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.


Just Put It Out

Book Review by Brian Ballou

Running Out of Time: Wildfires and Our Imperiled Forests
David L. Auchterlonie and Jeffrey A. Lehman

RUNNING OUT OF TIMEWhen I was asked to review a new book, Running Out of Time, by David Auchterlonie and Jeffrey Lehman, I was underwhelmed. First, I had to set aside the book I was already reading, The Complete Works of P.G. Wodehouse, and then dive into something that looked like it was penned by the Government Accounting Office, something Congress orders when it wants to give one of the federal government’s agencies a good spanking.

Instead, it turned out to be a surprisingly thorough and readable book written by two high-level business troubleshooters who are genuinely concerned about climate change and the role of wildfires in making the planet considerably hotter than it used to be.

Wildfires have come to dominate the news in the past 30 or more years since they have become larger and harder to stop, and the destruction caused by them has reached epic proportions. And this is not just a Western United States problem. Wildfires have plagued the planet — in the U.S. from Alaska to Florida, in Australia and South Africa, southern Europe, and the northernmost forests of Canada and Russia. (If I’ve left anyone out, just wait; your turn is coming.)

Efforts have been made to stop the Big Wildfire problem by a number of agencies in the U.S. However, in the authors’ analysis, the money spent on the cure is way, way short of what is needed.

“A put-the-fire-out-first strategy should be fundamental.”

“[T]he DOI, USDA, Homeland Security, Defense/Energy and others will spend approximately $16.8 billion [in FY2021-22] on forest maintenance and wildfire management. This figure represents only 0.28 percent of the total federal budget. Despite $8.5 billion of increased allocations since 2000, the number of burned acres of forestland also increased by more than 75 percent during the same period. Even with the most recent ten-year funding from the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the federal funding commitment is not keeping pace. It is, quite frankly, an embarrassment, considering the stated priorities of preserving our forests. Americans impacted by wildfires each year (212 million or nearly 65 percent of the country’s population) deserve better.”

Call me old-fashioned, but $22.6 billion sounds like a lot of money. But so does 65 percent of the United States’ population being affected by wildfire.

Scarier yet is the number of homes, subdivisions, even whole towns burned to cinders by wildfires. In the past 30-plus years, that number has skyrocketed. And it’s expected to get worse.

“Under current federal agencies’ practices,” say Auchterlonie and Lehman, “wildfires now place 46 million residences in 70,000 communities at risk. Two-thirds of the country face the threat of large, long-duration wildfires. As the wildland-urban interface (WUI) expands due to expected population growth in the next twenty-five years, some experts predict a 50 percent increase in wildfire acreage consumed by 2050.”

To which they add: “[T]he last update to federal interagency wildfire fighting was in 2009. It excludes any mention of prioritizing early wildfire extinguishment.” Instead it focuses on thinning and prescribed burning. The authors say, “A put-the-fire-out-first strategy should be fundamental.”

“Annual devastation from wildfires requires an immediate, laser-focused, and warlike response. Study after study shows aggressive wildfire initial response within the first few hours of ignition minimizes the likelihood of more devastating and intensive wildfires.”

Then there’s the smoke problem. Wildfires in the United States produce approximately 10 percent of the global wildfire greenhouse gas emissions each year, say the authors. “Wildfires across the globe produce twice the CO2 as all commercial airline flights in the world in 2019, and about 60 percent of emissions from automobiles. While the economic cost to the environment caused by wildfires has not been ‘quantified,’ it is substantial and ‘one more reason to expeditiously extinguish them.'”

Therein lies a very old problem: How to quickly and completely extinguish a wildfire after it has escaped initial attack and burned thousands, or tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of acres of wildland. It soon emerges in Running Out of Time that the answer is to have more airtankers. A lot more. “[T]he government should purchase a fleet of 200 SEATs, 75 to 125 large airtankers (LATs), and 30 to 50 very large airtankers (VLATs).” And more helicopters and bulldozers, too.

Oh, and another thing: “Fight wildfire twenty-four hours a day.” While this poke in the eye is primarily for the U.S. Forest Service, the authors also note that quite a few state and municipal firefighting agencies engage fires quickly and work as productively as possible around the clock. Some even own night-flying helicopters — but they also have trouble with a small number of their fires, which too often become landscape-gobbling, home-wrecking wildfires.


While their airtanker buying recommendation is an alarming, blow-your-hair-back shopping list, Messrs. Auchterlonie and Lehman go into considerable detail to illustrate their position on how to pull this off. They propose a top-to-bottom reconfiguration of many (perhaps all) federal agencies to make them more efficient. The authors are, after all, business consultants who have helped large corporations with turnarounds and mergers, and were consultants to the likes of Boeing and McDonnell Douglas. They have 80 years of combined experience in the private sector and government. They know how to strip large corporations down to the bone and build them back better.

An admirable amount of research went into this book, and it is notable that the focus is on finding a better way for keeping that small percentage of wildfires that escape initial attack from becoming destructive megafires. Granted, working firefighters and managers may not be the target audience — although many could benefit from reading the book. I suspect city planners, homebuilders, elected officials, and members of the news media could learn a great deal from Running out of Time. It’s also a good book for the public — the people who know or suspect that they live in a wildfire-prone area.

Wildfire remains a dizzying, frightening mystery to millions of people. This book may not assuage their fears, but at least they’ll understand considerably better what they’re up against — and maybe take away some small hope that two guys who have never dug an inch of fireline do know how to fix it.

Published by Amplify Publishing Group
Copyright ©2023 by the authors and Crowbar Research Insights LLC
Edition reviewed: Hardcover (publisher-supplied) 403 pages. $34.95
The book is also available in paperback and kindle editions.