Firestorm ’77 documentary released

Film about the fatal 1977 Honda Canyon Fire on Vandenberg Air Force Base in which four were killed

FIRESTORM 77 film documentary wildfire

A documentary about the 1977 Honda Canyon Fire is now available for streaming. Firestorm ’77 is based on Beyond Tranquillon Ridge, the book by Joseph N. Valencia about the brush fire that burned across Vandenberg Air Force Base on the California coast northeast of Santa Barbara. It started on December 20 during Santa Ana winds gusting to 100 mph and was fought by over a thousand personnel ranging from full time firefighters to military personnel who had zero experience or training in battling a wildfire.

There were multiple entrapments and 65 injuries. Four were killed.

The winds made the effort from the beginning futile, but military commanders, fearful of the base’s cold war secrets being compromised, attempted to control the strategy. In one case, when a General heard that a firing operation was planned he said he didn’t want any more fire on his base and it was not going to happen. Eventually, he relented.

Almost ten thousand acres burned resulting in significant damage to the military installation’s infrastructure. On the second day the winds were replaced by rain. The Air Force quickly declared it a victory, a battle won by its brave Airmen.

Remarkably, about 15 people who were on the fire 44 years ago were interviewed and appear in the film. Unsurprisingly they have a different take from the interpretation by the Air Force.

The film portrays the events in a way that has nothing in common with the 1998 movie with a similar name, Firestorm featuring NFL player Howie Long. The events are described in a serious, matter of fact manner through interviews with those who experienced it. It also addresses the effects it had on those firefighters, some of whom to this day are still dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). One person still feels guilt, he says, and blames himself for a horrific injury that occurred to someone else.

The documentary could be a useful tool to begin a serious discussion about how firefighting practices have changed in the last 44 years. However, I was a firefighter in 1977 and I never saw a fire managed anything like this one, with decisions made by military officers with no fire experience, and attempting to suppress a fire during 100 mph winds with untrained personnel. One part of the film that could use improvement is the maps, which were a little crude and difficult for me to follow. Of course that comes from a guy who has made hundreds of fire maps, so I’m not your typical map consumer.

In addition to this documentary, a staff ride that has been developed to help transfer the lessons learned is described in the film by a member of the Vandenberg Hotshots, a crew that was created after the fire.

At the time of the fire, Mr. Valencia, the author of the book and producer of the film, was a 19-year old reserve firefighter and hotshot for the Santa Barbara County Fire Department. He was part of the Santa Barbara County “Strike Team” that arrived early where he was involved in two burnovers and two rescues. After the fire he worked for 37 years in Aerospace and Defense programs at Vandenberg Air Force Base and Cape Canaveral, Florida.

I asked Mr. Valencia why he decided to create the documentary.

“The inspiration for the book and the film came from the night of the Honda Canyon Fire back on December 20th, 1977,” he wrote by email. “That night, I felt it very necessary to pray to God to say goodbye to my loved ones, and I asked for God…to save my life. Like many who face situations like this in war or other life or death moments, I prayed that I would do anything that God asked of me, if he could just “spare my life.” I honestly believe that this book and film — is what God asked of me, and it originated from that prayer! I am fulfilling a promise.

“Fast forward many years…

“In 2016 I met Dennis Ford, who was a US Air Force Augmentee on the fire, and who read my book Beyond Tranquillon Ridge. “Dennis was full of anger about the fire, about how Officers sent them out there with no training or proper tools to fight a wind-driven wildfire. He remembered standing at the bottom of a canyon at o-dark-thirty, intuitively knowing that if the fire changed direction and it came towards him, he would not be able to outrun it, and he would meet his maker.

“Dennis and I struck up a conversation, and he indicated he was taking a Film class at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria. Dennis approached his film studies professor, Mr. Chris Hite, and told him about the fire, and to see if he would be interested in creating a film about the fire. Chris Hite was immediately taken by the story and agreed to give his time and effort to this documentary.

“The three of us Chris Hite (filmmaker), Dennis Ford (Director) and me Joe Valencia (Producer/Author) soon began a four-year journey in to creating our film FireStorm ’77. We all believed in this film, and in telling the story of what happened. All of us feel a little bit of serendipity as to what we have done, where we are, and why it all happened!

“By the way, I think this film has had positive healing effects on myself, Dennis Ford, and the other firefighters we interviewed in the film. The film shows the psychological effects on us all, that the book doesn’t really show.”

Mr. Valencia also wrote Area Ignition: The True Story Of The Spanish Ranch Fire.

Firestorm ’77  has been selected for 33 film festivals. It is streaming on iTunes, GooglePlus, YouTube, and MagellanTV. The cost on YouTube is $4 to rent or $5 to buy.

The official trailer is below.

Review of Those Who Wish Me Dead

"Those Who Wish Me Dead"
Still image from the trailer for Those Who Wish Me Dead.

A movie that features a smokejumper, Those Who Wish Me Dead, premiered today on HBO Max.

We asked Smokejumper Bro who appears frequently in the Wildfire Today comments sections if he would write a review of the movie. It is below. After that are a few comments from Bill about the movie.

Those Who Wish Me Dead is a film about Hannah (Angelina Jolie), a smokejumper trying to piece her life back together after tragedy strikes on a fire the year before. She is floundering through life until a family who knew too much is on the run from hitmen. Their paths cross on the Bitterroot National Forest in Montana, and as one family’s life is being ripped apart, Hannah finds a new purpose and a reason to start living again.

This movie is a great addition to the wildfire canon that has been produced in Hollywood recently. It feels more like a big-budget thriller with A-list actors than a streaming steamer. Of course, the fire behavior is a little dramatic, the goggles are comical, and maybe the HALO Smokejumping operations are a bit much, but when a smokejumper faceplants on landing, it brought it back home for me. Overall, it doesn’t take too large of a leap to make the movie feel realistic, even for firefighters.

Angelina Jolie gives a great performance, and she really fits the smokejumper role. She’s kind of crazy and wild, yet professional and dialed-in when needed. When it really matters, people are lucky to have her around.

Jon Bernthal (Walking Dead) is excellent as a local sheriff’s deputy and Aidan Gillen (Game of Thrones) is perfect in his role as the not-entirely-emotionless assassin.

What really sets this film apart from other wildland firefighter films is Hannah’s story. She’s suffering a mental health crisis from PTSD developed on the job. Without treatment, she pursues dangerous, risky behavior that is all too common amongst our colleagues. Death-defying stunts and alcoholism, coupled with the US Forest Service ignoring and isolating her during her crisis really makes this movie the most realistic, and even brought me to shed a few tears in my early morning viewing. It may not have been intentional, but the movie is more about mental health than anything else, and the need to address it.

I’d say it’s my favorite fictional wildfire film. Definitely worth putting the phone down and watching the film.

Smokejumper Bro Rating **** 4/5

(end of review)

Excellent review by Smokejumper Bro!

Firefighters, of course, will be able to nitpick about things like fire behavior and the use of breathing apparatus, and they might laugh at a lighthearted moment about MREs.

I agree with Bro —  Ms. Jolie is a very good actor and pulled it off. I could almost visualize her as a smokejumper. Almost.

The credits included the fact that it was filmed in New Mexico, the same state where much of “Only the Brave” was made.

It is very difficult for movie makers to make wildfire flames look realistic, and that is apparently one of the reasons why they had about 40 Visual Effects Artists assigned to the project.

The film is entertaining and worth seeing.

A new movie about Smokejumpers opens Friday

“Those who wish me dead”

Those who wish me dead movie
Still image from the trailer of Those who wish me dead, starring Angelina Jolie.

Wildland firefighters might be pleased, disturbed, or distressed to learn that another movie about their profession is opening this week.

Those Who Wish Me Dead starring Angelina Jolie will be available on HBO Max Friday May 14.

Here is how it is described:

Angelina Jolie stars in this suspenseful thriller as Hannah, a smoke jumper reeling from the loss of three lives she failed to save from a fire, who comes across a traumatized 12‐year‐old boy with nowhere else to turn.

Those Who Wish Me Dead stars Angelina Jolie, Nicholas Hoult, Tyler Perry, Aidan Gillen, Medina Senghore, Finn Little, Jake Weber, and Jon Bernthal.

In the trailer Ms. Jolie is seen at a lookout tower and later is being chased by bad guys with semiautomatic rifles.

The still shot taken from the trailer, above, shows Ms. Jolie holding what appears to be an ice axe, a tool not commonly used on fire crews. Perhaps there’s a really good reason she ends up with that particular tool. We’ll just have to wait and see….. IF we have a subscription to HBO Max.

Those who wish me dead movie
Still image from the trailer of Those Who Wish Me Dead. Angelina Jolie.

I have to admit, if I was casting a movie about smokejumpers, Ms. Jolie would not be at the top of my list.

Few movies have been built around wildland firefighters. There was Red Skies of Montana that in 1952 introduced the myth of exploding trees, and Firestorm brought us Howie Long in 1998. Always, of 1999, was a good movie, but it was not really about wildland fire even though air tankers played a role. Many firefighters thought Only the Brave from 2017 was one of the best of the genre, perhaps because, in part, the producers hired hotshots as technical advisors.

(UPDATE, May 14, 2021: Wildfire Today’s review of Those Who Wish Me Dead)

Documentary on the Honda Canyon Fire fatalities

Firestorm Documentary Honda Canyon FireA documentary is being produced for a multi-fatality wildfire that occurred in the 1970s.

On December 20, 1977, three people were entrapped and killed on the Honda Canyon fire on Vandenberg Air Force Base in southern California, including the Base Commander Colonel Joseph Turner, Fire Chief Billy Bell, and Assistant Fire Chief Eugene Cooper. Heavy Equipment Operator Clarence McCauley suffered severe burns and later died from the complications.  A book about the fire, “Beyond Tranquillon Ridge”, was written by Joseph N. Valencia.

Mr. Valencia, one of the first firefighters on the fire, is serving as a technical consultant on the documentary, titled “Firestorm”, which is adapted from the book.

Here is how Mr. Valencia described the fire to us in an email:

A combination of hurricane-force winds and the snapping of an electrical pole starts the Honda Canyon Fire on Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, early in the morning of December 20, 1977. Over a thousand people consisting of professional firemen and military personnel fight the fire. Outlier winds would increase to over a hundred miles per hour, making the firefight almost impossible. Four fatalities and sixty-five injuries resulted. Ten-thousand acres burn, resulting in significant damage to the military installation infrastructure. Ironically and fortuitously, the fire will be out, a little more than 30 hours later, due to a rain storm-front coming in.

Others working on the film include producer Dennis R. Ford, and
Christopher Hite, Director of Photography and Cinematographer.

Many interviews have been filmed with people that were on the incident. One of the many reasons for making the documentary is to collect information about the catastrophe that occurred 42 years ago while the witnesses and participants are still available. You can view some of the interviews at the film’s Facebook page.

The trailer for the film is on Vimeo.

They are hoping to complete production by early 2020.

Mr. Valencia also wrote Area Ignition, the story of the 1979 Spanish Ranch Fire near Santa Maria, California.

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”.

Dierks Bentley talks about song he wrote for movie about Granite Mountain Hotshots

The country music star co-wrote “Hold the Light” which is featured in the movie “Only the Brave”

Dierks BentleyWe talked with Dierks Bentley about the song he performed and co-wrote, Hold the Light, that is featured in the movie about the Granite Mountain Hotshots, “Only the Brave”. He is from Arizona and said the tragedy had a major impact on him.

If you are having trouble viewing the video, you can see it on YouTube.

We also interviewed Josh Brolin who played Eric Marsh the superintendent of the crew, James Badge Dale who played Jesse James Steed the second in command, Brendon McDonough (the lone survivor of the crew), Miles Teller (who played Brendan), and Amanda Marsh, Eric Marsh’s wife.

The movie opens October 20, 2017.