burned in Canada with warmer temperatures associated with increased area burned.

Based on a 2005 analysis, Flannigan says current estimates are that an average of over 2 million hectares burn annually in Canada. Just shy of the third week of May, Canada has already recorded 2.1 million hectares burned.

International meeting opens with fire problem, community solutions

PORTO, Portugal – The opening morning of the Eighth International Wildland Fire Conference featured a range of civil leaders, fire managers, and scientific experts who helped circle the delegates around the dilemma of wildland fire: it is the problem and also (sometimes, but not always) the problem’s solution.

How a problem can be its own solution – the fire conundrum – is part of what drew some 1600 delegates from 90 countries to Porto, Portugal in mid-May.

The week-long conference included technical field trips on May 15 and the official opening May 16, followed by a keynote session labeled simply “The Problem.”

The opening included a videotaped welcome from António Guterres, the United Nations secretary-general, who cautioned that “We must keep global warming below 1.5 C” and if we’re to do so, he said, we must energize fire management that includes all voices, including indigenous leaders and communities. (And even though we must act to limit climate change, a UN World Meteorological Organization report this week has forecast a 66 percent chance we’ll reach the 1.5°C increase for a year during the next five years.)

The conference chair, Tiago Oliveira, board chairman of Portugal’s wildfire service Agency for Integrated Rural Fire Management (AGIF), opened with guidance: “We need to take out the emotional side of fire and replace it with  the rational management of fire.” Yet he also reminded attendees of the emotional reality of wildland fire. “I am a survivor as many of you are and we are here to build a better future. To ask for help as I did in 2017” – when Portugal endured a storm of fires that killed 120 citizens and firefighters. An article in Scientific Reports suggests that the extreme fire season of 2017 may have been a prelude to future conditions and likewise events that are triggered by climate change effects. The immensity and challenge of these fires also led to the creation of AGIF.

“Every day that we are managing fires we are learning,” Oliveira continued. “We come here to build friendships in fire. The more friends we have in the world of forest fires the more successful we will be. And the world needs our contributions. The world needs less bad fire and more good fire.”

Tiago Oliveira, board chairman of Portugal’s wildfire service (AGIF) and conference chair opens the Eighth International Wildland Fire Conference.

Gordy Sachs, chief of All Hazard and International Fire Support for the U.S. Forest Service and chair of the International Liaison Committee that planned the conference, reiterated the conference’s value globally. Statements from prior conferences [held every four years] influenced Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction and the Paris Agreement on climate, and the 2023 Conference will launch a key transition tool for international cooperation – the Landscape Fire Governance Framework – and will, like prior conferences, make each country and the world safer and more resilient.

Most of the opening, as is typical of international gatherings, offered the sort of civil and governance support that is key to implementing new frameworks. So it was heartening (if also disheartening) to learn from Antonia Cunha, president of Portugal’s North Regional Coordination and Development Commission, that he’s aware and concerned that 26 percent of carbon emissions in 2022 in the region was from forest fires.

Likewise, a commitment from Juan Cabandié, Environment Minister of Argentina, highlighted that his country needs to be more directed at planning and prevention. “We’re the eighth largest country in the world and 70 percent of our land at risk of wildfires,” he said. And to support its goals, Argentina has started its first monitoring system for entire country.

Duarte Cordeira, with Portugal’s Ministry of Environment, also returned the delegates to community. “We know that the best fire management is by the community members. If we want a more resistant forest that can provide economic and sustainable benefits, we cannot have a monoculture. We are increasing our defense with the creation of a protection ring of native forest.” He said already 200 of these native fuel breaks have been planted, with another 470 in the works and a goal of 800 villages. And Cordeira noted the challenge. “Yet 97 percent of rural properties are private,” he said, “so we need to increase subsidy for land consolidation.”

A conference opening offers a frame, and after a break for coffee and Pastéis de Nata, the conference jumped into “The Problem.” More on that soon.

Bill Gabbert’s fire legacy

Longtime fire journalist Bill Gabbert left us way too soon last year, and many of us will miss him and his contributions to the world of wildfire for a long time to come.

It was pancreatic cancer that took him, and he had a rough go of it for his last year or so, but then he was one of the fortunate few who go quietly and easily in their sleep.

Bill Gabbert, Canada Icefields Parkway
Bill Gabbert on a road trip, Canada Icefields Parkway

When the International Association of Wildland Fire (IAWF) accepted Bill’s generous offer to continue the form, format, and platform of his wildfire journalism websites, we were hoping for many conversations with him, with more time to absorb his advice and knowledge.

Those conversations were far too few, though, and the time far too short. But we are now pleased to announce the BILL GABBERT FELLOWSHIP in Wildfire Reporting, which will fund and mentor and publish the sort of innovative wildfire reporting that Bill exemplified.

An initial donation from a longtime supporter of Wildfire Today helped launch the program. Building on an auspicious start, the IAWF is now accepting donations to honor Bill’s work by developing and supporting a funded program to encourage innovators in wildfire journalism.

To remember Bill and support his legacy into the future, just use the red “Donate Online” link at – unless you specify otherwise, all donations to IAWF this year will support the BILL GABBERT FELLOWSHIP.

Later this year, officers will announce an application process to screen people and projects that feature reporting by fire-savvy writers and innovative media projects for Wildfire Today and Fire Aviation, with some articles jointly produced with Wildfire magazine.

In the next few posts — by Chuck Bushey and Wade Ward — we  share a few memories  from Bill’s friends and colleagues. Let us know if you have more.